RD Debates: Top experts on the Arctic give us their opinions about Russia’s recent moves in the High North. For now, they say, concerns of geopolitical rivalry and militarization of the Arctic are still premature.

Participants in an expedition to Champ Island. The Franz Josef Land Federal Nature Reserve. Photo: RIA Novosti / Ramil Sitdikov

In the beginning of 2014, Russian government authorities announced a plan to rebuild and upgrade Russia’s military bases in the Arctic, thereby strengthening Russia’s security along its northern borders. Overall, the country is building 10 radar stations, 13 airfields, a new Arctic combat training center in the Far East, and an air-ground firing range in the High North. In 2015, Russia is planning an airdrop operation with paratroopers in the Arctic and is projected to finish construction of five new icebreaking ships.

In response to the recent information that the Russian government is considering to establish a new ministry to oversee the development of the country’s Arctic territory, Vedomosti’s columnist Andrey Kolesnikov argued that such an initiative will hardly prove successful given the current neglected state of the North that was once one of the key components of Soviet military power. Deserted and unkempt, in poor ecological condition, the region is treated as a hydrocarbon feedstock and another opportunity to show off and create another geopolitical myth named ‘Arktikanasha’ (Arctic is ours).

Given the current difficulties in West-Russia relations, such developments might pose yet another problem for NATO to worry about. As the recent story of a mysterious submarine off Sweden’s coastline has showed, Russia’s European partners all too often have a tendency to treat every mythical threat as a real one and attribute it to Russia. That is why it’s necessary to discuss whether or not Russia’s recent steps pose any real risk to other Arctic states. Russia, for example, contends that they are part of a reasonable policy that one state has a legal right to take in order to protect its vital security interests.

Russia Direct reached out to Russian and international experts, asking them to share their views on the thinking behind Russian policies in the Arctic region. In doing so, these experts predict how the West might respond and suggest what Russian policies might lead to in the long-term.

Pavel Gudev, Ph.D., senior research fellow at Center for North American Studies, Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences

Indeed, in recent years Russia has made steps to strengthen the security of its naval forces in the Arctic. It’s not surprising that such actions are worrying the West. The bureaucratic mechanism of NATO uses every potential ‘threat’ to promote solidarity between the allies and increase the military budget. Given the crisis in Ukraine, the strengthening of Russia’s Arctic borders is treated as proof of its imperial ambitions. But is there a real reason for such fears – fears that are often accompanied by hysterical accusations? No.

The projected decrease of the Arctic ice cover inevitably leads to the increase of interest of other, non-Arctic states as well as the realization of different types of maritime activities in the region such as maritime transport, marine commercial fisheries, and oil and gas extraction. The expected emergence of a number of new actors in the Arctic requires Russia and other Arctic countries to increase their control over their implementation of one or another types of economic activities. The question of guarding the state’s sea borders and the resources of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf becomes even more important.

The expansion in the number of participants in Arctic maritime activities will foster the growth of potential security threats not only for Russia but also for all Arctic states. Such threats might include: armed robbery, piracy, terrorist attacks on ships and oil and gas platforms, illegal arms transportation (including weapons of mass destruction), illegal fishing of marine biological resources, and premeditated marine pollution.

Having the longest coastline in the Arctic, Russia has to strengthen its naval potential in the region to be able to counter these threats. Such a policy is oriented towards making the Arctic more secure while preventing the infringement of Russia’s legal rights in this sea region. The possibility of a conflict between Arctic states is very low as they not only have mutual interests, but also face the same security challenges.

[Related]: Why Russia's Arctic strategy is starting to worry NATO

The Russian polar explorers, who traveled to the Arctic to set up a new drifting station SP-40. Photo: RIA Novosti

Alexey Fenenko, researcher at the Institute of International Security Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an associate professor at Moscow State University

There are three strategic goals that Russia aims to achieve in the Arctic. The first is regaining control over the Soviet Arctic sector (from the western point of the Kursk peninsula to the far eastern point on the border with the U.S., a triangular area that extends to the North Pole). The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, in fact, deprived Russia of these domains, limiting them to their coastal territory. Now that there is an opportunity to control the continental shelf (if proven that it’s the continuation of the continental platform), Russia might theoretically regain its control over the Soviet Arctic sector.

The second goal is to ensure the freedom of movement of the Russian Northern Fleet that is located in the Arctic Ocean. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea limits Russia to a distance of 12-24 miles from the coastline, so having the fleet there becomes extremely difficult. And the third point is that Russia is eager to maintain its ability to use the Arctic sea route to boost its transport links within the country.

This will, of course, provoke a negative reaction from the West. The main objective of the Western states is to deprive Russia of its control over the Arctic transport route. The U.S. tries to limit the possibility of the partitioning of the Arctic (which they don’t recognize) and radically limit the water area of Russian strategic nuclear forces, ideally forcing them to the coastline. Canada, which wants the North Pole to be recognized as its own domain, counters Russian policies in the region. Norway, Denmark and Sweden also do not support Russian policies in the region.

Therefore, in the long run, the current developments in the Arctic might lead to a number of potential risks. The first is the breakup of the Arctic Council that was created for the collective management of the Arctic; this would be a road to nowhere. Second, it might lead to a situation in which countries start to ignore the established regional order. Until this moment, everyone played by the rules. Without this, countries might start to dispute each other’s domains, thus disrupting the current system and creating more uncertainty.

Dmitriy Tulupov, Ph.D., Assistant lecturer, School of International Relations, St. Petersburg State University, and Arctic expert for the Russian International Affairs Council

Russia’s military strategy in the Arctic should be evaluated with a cool mind. Otherwise, there is a risk of being trapped by the emotional misperceptions surrounding this issue. So far, any developments in the Russian military presence in the Polar area are being either explicitly or implicitly designated as just another manifestation of the “Battle for the Arctic.”

However, all of these ongoing military preparations in the Arctic are not some big surprise, because these actions serve the implementation of relevant provisions, fixed in two versions of the Russian Arctic Strategy (adopted in September 2008 and February 2013, respectively). By the way, it is not only Russia which conducts the modernization of its Armed Forces in the region, but also other circumpolar states, such as Denmark, Norway and Canada. Also, the United States has sustained a very high level of Arctic warfare capability ever since the Cold War era.

There is no doubt that having a military presence in the Arctic is a legitimate and essential instrument of sovereignty assertion. The total length of Russia’s northern coastline comprises about 22 thousand kilometers, an area that needs to be protected. That’s why we need new airfields, new border guard stations as well as Arctic-ready naval and army units. Alongside military tasks, Russian Armed Forces stationed in the Arctic area will execute the no less important task of search and rescue operations in ice-infested waters. Also, the expansion of military presence in the Arctic has its obvious limits in terms of supply chain effectiveness and maintenance of the military infrastructure. So I don’t think that Russian military strategy in the Arctic should be a point for major concern.

Lassi Heininen, Professor, University of Lapland, Finland

In our report “Russian Strategies in the Arctic: Avoiding a New Cold War” we wrote that according to the current military strategies in the Arctic Russia’s major goals are to demonstrate its sovereignty (over the Russian Arctic), protect its economic interests in the Arctic and demonstrate that Russia retains its word-class military capabilities. And that here strategic bombers and strategic nuclear submarines (most of the Russian navy is located in the Arctic) are the primary tools for demonstrating and re-asserting Russian strength and military presence in the Arctic region and the North Atlantic.

This is much according to the policies of all the Arctic states, including the coastal states of the Arctic Ocean, who have done, so far, limited modernization, and increases and/or changes in equipment, force levels and structure since the early-21st century, as the SIPRI report of 2012 clearly says. It is still much the common understanding among the Arctic states that the achieved high stability in the region is beneficial to them and the region’s environment, although recently this stability is, first time, in a danger due to new and old, continuing regional wars, constant ‘war on terror’ and fiscal, economic and political crisis. It is also good to remember that in spite of the end of the Cold War there has not been, yet, real nuclear disarmament, but has been a rationalization of the military with economic and technical developments emphasizing quality over quantity.

What comes to the recent Russian military interventions and manoeuvers, they can be counted to be reflections to the sanctions and new policies of the U.S. and other NATO member-states. This can be interpreted to be a traditional muscle-showing and defiance after you have let others to provoke yourself. This kind of defiance, when there are actions and counter-actions from the both sides, does not usually promise anything good. However, I hope that here the major players, Russia and the U.S., as well as the other Arctic states, understand that the high stability and peacefulness of the Arctic region is a big achievement, and it can be used as an asset for deeper cooperation, and even as a model to be applied in other parts of the world.

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The icebreaker "Murmansk" leading the ship "Pushlakhta" through ice in the Yenisei Bay of the Arctic Ocean. Event date - 1973. Photo: RIA Novosti