Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced at the end of August that one of the main tasks of the Russian Armed Forces is the protection of the country’s national interests in the Arctic region. The frozen High North has “high conflict potential,” Shoigu asserted, due to the regional determination of “some countries” (Vpk-news.ru, August 31). Russian strategic interests in the Arctic include:
– Geo-economics. The Arctic region contains an estimated quarter of the world’s hydrocarbon deposits, and Russia plans to take under its effective control 55 percent of these reserves by 2030;
– Geopolitics. One of Russia’s strategic objectives is taking and preserving steady control over the so-called Northeast Passage (NEP—which includes the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, across Russia’s northern coast)—a goal implicitly announced by Vladimir Putin in 2013 (RBC, September 16, 2013).
– Military-strategic calculations. The Arctic represents the shortest path to reach US military bases from Russia and offers a (climactically harsh) maritime link between Northern Europe and Asia. Moscow aspires to control all of these maritime and aerial corridors so as to challenge the United States across the entire region.
To deal with all three tasks, Russia has focused on building up a network of inter-connected military bases throughout the Russian High North. The first such major facility was the “Northern Clover,” a three-leaved military base built in 2014 on Kotelny Island (S-vesti.ru, September 25, 2014). During 2016–2017, Russia continued to expand its military potential in the region, both in terms of manpower, military equipment and infrastructure (Newsru.com, December 22, 2016). And in late December 2017, Shoigu claimed that Moscow “had completed works on virtually all planned military infrastructure” in the Arctic region. According to the minister, within five years Russian regional infrastructure (primarily, on Kotelny Island, Alexandra Land, Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt) had expanded to 425 various objects, spanning an area of 700,000 square kilometers. These facilities were ready to permanently house and serve 1,000 personnel and “various types of special arms and munition” (Newsru.com, December 25, 2017).
One of the main pillars of Russia’s expanding regional ambitions is the unique “Arctic Trefoil” (Arkticheskii Trilistnik) military base, composed of three interconnected buildings and erected thanks to the application of unique building technologies required for the extreme environment. The Arctic Trefoil base’s construction started in 2007, but was halted several times due to economic problems, with a decisive thrust in construction only completed in 2015. Located on the island of Alexandra Land, this military complex is deemed essential for securing Russian military domination in the region (Nvo.ng.ru, November 13, 2015).
On March 10, 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted a virtual tour of the Arctic Trefoil, focusing in particular on the base’s residential-administrative complex. The Trefoil is the largest (14,000 square kilometers, capable of hosting at least 180 military personnel for 18 month without requiring any outside supplies or provisions) and northernmost building in the world (Oko-planet.su, March 10). The promotional video reveals the key functions ascribed to the complex:
– Anti-missile defense of Russian territory;
– Protection of the NEP (both in peace time and during a potential military escalation in the region);
– General security for regional maritime shipping—de facto placing international shipping through the Arctic under Russian control;
– Meteorological research, which (via its system of Earth observational satellites), could be used by the Russian military for intelligence-related purposes.
Media reports have also asserted that, given Russian capabilities for building such sophisticated infrastructure, additional similar (or even more advanced) types of military objects should be expected to appear across the region before long. Notably, the extremely northern Franz Josef Land (FJL) archipelago was explicitly mentioned as the main area that will receive further basing infrastructure advancements. The sector of the Arctic where the FJL is located is strategically vital for Russia’s regional ambitions—economically (in terms of nearby underwater hydrocarbon reserves), geopolitically (at the intersection of the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea and the Arctic Ocean; overlooking northern Scandinavia) and in terms of military-strategic thinking (as a forward location in the High North). It also needs to be mentioned that in terms of air connections, the area is inseparable from Arkhangelsk and the Kola Peninsula (Tvzvezda.ru, August 26). Importantly, Russia has ambitions to create there another Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) zone, which could interconnect and overlap with the A2/AD bubble already in place in Kaliningrad.
Moscow’s plans to more thoroughly militarize the Arctic region were given a boost in 2014, with the formation of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command. Subsequently, the State Armament Program (2018–2027) included the addition of new S-300 long-range and Tor-M2 short-range surface-to-air missile systems to help fortify Russian Arctic equipment (Kommersant, December 18, 2017).
During 2014–2018, Russia deployed to the Arctic region the following military equipment (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, July 3):
– T-80BVM main battle tanks (see EDM, June 18);
– BTR-82A armored personnel carriers;
– Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers (with a strike range of up to 15 km);
– “Arctic” Tor-M2DT air-defense missile launchers (strike range of 16 km, at altitudes of up to 10 km);
– Pantsir-SA self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems (able to cover targets at altitudes of up to 15 km);
– The first “Arctic” Mi-8 helicopters (which can operate in extreme temperatures below -60° F); and
– GAZ-3344-20 all-terrain amphibious tracked carriers (capable of moving at up to 60 km per hour on land and 3.8 km per hour in the water).
Given the harsh climactic conditions, Russian Armed Forces in the region are prepared to operate under unconditional circumstances: in case equipment is damaged or unable to function normally, maneuverers and transportation will be carried out with the help of sled dogs and reindeer (able to cross up to 40 km daily).
Mounting evidence highlights Russia’s determination to expand its zone of control across the wider Arctic region; although serious questions have been raised about whether Russia can afford to actually accomplish these goals (see EDM, September 11). Nevertheless, Russian strategy is clearly built on the practical implementation of the principle of asymmetricity (and off-the-beaten-path thinking), which has been increasingly emphasized by Russian military thinkers on the basis of the experience gained in the intervention in the Syrian civil war (see EDM, April 5). Instead of fortifying the country’s entire northwestern frontier, stretching from Kaliningrad Oblast to the Arctic region, Russia relies on selective militarization of strategically important areas, pursuing an A2/AD strategy. Thus, the two above-mentioned military bases (and prospectively new ones) could be turned into genuine A2/AD “bubbles” in the near future.