Russia is rapidly building up its military forces in the Arctic in an effort to secure its claims in the frigid region. Starting in 2017, the country will base MiG-31 Foxhound long-range interceptors in long-abandoned Soviet-era bases that it is currently renovating, according to Russian state media.
But basing Foxhound interceptors, which are capable of flying at nearly three times the speed of sound, in the Arctic is just the beginning. Russia has far grander plans to secure its claims in the north as the permanent ice caps recede. “We are planning to build 13 airfields, an air-ground firing range, as well as ten radar and vectoring posts,” Lt. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, commander of Russia’s National Defense Management Center told Russian news service RIA Novosti late last month. The radar stations would be used to guide interceptors to their targets while the training range would be used to train pilots.
In addition to the interceptors, Russia has started to base nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers in the region to patrol those vast and desolate reaches. “The crews of Tupolev Tu-95MS strategic bombers at the Arctic long-range aviation base in Amur Region, have tripled their flying rate this year,” Col. Alexander Gordeyev told RIA Novosti in July.
That’s not all. In April, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that the country would create a network of Arctic naval bases to permanently house submarines and surface warships. (One example: Russia’s effort to reactivate an abandoned Soviet naval base in the New Siberian Islands.) Russian ground forces, including infantry and armor units, are being permanently stationed in key areas. Russia is also working on new a fleet of ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines to operate under the ice caps. Finally, Moscow is reopening ten search and rescue bases. Not only will they help facilitate a new trading route once the ice melts; they’ll also have a military purpose, analysts believe.
To operate effectively in the far northern reaches, the Russia is also investing in new nuclear-powered icebreakers—the largest such vessels ever built—that can smash through nine feet thick sheets of ice. Three of the giant ships—which have been named Artic, Siberia, and Ural—are expected to join the Russian civilian fleet in the coming years. The first vessel is slated to become operational in 2017. The last should be in service by 2021. (And of course, they’ll be available for military work, too.)
Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that much of the Russian build-up has been in the works for years. But in recent weeks, the military deployments have taken on a harder edge.
“This is an era of probing to keep us off balance,” Comley said.
Russia’s interest in the Arctic is two fold. The country’s primary concern in the region is to secure its strategic nuclear deterrent, Rob Huebert, an Arctic security expert at the University of Calgary told The Daily Beast.
Russia has been actively building new Borei-class ballistic missile submarines and it has been upgrading its older Soviet-era Delta III and IV boomers. Huebert said that the Russian Navy prefers to operate its ballistic missile submarines under the polar ice caps because it makes those vessels much more difficult to track.
“As long as Russia even has pretensions of being a great power, there is going to be friction points [in the Arctic],” Huebert said. “The other is the maritime geography of Russia, if you’re going to maintain your nuclear deterrent then ultimately the bases around Murmansk make a lot more sense for the submarine-based deterrent.” And Murmansk is within the Arctic Circle.
But beyond the strict realm of national security, the Arctic is becoming increasingly important to Russia economically. “Russia puts an enormous amount of economic importance on the Arctic right now,” Conley said. “The Russian Arctic represents 22 percent of Russian exports, 14 percent of its gross domestic product.”
Russia’s leaders are betting on the Arctic for the country’s future economic growth. There is a strong belief that once the ice caps melt away, there is a bounty of mineral wealth and energy resources that Russia can harvest, Conley said. Because of those economic reasons, Russian leadership is willing to go to great lengths to protect its interests in the region. “They doing everything they can to develop it, but under Russian terms,” Huebert said.
There is a multinational scramble between the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and the Danes (due to Greenland) to secure the resources in the Arctic. “All the Arctic Council states—especially the U.S.—have made some adjustments to their military posture because they are defending new borders that are opening because of the melting ice,” Conley said. “Some of this is just a natural part of adapting to the natural climate change that is happening in the Arctic.”
One of the key disputes is over just how far the Arctic continental shelf—and thus each nation’s exclusive economic zone—extends. The Russians and Canadians have been the most aggressive in staking their claims—often with competing scientific data. The fundamental issue: the boundaries of the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. Depending on whose scientific data the United Nations accepts, either Russia or Canada will claim a vast track of undersea territory to exploit. “So Russia will likely resubmit this year with new information,” Conley said. “The Russians are going through the U.N. process, as the Canadians are, as the Danes are.”
Conley noted that the U.S. will not be able to pursue its claims because the American government has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
In the meantime, the Kremlin trying to make sure that any ship that is transiting the area secures its permission and is escorted by a Russian icebreaker. “Even if there is no ice and it’s going to stay that way for a little while, you still have to have a Russian icebreaker nearby,” Huebert said.