Russia: The “New Look” Faces North (Part Three)

By Jacob W. Kipp

The following is Part Three of a five part series on the Russian efforts to stake a strategic claim on the Arctic region.

Read Part One here.

Read Part Two here.

In December 2008, Morskoi sbornik carried an article by A. Smolovskii, which addressed the military aspects of the Russian Arctic policy in terms of securing control of the Lomonosov Ridge and its anticipated energy resources. Russian efforts to strengthen its defenses were depicted as a direct result of the “militarization of the Arctic by the West.” Smolovskii identified two major features in this militarization: the extended present of Western military forces in the region in the form of 1) US and British nuclear submarine patrols, flights of US and Canadian shore-based aviation and patrols by US Coast Guard, and the sea defense forces of Denmark, Norway and Canada, and 2) increased monitoring of the region by aero-space, surface, and particularly subsurface means supported by the conduct of naval exercises in the direct vicinity of Russian territory (A Smolovskii, “Poslednie voenno-politicheskie sobytiia v Arktike,” Morskoi sbornik, December 2008).

Russian commentators remained concerned about what was called “the struggle for the Arctic,” but did not seem to see the defense of the Arctic tied to the Russian military’s New Look. Speaking before the State Duma on April 15, 2010, M. P. Nenashev, a member of the Duma Committee on Defense and the head of the Movement for the Navy, put before his colleagues the “most important questions of policy, economics, defense, and transportation of our country. This is the question of the condition of affairs relating to the development of the Arctic.” Calling attention to the volcanic eruption on Iceland and its effects on international aviation, Nenashev warned that Russian could face unpleasant unnamed consequences if it did not address in a systematic fashion all aspects of Arctic development. He called for efforts to stop the flight of the Russian population from the far north and emphasized the need to develop medicine and education to support that population. Focusing on military capabilities, he noted Russia should “…build, repair, and modernize icebreakers and other necessary vessels, create a complete transportation infrastructure today before it is too late.” Under military reform, Russia should stop cutting back “our defensive resources, particularly the Northern Fleet, the Pacific Fleet, aviation, and ground forces. …it is vitally important for Russia and for global security to develop its military, naval, and air presence in this region” (“Arkticheskii aktsent,” Morskaia gazeta, 26 April 2010). But Nenashev’s call seemed to go unanswered. In September 2010, Putin spoke on the peaceful development of the Arctic at an International Arctic Forum sponsored by the Russian Geographic Society. There was much talk about Russia’s Arctic claims, but these were presented as subject to international resolution with much emphasis on protection of the Arctic environment as energy exploration went forward. Putin rejected conjectures by certain futurologists about an impending “battle for the Arctic,” and pledged that Russia would seek to achieve its ends by peaceful means, and not make use of the methods of the “Cold War.” Anton Vasil’ev, Russia’s Special Envoy to the UN for Arctic matters, stressed Russia’s commitment to a negotiated settlement via the UN, and declared that “Moscow does not plan to create specialized Arctic forces” (Tat’iana Zamakhina, “Arkticheskaia voi’na budet teploi,” Moskovskii komsomolets, 24 Sept 2010).

However, the failure of the UN to accept Russia’s claims during the international body’s 2010 session seems to have put an end to the commitment to resolve conflicting Arctic claims by negotiations alone and brought military considerations back into open discussions. Russia was arming for the “battle of the Arctic.” On April 1, 2011, Vladimir Voloshin reported that the Ministry of Defense, as part of its “new look,” had taken the decision to create a “special, cold-weather motorized-rifle brigade on the Kola Peninsula at the base of the current 200th motorized-rifle brigade.” The article went on to discuss the new equipment, which would make it possible for the brigade to fight in super-cold conditions. Voloshin stated that the decision to create the Arctic brigade had been taken in 2008 as part of “The Foundations of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period to 2020” as approved by the Security Council. He cited an Arctic arms race among the powers competing for influence in the region. “Now a good ten powers are seeking to divide up the region to their own advantage. Now this is being done by claims under international law. But one needs to be prepared in any case to apply ‘the armed argument’” (Vladimir Voloshin, “U Rossii budut Arkticheskie voi’ska,” Komsomol’skaia pravda, 1 April 2011).