Inside the West’s Plans for Arctic War Against Russia
Moscow is growing belligerent in its quest to pry open the icy route to the Atlantic. The U.S. and Britain are racing to catch up, but is it too late?
BARDUFOSS, Norway—On the slope of a snow-covered hill deep in the Arctic Circle, some of the world’s best-trained commandos are struggling to complete an ambush exercise knee-deep in the snow. Britain’s Royal Marines make painfully slow progress during a slow-motion pastiche of a chase.
The conditions here—where temperatures routinely plunge to -22 F (-30 C) and snow drifts cloak the treacherous terrain—have dominated battlefield strategy above the Arctic Circle for centuries.
“The environment is as much your enemy as anybody else,” says Maj. Jim Lawson, the officer commanding of Charlie Company, 40 Commando. “If you just stand here and do nothing, it will kill you.”
Tall and eloquent, Lawson raises his voice slightly to be heard over the rat-ta-tat-tat gunfire of the Royal Marines to explain that NATO’s military leaders in the Arctic had been hitting the history books. In order to meet the threat posed by Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia, they’ve been studying past incursions by the USSR and defense plans drawn up to counter aggression from the east stretching back from the Cold War to the German strategy for defending Nazi-occupied Norway against Russia during World War II.
During 1939’s breathtakingly brutal Winter War, a tiny Finnish guerrilla force disguised in white wiped out the Soviet invaders who were dressed in olive green fatigues and ill-prepared for the conditions as ski commandos—hewn by life in the Arctic—succeeded in cutting off the Red Army’s tank columns.
The job for Lawson, who is preparing to lead the British contingent into joint exercises with Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the United States, is to ensure that his Royal Marine commandos are prepared to fight a rearguard action if President Putin were to try and repeat Josef Stalin’s Arctic aggression. A Crimea of the North would likely be more subtle but there are growing fears that Russia’s aggression could spark a military incident—or that the Kremlin might move to protect Russian-speakers on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
“The key lesson from history,” says Lawson, “is that if you’re going to fight here you need to be mobile, and you need to train in this environment and harden the troops.”
That’s why Britain is embarking on a 10-year plan to send record numbers to the region; the Pentagon announced last month that a new Arctic strategy was being drawn up, and the USS Harry S. Truman recently became the first American aircraft carrier inside the Arctic Circle since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged to confront Russia and China in the region at a meeting of the Arctic Council. “Just because the Arctic is a place of wilderness does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness,” he said, turning his fire on Moscow for a military buildup, buzzing NATO vessels, and boarding foreign ships. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic.”
The West is finally waking up to Russia’s increased presence and aggression there. But some fear it’s too late.
After the Cold War, the West’s focus on Russian frontiers faded. Post-9/11, the War on Terror drew attention toward the Middle East and Asia, further weakening the position in the Arctic just as Russia’s military and naval renewal bolstered its standing. Recent years have seen a sharp increase in Russia’s submarine activity, naval-base construction, and overtly hostile acts ranging from electronic warfare to mock attacks on ships in international waters and a radar installation on Norwegian soil. Last week, it was even alleged that a Russian spy whale had been deployed in Arctic waters.
A former Norwegian foreign service official told The Daily Beast that the atmosphere in the Arctic was changing rapidly.
“We used to say that Russia’s military behavior in this region was more predictable,” said Kristian Åtland, a veteran of the Norwegian Foreign Service Russia desk. “But obviously actions such as this mock attack flight on Norwegian installations are not something that we particularly like. It’s not a friendly act.”
Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Jim Townsend, who oversaw the Pentagon’s relationship with NATO for eight years, says that Washington, D.C. and London now believe it is time for Moscow to see that they are ready to confront Russia in the Arctic.
“We have to be able to show in a very credible fashion that we are ready to defend our allies up there and if we’re able to do that and deter the Russians, then we won’t see a Northern Crimea,” he told The Daily Beast. “If Putin feels that either we won’t fight or we can’t fight, then it certainly would embolden him to roll the dice and do something up there. Right now we want to make sure he understands that if he tries to pull a stunt, he’s going to be running into a buzz saw.”
Pointing to a map with the North Pole at its center projected onto the wall of Britain’s outpost in northern Norway, one of the most experienced Western military leaders in the Arctic outlined NATO’s strategy. Lt. Col. Dave West ran his finger ran along the channel between the ice cap and the Norwegian coast eastward toward Murmansk, the home of Russia’s Northern Fleet.
“That, realistically, is their only access into the Atlantic,” said West, Officer Commanding Exercise Clockwork. “Obviously this ice pack has been shifting back, which is widening the route. This is why Norway is so strategically important because of those passages that we need to keep clear.”
Strangling the Northern Fleet’s access to the Atlantic Ocean, which stands between Russia’s maritime power and the reborn Second Fleet of the U.S. Navy, would be a bold move indeed. The Northern Fleet has been busy in recent years, with sailors reportedly dispatched from the High North to war zones including Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, and Syria.
West, who’s been working in the Arctic since 1980, said climate change melting ice in the region had made the NATO mission ever more critical.
As a result, West said that he was hoping to train a record number of servicemen this year at the snow-covered complex 350 miles from the Russian border.
Everyone agrees that the U.S. and Britain took their eye off the ball in the Arctic. Åtland, who now works at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, said: “The U.S. hasn’t been paying a lot of attention to Arctic affairs in the last decade.”
Retired Captain Rick Hoffman, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, said it was obvious that American naval forces and the U.S. Coast Guard were not sufficiently prepared for action in the Arctic; they would need an increased ability to operate in the frozen sea with icebreakers, specially designed equipment, and improved logistics given the extraordinarily tough conditions.
“Nothing’s changed in 100 years. If something goes wrong, you’re as alone up there as Shackleton,” he said, speaking on the phone from Florida.
Certainly the Arctic conditions are much the same as those that faced Ernest Shackleton in his notorious expeditions to the South Pole.
“There’s a race and we’re not in it,” said Hoffman. “Somebody has got to decide to join the race.”
One potentially abrupt shift of focus that looms over every NATO strategy meeting is the prospect that Donald Trump could suddenly pull the U.S. out of the organization altogether. The consequences would be profound, and an enormous boon to Putin, but military leaders from the field to the Pentagon try to plow on, ignoring the threat from the most unpredictable president in U.S. history.
Regardless of Trump, Western strength in the Arctic has been ebbing away for a long time. “This goes back to the end of the Cold War,” explained Cleo Paskal, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former consultant to the U.S. Army War College and Britain’s Foreign Office. “There was a kind of end-of-history syndrome in some strategic circles.”
The author of Global Warring said the strategic importance of the Arctic had been utterly upended by climate change. “An area that had been considered an ice wall is now a potential highway,” said Paskal.
A region that was once impenetrably frozen solid is allowing greater fossil-fuel exploration, new fishing waters, and shipping channels that cut thousands of miles off existing transcontinental routes.
There’s a scramble for access to these economic opportunities. Combine that with increasing tensions between NATO and Russia and you are looking at one of the world’s starkest examples of climate change making a diplomatic and potentially military impact on the real world.
In the hills of Norway, the big picture was not lost on the Royal Marines who were trudging through the wet snow of an unusually mild day.
There was a light rain, which meant each step onto the weakened snow presaged a brief crunch before you discovered if it would remain firm underfoot or give way. Sometimes the snow would come up just over the top of your boot, sometimes your leg disappeared up to knee height.
Capt. Alastair “Dougie” Douglas, a commander of the Royal Marines’ all-terrain Viking vehicles, said: “The principle is to keep yourself dry, keep yourself combat ready. If you become a cold-weather victim, you’re then a burden.”
The Vikings, extraordinary Swedish-built machines able to navigate deep snow and even swim across rivers on their tracks, were taking part in a skijoring exercise, a kind of snow-based water-skiing.
Eight 6-foot figures were barely silhouetted in their white overalls against a snowy mountain; rifles with stripes of white tape to conceal their existence from the enemy were slung over their shoulders. As the Viking ATV moved into position, the men—on newly purchased Norwegian skis—leaned down as one to grasp the ropes that would pull them into battle positions.
For the third man from the front, bending down was a stretch too far. One ski slipped out from under him and his arms momentarily whirred around like a silent movie star who’d encountered a banana skin.
Every one of the Marines sent to train in the Arctic first completes three weeks of cold-weather training, one week of survival, one movement, and one fighting. Learning how to spend a week in the field in -22 F (-30 C) is a serious test, even for the commandos who have passed the notorious 32-week Marine training course.
Capt. Samuel Moreton, 539 Assault Squadron, Royal Marines, smiled as he recalled one of his recent charges who was struggling to adapt. “It’s not that we don’t get cold; it’s that we know how to deal with it,” he said. “Armpits are always warm. I had a guy’s hands in my armpits last week when he said he lost feeling. A few squats together and the feeling was soon back.”
The cold is also physically grueling. The Marines said everyone returns home “shredded” despite 6,000-calorie-a-day provisions throughout the stay in the Arctic. Highly calorific meals were another secret of Finland’s success in seeing off the Red Army in 1939. At one point, the Russians—who were making do on bread and water—screwed up a potentially crucial sneak attack on the Finns because they were distracted by the smell of sausages being cooked.
For Westerners, movement through snow and dense forest in the Arctic is equally alien. Standing on the stony beach of Gratangen fjord with the sun hanging low in the sky, Senior Sgt. Steinn Mar of the Norwegian Army couldn’t help laughing as he confided: “It is, of course, fun to see them try skiing for the first time.”
It’s not just a question of learning how to ski—often during long dark nights—but how to do so tactically. “You leave tracks everywhere, so you need lots of deception. For example: Blow past your intended dropoff point, ski around and try to create an ambush,” said Moreton.
Roger King, second in command of Charlie Company, 40 Commando, Royal Marines, admitted there was still work to do before they had totally nailed the conditions. “Unfortunately, we haven’t got to the level of shooting at people while skiing down the slopes,” he said. “So not quite up to James Bond standards yet.”
The Royal Marines were in the Arctic preparing to take part in an exercise called Northern Wind set to take place on the border of Finland and Sweden. Britain, the U.S., and Norway were to stage an invasion of Swedish territory while posing as a “major force from the East.”
The Brits have been training in the Arctic—and Norway, in particular—for decades, but they usually worked close to their local counterparts rather than entwining the two militaries in large-scale joint exercises.
Working with the local forces offers obvious advantages for the West. The Norwegians, for example, have helped the Royal Marines to reconsider their formation as they approach an enemy target in the snow. The usual v-shaped approach is favored in every other terrain, but here in the Arctic it is more effective to advance in a straight line, following the steps imprinted into the snow ahead of you, and then step out to fire at the last moment.
After the exercise, the British Royal Navy said it had been able to pass on Arctic knowledge and cold-weather experience to the U.S. Marine Corps throughout the winter.
In the past two years, Russia has radically increased fake attacks on Nordic ships, expanded GPS jamming against its neighboring militaries, and Britain claims there has been a tenfold increase in Russian submarine activity in the Arctic, including exploration very close to the undersea cables that carry much of the world’s internet traffic between Europe and the U.S.
There has also been an increased investment in their technology and military capability such as antiaircraft missile systems, reopened Cold War military bases, submarines and surface vessels including a fleet of more than 40 icebreakers. By comparison, the U.S. has one or two in operation at any one time, while China is bringing a third online. In February, Congress restored initial funding for the Coast Guard’s first new heavy icebreakers for 40 years; the money was diverted last year to help fund Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border.
Katarzyna Zysk, director of research at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, said Russia’s rapidly expanding electronic warfare has proved a cost-effective method of asymmetric war against U.S. and NATO forces. Increasingly egregious Russian attacks have been tolerated over the last 18 months. “They are kind of conditioning their counterparts; creating a new normal in the region which is very disconcerting,” she said.
That is part of a wider effort of aggression.
“Russia has enormous ambitions when it comes to the Arctic. It’s about reclaiming Russia’s position as the leading Arctic nation,” Zysk said. The “Bastion defense”—Russia’s Cold War-era plan to protect its second-strike nuclear capability—is an element of the nation’s military strategy that is still zealously defended. If necessary at times of conflict, the doctrine requires that Russia would shut down access to large swaths of the Arctic in order to safeguard its nuclear submarine fleet, which is responsible for firing back if Russia were to suffer a nuclear attack. Zysk said there was an unconfirmed belief that the modern “Bastion defense” plan would involve seizing control of Svalbad, a Norwegian archipelago found right up near the North Pole.
The feeling on the ground in Norway about relations with Russia is more nuanced than the view from D.C. and London. Despite being a member of NATO, Norway has traditionally maintained a close relationship with its neighbor to the east. Right up until Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the two nations staged joint naval exercises in the Arctic, there was military co-operation and exchanges between schools and military units across the border.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” Åtland said. “On the one hand, Norway has been trying to draw NATO’s resources and attention towards the northern flank. On the other hand we do not want to behave in a manner that is provocative.”
Standing on the edge of Gratangen fjord—where the water was so clear that starfish were visible from the pontoon—Mar, the duty officer for the Norwegian Army’s amphibious center, admitted that the recent expansion of Western intervention was controversial within Norway. “For me it’s welcome, but I don’t know how good the general population of Norway feels about it,” he said. “People are always critical, especially about the Americans training on Norwegian soil, and, of course, it might be sending some signals across the border.”
At the governmental level, the attitude has been somewhat different according to Townsend, the former director of NATO policy at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels. “Ever since I’ve worked with them, since 1990, Norway has always wanted a strong NATO involvement and awareness of things from their neighborhood. They feel that if NATO is not paying attention up there, they’ll be left alone,” he said.
Back in northern Norway, Dave West was now standing outside a hangar made of a rubberized material that resembles a vast bounce house. A row of three have been installed to shelter Britain’s visiting helicopters. He said he had developed a close relationship with the Norwegians. “Norway is a very peace-loving country,” he said. “You don’t want to be throwing stones over the fence because you know you can start an argument with your neighbor.”
An amphibious landing craft traversed a 14-mile fjord on Norway’s northern coast and only the wind whipping off the water’s surface was able to match the relentless badinage of Capt. Sam Moreton. The proud son of a Royal Marine, Moreton is the very personification of an upbeat and assured leader of men. He motioned toward a small village above the cove where we were to be set down. “It’s a kinda hamlet type-thing,” he said. “Oh, no—that’s Denmark!”
Amid the groans, he flashed a smile and promised: “I got loads more Shakespeare funnies if you want them.”
Moreton explained that the focus this year was on training the trainers and building toward an influx of men next year. “We’ve been the mountain, Arctic and extreme cold-weather warfare specialists since, God knows, my father’s time and he would be an old man by now,” he said. “Russia is resurgent. We’re heading back toward the frequency, intensity, and scale of deployment here as at the height of the Cold War.”
So, what has the West committed to? Both the U.S. and the U.K. have said they will publish full Arctic strategies in the coming months.
The one drawn up jointly by the White House and the Pentagon is expected to focus on China’s increased prominence in the region as well as countering Russia. On Thursday, the Pentagon published a report raising the alarm about China’s increasingly militaristic presence in the Arctic. President Xi Jinping announced a “Polar Silk Road” plan to take advantage of the melting ice cap to create new shipping lanes across the Arctic. China, which describes itself as a near-Arctic state, has bolstered its nuclear submarine fleet and started to build its own icebreakers.
The British have already previewed some of their new strategy. More than 1,000 Royal Marines will be deployed to the High North each year, and by 2020, Britain will be flying P-8 submarine-hunting aircraft that were developed by Boeing for the U.S. Navy.
Britain, then, is leading the way in terms of overt re-engagement in the Arctic. Elisabeth Braw, director of modern deterrence at the Royal United Services Institute, said it made sense for Britain to try to reassert itself as a powerful player on the global stage while Brexit was unfolding in such embarrassing fashion. “Frankly the U.S. is not really in the High North and the Arctic is not a priority for the U.S. so it’s a natural move for the U.K. to make that one of its priorities,” she said, speaking in London. “We’re soon to be a midsize power outside the EU. What are we good at? Our armed forces are extremely good, so this is a way for Britain to really show that it’s a major power.”
Lt. Col. Dave West is confident that NATO is already in a strong position to fight back if Putin attempted a Crimea of the North. “We’ll be ready no matter what,” he said.
Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis—before he quit in a rage at Trump’s Syria withdrawal plans—admitted, “Certainly America has got to up its game in the Arctic.”
There are some signs of increased activity. Trident Juncture, which the U.S. took part in, was the biggest exercise in the region in decades and there will be more American involvement in another exercise, Cold Response, next year.
The United States Second Fleet, which was mothballed in 2011 after 60 years of service on the East Coast responsible for the North Atlantic and facing down Russia, was also reactivated last year, showing that some serious thought is being given to re-engaging on frontiers that had been neglected during the War on Terror.
“They’re taking it seriously but in terms of putting a lot of money toward the Arctic and then producing a lot of capability that you see up there, that’s gonna take a long time,” Townsend said.
Former Naval captain Hoffman explained that the U.S. was still lagging a long way behind the Northern Fleet in terms of Arctic equipment, auxiliary support infrastructure, and ships specifically designed for those conditions as well as servicemen trained for combat operations in the extreme cold. “We need the ability to operate in the ice,” he said. “We would have to articulate at the highest levels of our government a strategic interest that would shift our focus. And I see no evidence that that is of any interest right now. We’re so obsessed with the southern border of Texas and Arizona that we’re completely distracted.”
When Stalin ordered his Red Army tank divisions to pour over the border into Finland on Nov. 30, 1939, the shocked families living in the picturesque lakeside villages of Karelia grabbed whatever they could carry and fled. Soviet generals estimated they would conquer their tiny neighbor, whose border was just 20 miles from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), within 12 days. What unfolded over the next three and a half months became one of history’s most remarkable examples of a guerrilla army successfully holding off invading forces that dwarfed them in both scale and firepower.
“It was a miracle,” said Ari Vatanen. “Our backs should been broken, but the Winter War determined our fate; we did not end up like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”
Finland was never sucked behind the Iron Curtain. It is not a member of NATO but has remained a free and independent nation despite its proximity to Putin’s hometown of Leningrad.
The Karelians, however, never returned to their homes—the area ceded to the USSR in the ceasefire negotiations of 1940 remains Russian territory.
Among those who fled was Vatanen’s mother, who was a teenager at the time. His father lost four brothers to the fighting.
Vatanen, who was elected a member of the European Parliament after a motor-racing career that saw him crowned world rally driving champion, will never forget the threat posed from Finland’s looming neighbor.
“It is engraved in my character,” he told The Daily Beast.
As the commander of 40 Commando, Royal Marines, had already explained, modern military leaders have also been working to ensure that the lessons of the Winter War and the scale of the threat from Russia are at the forefront of NATO thinking.
Before Crimea, Western leaders may have thought Putin would not have followed Stalin’s lead in crossing the Arctic border of a neighbor but that can no longer be taken for granted. There is reason to believe that his military and naval buildup in the North is about more than the projection of power. He may not be bluffing.
Townsend, who joined the Center for a New American Security after the Pentagon, said: “When people say, ‘Look, Crimea was just a one-off thing,’” or ‘Georgia was just a one-off thing.’ Well, you’re not reading the newspaper, because it’s not one-off, it’s constant.”
It is certainly unlikely that Russia would stage an all-out land invasion into Finland or Norway—although a disguised version like we saw in Crimea and other regions of eastern Ukraine is always possible. In any case, there are plenty of other potential flashpoints. There are significant differences on access to Svalbard and its surrounding waters, for example.
There have been disputes over Norwegian inspections of Russian trawlers operating in the so-called Svalbard fisheries protection zone. Moscow is also working to maintain an ethnic Russian town on the Norwegian island. The number of Russian inhabitants is disputed, but it may be as high as 500, making up around 20 percent of the population of the entire island that stands at just 2,500, slightly fewer than the number of polar bears estimated to live in the region. Russia’s stated motive for annexing Crimea and supporting separatists in Eastern Ukraine was the protection of Russian citizens. Last year, Putin pledged decisive action to protect ethnic Russians abroad.
“Things could potentially get ugly,” said Zysk, from the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies. She explained that some Russian military planning, such as the “Bastion defense” or a belief that foreign powers would seek to steal Russian resources from the Arctic “sounds crazy from our perspective” but it is still pursued at all costs by Putin’s military leaders.
Vatanen, one of the rare Finnish politicians who still thinks the annexed parts of Karelia should be returned, says Europe and the rest of the world must assume that Russia will strike again. “There’s an old saying: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ What happened to us is in our consciousness so it never left us, but unfortunately, with the British and Americans, we need to sharpen our weapons.”
Many of Vatanen’s compatriots would rather leave Russia alone, and he accepts that the Arctic is hardly a priority for the West. “It’s sparsely populated area, it seems to be so far away,” he said. “But we cannot leave the back door open.”