Between late July and August 31, forces from Russia’s Northern, Black Sea, Pacific and Baltic fleets took part in the large-scale Ocean Shield 2020 naval military exercises, subsequently held in the western and then northeastern theaters (Portnews.ru, September 1; see Part One in EDM, September 11). The main strategic objective of the second stage of the exercises was the simulation of a potential small-scale military encounter in the Bering Strait area—the sole maritime passage between the Pacific and the Arctic oceans. The uniqueness and strategic importance of the Bering Strait for Russia is premised on two, in many ways interconnected, pillars. First are Moscow’s military-(geo)political calculations: Russia sees the power of its Pacific Fleet as a necessary factor for ensuring the security and stability (in Russia’s understanding of these terms) of the Asia-Pacific Region (Marine.gov.ru, July 8). Second is the geo-economic/strategic factor: the Bering Strait is a key bottleneck along the China-promoted Polar Silk Road project, which Russia perceives as a major source of future income and revitalization of the entire Arctic region so long as the Chinese shipping utilizes the Northern Sea Route (NSR), off Russia’s northern coast (see EDM, February 11).
The northeastern dimension of Ocean Shield 2020, thus, highlighted three macro aspects:
1) The reviving military-political value of the Bering Strait. Regarding this issue, it is worth highlighting some continuity and tradition in Russia’s actions. For instance, the Soviet Union began seriously drafting a plan of counterattack against the United States—in case of a potential military confrontation between the two powers—as early as 1948. Under this plan, the locally stationed 14th Army was to immediately take control of the opposite side of the Bering Strait, repel US forces, and prepare a basis for a rapid attack by Soviet land units. Incidentally, to achieve higher readiness, the Soviets extensively employed indigenous people to track US activities in the area (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 16, 2015). In turn, last month’s exercises likely rehearsed Russia’s ability to counter the United States’ so-called Dynamic Force Employment concept—the ability of the US to “build a force that can be proactively and rapidly deployed to confront China or Russia if necessary and to reassure allies” (RealClearDefense, September 18, 2018; Inosmi.ru, June 16, 2020).
2) Russia’s preparedness to challenge international law and the Kremlin’s mounting local ambitions. This is evident based on ongoing discussions coming from the highest echelons of power in Russia. Namely, Moscow is looking into ways of abrogating the US-Soviet Maritime Boundary Agreement on the Bering Strait (a.k.a. the James Baker–Eduard Shevardnadze line agreement), signed in 1990, on the basis of its purported “illegitimacy” since it was ratified by the Soviet Union—not Russia. Namely, a senator from the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament), Boris Nevzorov, stated earlier this year that the agreement, signed by a supposedly weak and defeatist Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, deprived Russia of 78,000 square kilometers of the Bering Sea (including the continental shelf) endowed with hydrocarbons and bio-marine resources (fish and crabs), causing “hundreds of billions [of rubles] in economic losses.” Above all, Nevzorov noted that one of the main victims of this historical agreement is the Northern Sea Route (Infonavigator.com.ua, January 28), which Russia sees as key to the revitalization of its High North and the Arctic region. Specifically, the lawmaker noted that “now, when a tanker with liquefied natural gas [crosses the Strait] we will have to ask the Americans for permission every time […] this is nonsense” (Militarynews.ru, January 27). Those sentiments were echoed and supported by the chair of the Federation Council, Valentina Matviyenko (RIA Novosti, January 27).
3) Russia’s fear of losing its edge in the struggle for dominance over the Arctic. Specifically, Russia worries that US capacity to threaten the Bering Strait might result in an economic devaluation of the NSR, thus discouraging Chinese partners who have pinned their expectations on this maritime transit artery. Among other aspects, the Russian side is apprehensive about the recently adopted “Memorandum on Safeguarding US National Interests in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions” (Whitehouse.gov, June 9), which aims to boost the capabilities of the US icebreaker fleet and general regional naval power. Some Russian (and US) experts reasonably argue that even if all the main points of the document are implemented, Russia’s regular military strength and presence in the Arctic will still be incomparably greater than that of the US (RIA Novosti, July 31, 2019); but others warn that it is quite premature for Moscow to celebrate victory. Namely, to compete with Russia, the US side may not need the same number of icebreakers that the former wields. To decrease the attractiveness of the Northern Sea Route, Washington need only to be able to threaten the Russian Arctic and, specifically the NSR, at two locations—its entrance and exit. If this is achieved, several US icebreakers—supported by forces of the Sixth and Seventh fleets, operating at both ends of the NSR—will suffice (Vpoanalytics.com, June 24, 2020). Russian observers note that Beijing is also extremely concerned about the fact that transportation along the NSR (which could make up a major segment of the above-mentioned Polar Silk Road) might be compromised by US naval power (Vybor-naroda.org, June 23). In effect, if Washington is able to threaten the above-mentioned two NSR end points—the Bering Strait and the Barents Sea—the Chinese side will end up with quite a similar predicament in the north to the one it already faces in the south (in the Strait of Malacca). As such, Russian politicians openly rebuked this past spring’s joint US-British maneuvers in the Barents Sea, calling them an “explicit provocation” (Tsargrad.tv, May 8).
If the United States truly becomes able to jeopardize, at will, both the entrance and exit to the Northern Sea Route, Russia will suffer two major blows. First, Moscow’s extremely ambitious and expensive icebreaker buildup program (see EDM, July 13) will end up being a waste of resources. Second, should Chinese interest in the Kremlin-promoted NSR fade away, Russia’s wider hopes pinned on commercializing the Arctic region—explicitly voiced in the “Russian Arctic Strategy Until 2035” (see EDM, February 24)—will itself become void. At that point, Russia’s posture in the Arctic will once again come to resemble the Soviet model—one based on bare military supremacy but without any economic/commercial value. And in turn, the Bering Strait will become solely a naval chokepoint—not a lucrative transport artery.