Despite the hopes and expectations of China, Europe and the United States, Russia does not view the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as primarily an economic channel linking Asian and European markets. Rather, for Moscow, it is a component of its projection of control over a large segment of the Arctic basin and its resources. Consequently, while Russia has sought to advertise the steps it is taking to make the NSR more accessible to international shipping, the authorities have both continued to assert that the entire area belongs to the Russian Federation and moved in fits and starts to expand its military presence both in the Arctic Ocean and along the country’s northern coastline.
Five years ago, President Vladimir Putin set the tone for this effort when he declared, “The Arctic is an inalienable part of the Russian Federation and has been under our sovereignty for several centuries. Thus it will remain for all time to come” (RIA Novosti, October 3, 2013). As Vadim Shtepa, the editor of the After Empire portal, points out in an essay for Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security, the Kremlin leader is restoring the Soviet view of the Arctic as a zone of international competition in which Moscow must project power. “And the main thing in this restoration,” the regionalist says, is “the militarist component.” In the 1990s, “Russian military forces practically left the Arctic, leaving behind only border guards.” But in the last several years, Moscow has worked to rebuild its naval and land-based forces there, “even though the US does not have similar military bases in the Arctic” (Icds.ee, September 10, 2018).
Moscow has cast its moves in this direction as a purely defensive action, a response to supposed threats from the US and others. However, Shtepa writes, the scale of Russian military expansion in the Arctic—laid out in various official declarations over the last two years (RT, December 1, 2016; Fb.ru, July 12, 2017)—suggests Moscow is not engaging in defense but trying to create a powerful “offensive” capability in the region. The question now is: can Russia realize these plans, or is this one more “hybrid” threat designed to intimidate by its bombast? The answer so far is quite mixed, with Russian forces in fact moving back to the Arctic but not as fast or as powerfully as officials often say—a reality frequently either ignored by Western commentators or, alternatively, accepted without questioning Moscow’s narrative.
The Russian military presence in the Arctic consists of three interrelated components: air, sea and land. The Russian Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily—VVS) continues to be able to put over the Arctic some of its most powerful planes. But it has had difficulties developing and putting into the field the kinds of helicopters and smaller aircraft necessary for tactical missions in that most difficult of environments (Fb.ru, July 12, 2017).
Russia’s naval presence in the Arctic has also grown over the last decade. But it has been far weaker than planned—some Moscow analysts refer to the Military Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF) forces there and elsewhere as “Putin’s Potemkin fleet” (Rusmonitor.com, September 6). Additionally, it has been far smaller relative to the presence of other forces in the area than Moscow would like to see. China has been especially active, developing a domestic capacity to build icebreakers and beginning to field them to promote Chinese use of the NSR without having to rely on Moscow to escort its ships and thus better prepared to act on its own (RIA Novosti, September 10, 2018; see EDM, October 3, 2017; July 12, 2018). On the other hand, Russian shipbuilding for the Arctic has been plagued with delays and cost overruns, and several ships announced long ago have still not gone into service and are not currently scheduled to be tested until 2020 or even later (Kommersant, September 10). Moreover, most of the powerful Northern Fleet is directed at other targets than the Arctic (Kristian Åtland, “Russia's Armed Forces and the Arctic: All Quiet on the Northern Front?” Contemporary Security Policy, 32:2, 2011). That does not mean Moscow does not currently enjoy a predominant position near its coastlines but rather that it lacks the ability to project power further or to support effectively the claims Putin has asserted.
However, the biggest problem Russia faces is on land. Its northern coast is, for most of its length, not connected to the central part of the country by all-weather roads or railroads or even linked to the Russian electric power grid. The costs of extending these to support a military presence in the High North is prohibitive. All talk about doing so has run aground. And given global warming and the melting of the permafrost, there is some doubt that Russia could ever build roads or electric lines that would not be disrupted by shifts in the ground (see EDM, February 13, 2018). That has already happened in numerous cases, including this year (RIA Novosti, March 11; The Siberian Times, March 29; Kommersant, September 6; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, April 4, March 11, September 7).
To overcome this, Moscow has begun to build a series of micro-bases—the latest one to open has only 100 soldiers (Mil.ru, August 27; Sakha.gov.ru, August 28). To ensure that these bases can function at all, Russia is supplying them exclusively by sea and even providing electricity to them from ships, including via a new ship-based nuclear power plant slated to move along the Russian Arctic coast (Proved, September 7). All this has attracted much attention in the West but also sparked skepticism about how supportable any of these facilities are likely to be in the coming years (The Barents Observer, September 3).
Russian commentators remain optimistic that Moscow will be able to expand its military presence in the Arctic, and they are pleased that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) feels threatened by all this activity (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 11), Yet, even Russian experts concede Moscow will not have the Northern Sea Route ready and protected for likely another decade (Dailystorm.ru, September 11). Russian problems on the Arctic sea and land, if less so in the air, mean that many of the Kremlin’s threats in the High North are unlikely to be realized—giving the West time to respond if it elects to do so.