In fact, recent trends prove that the Russian Federation has begun to significantly increase its presence in the Arctic. After all, this area is Russia’s resource base and it generates about 14-20% of Russian GDP. It currently yields 80% of Russian gas, as well as nickel, diamonds and rare earth metals. The resources of the Arctic region make up 1/4 of the value of Russian exports.
In general, the Arctic has long been a focus of attention for global players, and each of them intends to gain a dominant position in the region. At the very least, 22% of the world’s unexplored oil and gas fields are hidden under the Arctic ice, not to mention other natural resources.
The struggle for the Arctic began in the twentieth century, when bordering states began to claim their rights to the Arctic areas up to the North Pole. Thus, by the mid-1920s, the Arctic was divided between the United States, the Soviet Union, Norway, Canada, and Denmark.
During the World War II there were intense fighting between the Allies and the Axis powers in the Arctic, as a result of growing competition for resource markets. And throughout the Cold War, the Arctic was highly militarized due to the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union were closest to each other in this region.
In 1990, as the inter-bloc confrontation came to an end, the Soviet Union and the United States signed the agreement on the maritime boundary in the Bering Sea. And in 2010, Russia and Norway settled a 40-year’s dispute over the maritime borders in the Barents Sea, having divided equally the area which was claimed over by both countries.
However, in 2007, the year when Vladimir Putin delivered the Munich speech, Russia settled a tricolor memorial sign at the North Pole, at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, which earlier could be seen as an act of appropriation. This step has been received with varied reactions by the Arctic states.
Since then, the military presence in the region has been growing. The climate change in the Arctic which is occurring at the pole twice as fast as the world average fosters additional interest, so the neighboring countries see this primarily as a commercial opportunity, as resource extraction may become more economically viable.
However, in addition to resources, the Northern Sea Route is gaining a significant role, which, due to global warming, is becoming increasingly attractive for shipping. Although the role of the route is still limited, the increased Russian military presence in the region is already a security challenge for the NATO countries. After all, the Arctic is perceived by Russia as a flashpoint of rivalry with the United States and competition with China.
Although Moscow considers the loss of its dominance the most important challenge in the Arctic region, it still maintains a dominant position in the Arctic over the rest of the coastal states – the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark. Russia covers more than half of the Arctic coast and has the largest number of icebreakers necessary for shipping in the region, including the nuclear-powered ones.
In addition, Moscow has begun to further expand its energy and military-logistics infrastructure. Thus, since 2015, Russia has significantly increased its military presence in the Arctic, deploying the long-range S-300PMU2 anti-aircraft systems in the region, and later the newer ones – S-400s and the Pantsir-S2 artillery and missile systems, specially adapted to Arctic conditions.
In March 2020, the Russian President Putin approved the Fundamentals of State Policy in the Arctic until 2035. In the adopted document, Russia recognized the need to preserve the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as a priority, and, unlike earlier documents of this type from 2008 and 2015, Russia now sees the Arctic as highly competitive international arena.
Following this, the Kremlin began to translate words into action. So, in April last year, the Kremlin leader announced ambitious plans concerning the Russian nuclear fleet’s future: “By 2035, Russian Arctic fleet will have at least 13 heavy linear icebreakers, including 9 nuclear-powered ones”.
Six months later, a combat icebreaker “Ivan Papanin” was launched in St. Petersburg, which is planned to be put into service by 2023, equipped with the cruise missiles “Caliber”, 76,2 mm caliber guns and the anti-submarine helicopter Ka-27. And in December, it was announced that the base for testing weapons in extreme weather conditions (for example, in severe frost or strong wind) was restored.
Such growing militarization of the Arctic is a challenge for the NATO countries, as well as for Sweden and Finland, which are experiencing violations in their space. Any possible greater interest to the Alliance should not come from the eastern flank because of the complementarity of the challenges posed by the Kremlin.
In this context, it is important how the collective West led by the United States, will confront Russia in the region. There were some encouraging messages in late February. According to the US President Joseph Biden, following a virtual meeting with the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Washington and Ottawa agreed to modernize the Joint North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and launch an expanded dialogue on the Arctic.
The United States and Canada have also announced their intention to coordinate their actions in the confrontation with China. And this is also important, because Beijing is particularly interested in navigating the Arctic. Thus, the Celestial Empire is actively involved in the construction of icebreakers. For example, in 2012, the first Chinese icebreaker the Snow Dragon came to Europe through Arctic waters.
It is clear that such an increased presence of “bears” and “dragons” in the Arctic region cannot but worry the countries of the free world. And the above-mentioned statement by the NATO Secretary General is a clear confirmation of that.
This is especially important to understand on the eve of Russia’s two-year presidency in the Arctic Council (since May 2021). This is an international organization dedicated to promote environmental cooperation and sustainable development of the Polar Regions (including Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, the United States, Finland, and Sweden).
Moscow is likely to block the initiatives to open the Arctic region to the countries beyond the region, including Ukraine. And while this could obviously affect China – which can only comfort Canada (as it has its own position on controlling the Northwest Passage) and the US (which negatively perceive China’s expansion in the Arctic) – the Kremlin’s covert geopolitical game will inevitably lead to escalation of tensions in the Arctic region, and hence around the world.