Expanding its military presence in the Arctic is currently one of the main priorities of Russian defense policy. Cold War–era military bases, mothballed after 1991, have, in recent years, been reactivated, renovated and expanded, while additional ones are being built.
In Soviet times, attack and strategic nuclear submarines regularly deployed north of the polar circle. From there, they stood ready to launch ballistic missiles at North American targets through clearings in the floating ice cap, which covered the sea-based nuclear deterrent from anti-submarine assets of the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Additionally, the Soviets deployed a network of radar stations and air bases in the Arctic in preparation for a possible future all-out nuclear war. Planners in Moscow expected that US strategic bombers would fly over the North Pole and launch long-range cruise missiles at Soviet targets. In turn, Soviet strategic bombers would spread out across a network of Arctic runways, from which they would take off and fly over the Pole to launch their own cruise missiles. Fighters and specially designed MiG-31 long-range, high-speed heavy interceptors were deployed at bases in the Soviet High North to intercept the incoming US bombers and cruise missiles. The main Soviet naval bases were in the Kola Peninsula, with its all-year ice-free coastal waters. The rest of the ice-covered Arctic was not conducive to naval surface ships, however. Multiple Soviet nuclear and conventional icebreakers helped move supply ships in the Arctic seas, but they were unarmed. The Soviet surface navy prepared to have to fight in the Barents Sea, defending its home base and to then attack westward into the Atlantic.
This strategic perception has changed dramatically over the past decade. Since 2012, Russia’s navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoi Flot—VMF), began regularly sending warships in summertime through the Northern Sea Route (Severnyy Morskoy Put—Sevmorput) from its main Kola bases to Chukotka. In a dramatic intensification of activities compared to Soviet times, the Russian VMF has begun running landing exercises in the Arctic, together with marine contingents. In December 2014, the Northern Fleet was reorganized into a joint forces strategic command, responsible for defending the entire Arctic region. And in 2014/2015, the defense ministry began building a string of modern bases, mostly on northern islands, stretching from the Barents Sea to Chukotka (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17, 2020).
Climate change is affecting the floating Arctic pack ice, raising high expectations that the Sevmorput will increasingly turn into an important international maritime corridor, providing a much shorter route for the transit of goods between Europe and the Asia-Pacific than the traditional one around Asia and through the Suez. Moscow is insisting the Sevmorput is essentially an internal waterway that no foreign-flagged ship, military or commercial, may pass without Russia’s explicit consent, without Russian pilots aboard, and without prepaid icebreaker services. Washington believes such claims violate international maritime law, and the US Navy or Coast Guard may challenge Russia’s Sevmorput dominance by conducting Arctic “freedom of navigation” operations. Of course, none have yet been performed since the ice in the central and eastern parts of the Sevmorput is still quite hazardous even in summertime, and the US has only one operational old icebreaker (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17).
In fact, Moscow does not seriously consider developing the Sevmorput into an international commercial waterway, competing with the traditional Suez route. That dream is still prohibited by too much pack ice and unpredictable weather. According to the Russian “Strategy for Developing the Arctic,” by 2035, Sevmorput capacity is planned to expand to carry some 160 million tons of goods a year—an eight-fold increase from today’s 20.2 million tons. But 80 percent of that cargo would be liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced in the Yamal Peninsula, which would be exported with the help of icebreakers westward to Europe as well as eastward to the Asia-Pacific. The rest would be oil, coal, metals and other commodities produced in the Arctic and exported to world markets by Russian ships. By 2035, the transit of goods between Europe and the Pacific is expected to reach ten million tons a year—a thousand times less than what annually passes through the Suez (Vedomosti, January 23).
In the Arctic, the Russian military is planning to defend its presumed exclusive rights to navigate the Sevmorput as a major future export route for gas, oil and other export commodities and to defend Russia’s exclusive rights to extract these resources. Though, no one, at present, seems ready to use force to challenge those interests. The newly built Arctic bases—on Alexandra Land Island (Franz Josef Land Archipelago), at Rogachevo Air Base (Novaya Zemlya), on Wrangel Island, on Kotelny Island (New Siberian Islands Archipelago), on Chukotka, as well as on Sredniy Island (Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago)—have airfields, radars, short-, medium- and long-range (S-400) antiaircraft missiles, as well as Russia’s newest long-range Bastion guided anti-ship systems with P-800 Oniks missiles, which can hit targets up to 600 kilometers away (or 800 kilometers using the Oniks-M) (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 17). The forces deployed at these bases seldom, if ever, see any potential targets. Only occasional nuclear attack submarines from the US or the United Kingdom lurk stealthily under the ice.
As such, Russian Arctic units were presumably excited to see, on May 4, 2020, US destroyers USS Roosevelt, USS Porter and the USS Donald Cook, supply ship USNS Supply and the UK frigate HMS Kent enter the Barents Sea to perform a patrol exercise—the first in over 30 years. The Northern Fleet, at last, located something in range to target: it sent out ships headed by the guided missile cruiser Marshal Ustinov and activated the missile systems on Alexandra Land and Novaya Zemlya. The Russian defense ministry conspicuously did not protest the US-UK Barents excursion—it represented a fortuitous manifestation of a perceived threat finally being realized, a vindication of the massive investment in the Arctic military buildup. According to Russian defense specialists, the US woke up and began worrying about the Arctic too late—the Northern Fleet, they argued, is now the dominant military power in the Arctic, and the US cannot do anything about that (RIA Novosti, May 7). The entire so-called “Russian Arctic”—from the Kola Peninsula in the west, to Alaska in the east, and north to the Pole—is seen as a vital strategic/economic asset that may be occupied by hostile powers and must be vigorously defended and dominated.