September 29, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Northern Front: Russia’s Power Play in the Arctic

• Last week’s UN Climate Summit in New York City addressed the obvious and increasingly damaging effects of global climate change across the world

• World leaders publicly addressed many of the most critical points, such as changing weather patterns, carbon emissions, deforestation, and the like, but they didn’t address the impact of environmental degradation on strategic global issues

• One of the most significant issues related to global climate change is world powers’ access to—and through—the Arctic; over the past several years, Russia, with a huge stake in the region, has been reasserting its presence in the Arctic

• Increased Russian military operations in the Arctic are a cause for concern for Western nations that have interests in the region, but environmental limitations will prevent conflict from arising for several years.


Last Tuesday’s UN Climate Summit in New York City, a one-day meeting called for by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was a chance for the leaders of all 193 UN member states to weigh in on the growing concerns brought about by global climate change.

Publicly, world leaders discussed the same issues covered in news headlines. Topics ranged from changing weather patterns and increasingly violent storms to the need to control carbon emissions to deforestation to the effect of climate change on food production. What leaders didn’t discuss, however, were the ways in which global climate change is starting to affect the overall strategic global landscape for certain nations.

One of the most significant issues related to global climate change is the warming of the Arctic. As global temperatures continue to rise, Arctic ice melt increases. This has been largely treated as a purely environmental issue for years, but has become a strategic issue recently, as well. As the polar ice cap continues to melt, and access to the seafloor—rich with untapped oil and gas reserves—and new shipping routes through previously ice-choked waterways become available. Several nations have large stakes in the Arctic—the US, Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (and to a lesser extent, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland)—but it’s Russia, which is aggressively taking advantage of the physical changes in the region.


The Rise of the (Polar) Bear

Russia’s annexation of the Crimea earlier this year drew the world’s attention to President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a reclaimed Russian Empire. There was little indication of intent prior to the Russian invasion of the Crimea, but there have been signs over the past few years of Russia’s growing interest in controlling the Arctic.

Russia took its first significant step toward annexing vast swaths of the Arctic in 2007, when a submersible planted a titanium flag painted with the Russian tricolor on the Arctic floor. President Putin touted this mission as an “outstanding scientific project,” and members of the Russian parliament hailed it as being “fully in line with Russia’s strategic interests.” Namely, to control access to and through the increasingly navigable Arctic, as well as claiming territory in which vast oil and natural gas reserves sit. Planting the Russian flag was a simple but symbolic move, not recognized as legitimate by any other nation or the international community. Simple as it may have been, it rankled the leadership of Western nations (the US and Canada, in particular) who touted characterized the move as nothing more than a land grab by the Russian government.

Legitimacy, as the world has seen, doesn’t seem to be an overriding concern for Putinist aims, and since planting the flag, Russia has steadily increased its presence in the Arctic, shifting from “scientific” and “exploratory” missions to overtly military ones. Last year saw a significant increase over the five preceding years in Russian military activity in the Arctic.

Russia announced last year that it would rebuild and occupy an old Cold War-era naval base on Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago and has since begun restoration efforts. Putin also sent a naval fleet of ten warships to Kotelny Island, through the Northern Sea Route along its Arctic coastline, something that was impossible a mere five years ago due to previous ice coverage. Russian Air Force MiG-31 Foxhound fighter jets also flew north of the 82nd parallel, as both a training mission and to demonstrate to the world that Russia has the ability to intercept targets around the North Pole.

In March of this year, Russian paratroopers airdropped onto Temp airfield on Kotelny Island, the first mission of its kind for Russian forces, as well as a demonstration of other Russian military capabilities in the region. Last month, a flight of four Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback bombers, with two aerial refuels, reportedly reached the North Pole in another unprecedented mission for Russian Air Force assets. And as recently as two weeks ago, Canadian and American fighter jets, in two separate incidents on the same day, scrambled to intercept Russian bombers flying toward American and Canadian airspace in the region.

The uptick in Russian military activity in the Arctic is a precursor of things to come as global climate change continues unabated. There is no doubt that Russia is taking the lead as the main player in the Arctic, but despite its aggression, there are a few challenges the country has to face. Not only are logistics in the region a problem (the Northern Sea Route is more accessible than it has been in the past; it is not necessarily easily accessible at this point), but operating in that environment is taxing on both personnel and equipment. Add expensive operating costs and a slowed economy to the equation, and it appears that the other nations with Arctic interests have some time to work on the problem before Russia has a chance to consolidate its hold over a remote, but essential, part of the world.


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