In 2015, speaking before the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament), Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin accused the West of “inflaming anti-Russian propaganda” related to Russia’s alleged militarization of the Arctic region (RIA Novosti, November 20, 2015). However, merely two years later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu affirmed that the Ministry of Defense had, in effect, already completed all planned major facilities (including military ones) in the Arctic. He also declared, “For the entire history of the Arctic region, no single state had managed to develop infrastructure, including energy-related and military facilities, as impressive as what Russia has accomplished” (RIA Novosti, December 25, 2017). Now, the latest news coming from the region points to an even larger push by Russia to pursue comprehensive military build-up in the Arctic, including by bolstering local tank forces, air-defense missile systems, naval forces, strategic aviation and locally based special operations forces.
On June 5, the Russian daily Izvestia reported that the Arctic Troops would soon add the newly modified version of the T-80 main battle tank—the T-80BVM—to their arsenals (Izvestia, June 5, 2018). This advanced model boasts a wide range of superior upgrades, including:
- The ability to effectively operate under challenging climactic conditions (well below -40° Fahrenheit/-40° Celsius), thanks to its modified turboshaft engine, similar to those used in helicopters;
- Profound advancements in speed and maneuvering;
- An upgraded fire-control system (Sosna-U), which increases the level of effectiveness and range of fire; as well as
- The Refleks integrated, laser-guided anti-tank missile.
In assessing this news, the former head of the Main Automotive-Armored Directorate of the Ministry of Defense (GABTU), Colonel General Sergei Mayev, stated that T-80BVMs will help Russia secure military superiority in the High North (Bezformata.ru, June 6). All in all, the Russian defense ministry expects to deploy at least 100 of these modernized tanks to troops stationed in the Arctic. Those developments have also demonstrated the premature nature of previous prognoses given in 2013, stating that, by 2020, the T-80 will gradually be phased out of service (Politros.com, accessed June 9).
Additionally, the Russian side has been extensively testing the Pantsir-SA—an “Arctic model” of the Pantsir-S1 (NATO classification: SA-22 Greyhound) short-to-medium-range surface-to-air missile system. The trials are being conducted north of the Polar Circle, suggesting that this weaponry will likely soon be integrated into Russia’s Arctic military forces (see EDM, January 30). Tests have revealed the ineffectiveness of the conventional Pantsir system’s anti-aircraft gun in the High North’s severe climactic conditions. As such, the autocannon guns have been removed, while the number of onboard missiles was increased from 12 to 18 (Nation-news.ru, December 1, 2017).
In terms of naval power in the Arctic region, Russia’s reliance on submarines as a means to achieve military superiority will continue to increase. Recently, the commander of the Northern Fleet, Nikolai Evmenov, confirmed the constant presence of Russian submarines in Arctic waters. Additionally, he stated that, when it comes to wielding the most modern equipment, “the Northern Fleet is not only in step with the times but, according to certain indicators, it is even ahead” (RIA Novosti, June 1, 2018).
Meanwhile, in the domain of strategic aviation, the defense ministry intends to actively engage Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic heavy strategic bombers in “the task of increasing the level of protection of Russia’s Arctic region.” It is worth noting that, in recent years, Russia has upgraded the Tu-160, providing for a “much broader latitude of use” of this platform. Most importantly the aircraft has been outfitted with the ability to refuel in the air, thus vastly increasing its operational period (Redstar.ru, May 18).
Finally, in addition to these “technical” improvements, Russia has also been working to boost the “human” component of its forces guarding the Arctic. Notably, last April, in Murmansk, the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) launched a series of tactical exercises, supervised by the special service’s head, Viktor Zolotov. These exercises aimed to achieve the following objectives (Voenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, April 11, 2018):
- To test the system of command and control (C2) in conditions of the Far North;
- To synchronize joint actions between the Rosgvardia and locally deployed units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS); and
- To rehearse various options for protecting the objects and infrastructure belonging to Rosatomflot, which maintains the country’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers.
The last stage of the April Arctic exercises envisaged the Russian special forces, jointly with border guard troops, “halting and defeating a terrorist group.” The special forces involved included the 1st Special Purpose Unit of the Internal Forces “Vityaz,” the Special Rapid Response Unit (SOBR) “Rys,” and the SOBR “Terek.”
On the basis of these developments, Russia’s continuing militarization of the Arctic region appears to be premised on two main (in many respects, mutually supporting) objectives. First, Moscow is trying to secure its version of the “Silk Road Project”—the Northern Sea Route—with its huge natural resources and strategic geopolitical importance. Second, Russia is seeking to enhance regional military security by implementing a “multi-layered system of defense” built on the Syrian experience, which is likely to lead to the creation of one or more Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) “bubble(s)” in the Russian High North. As such, Moscow can be expected to further develop its Arctic units’ Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities—an area in which the Russian side feels superior to the United States (Voenno-Promyshlenny Kurier, June 8).