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7 September 2015

Russian Dr. Strangelove: Is the militarization of the Arctic realistic?

How the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by Russia has turned into the deployment of Arctic troops and an internal political fetish 

Moscow’s military activity in the Arctic has increased dramatically of late, which has led to concerns among foreign politicians and experts. Ongoing exercises and the reconstruction of military infrastructure along the entire Arctic coast are accompanied by fierce public rhetoric and claims to the underwater Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic Ocean lodged back in the early 2000’s. All of this gives grounds to speak of the ongoing militarization of the Arctic in the best traditions of ‘geopolitics’. However, it is possible to understand the real reasons behind and consequences of Russia’s efforts in this region when we refer to its systemic characteristics.

The meaning of the Arctic ambitions

When Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) in March 1997, its objectives in the Arctic turned out to be dictated by the logic of this international-and-legal institution. The USSR declared its polar possessions within the boundaries from the Kola Peninsula via the North Pole to the Bering Strait back in 1926. No one but the Bolsheviks were interested in these lands for a long time, but the establishment of exclusive Soviet and later, Russian rights to the Arctic seas was not regulated by international law, either.

In line with the Convention, its signatories could clearly define the boundaries of the territorial sea, their exclusive economic zones as well as the continental shelf on which mineral resource extraction and fishing on benthic fauna are permitted. Immediately after the ratification, Russia proceeded with its research in the Arctic Ocean, with the peak of the first phase of this research occurring in 2000. Most importantly, the question was about determining the borders while remaining ‘on the safe side’ given that the actions were allowed under the Convention.

As a result, Russia submitted its first claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2001. Nothing specific was known about the resources then, especially as there is no possibility even now to extract them far from the shore, in deep water and under extreme weather conditions.

Still, Arctic hydrocarbon fetishism already prevailed by the mid-2000s when oil and gas prices rapidly increased and the concept of the ‘energy superpower’ which is not obliged to pursue Western ideals of societal organization ripened in the minds of the ruling class. This coincided with the fact that the abovementioned UN Commission returned the submission concerning the shelf to Russia for serious revision. As a result, the extension of Russian possessions on the seabed became not only an option under the Convention but also a major political imperative for the Kremlin, too. And there were two utilitarian implications to this.

Firstly, the specific nature of the political-and-economic system, especially after the looting of Yukos, required efforts to legalize assets and legitimize its beneficiaries in Europe and America. Apart from access to technologies, the engagement of Western companies in the development of offshore fields by ‘Rosneft’ and ‘Gazprom’ served these purposes. Besides, the establishment of Russian jurisdiction over the underwater and subglacial Lomonosov Ridge was meant to open an avenue of cooperation for foreign partners which would be in place for many decades to come. Optimism was reinforced by those scientists who came to believe in the inevitability of a dramatic reduction in the surface area of the Arctic ice.

Secondly, the Arctic epic created plenty of room for speculations on the topic of the Russian ‘special path’, the harsh northern nature and the greatness of Russia when it comes to vast icy spaces within its power. Attaching magical sense to the Arctic by means of rhetoric was meant to replace real progress in terms of modernization of the country, among other things.

This approach was rocked firstly by the stabilization and then the decline in hydrocarbon prices from 2008-2015 as well as the Western sanctions introduced in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, Moscow has already convinced itself of its ‘Arctic mission’. Moreover, apart from governmental officials and senior executives of state-owned oil and gas companies, other, perhaps more influential players – Russian generals – have shown interest in the region. Thus, the purely bureaucratic idea of applying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the Arctic Ocean sweeping the Russian Arctic prairie has transformed into the policy of bolstering troops in the Arctic.

Beneficiaries of the militarization of the Arctic

The establishment of units of the armed forces and FSB (the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation), capable of carrying out operations in polar regions was envisaged by the Security Council in ‘The Foundations of the Russian Federation’s State Policy in the Arctic Until 2020 and Beyond’. That being said, the Northern Fleet has been based at the Barents Sea for many decades, which renders any special Arctic forces simply unnecessary. Still, the implementation of these intentions has begun, raising concerns among other Northern states.

Flights of strategic aircraft outside the polar circle resumed in 2012. In 2014, Russian paratroopers practiced landing on the New Siberian Islands where the military base, abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was restored in the same year, too. And by 2015, a separate (Arctic) motorized rifle brigade was deployed in the Murmansk region.

Two major problems are typical of any northern military base – the huge and often unjustified costs of maintenance and alcoholism, which is rife there. However, any northern base means a considerable pay rise and other material bonuses, accelerated career progression, since one year’s service there is counted as two, the overstatement of absolutely all cost estimates, the rapid deterioration of equipment and facilities, which allows generals to request allocations of additional funds. In general, the lion’s share of the funds and time under the Arctic conditions are spent solely on sustaining such a base and to no extent on the fulfillment of any military operations.

As stems from the above, the military who receive funds for the protection of the Arctic from the non-existent enemy is the main beneficiary. The Federal Agency for Special Construction (Spetsstroy) which designs, builds and repairs all the military facilities in the country and which has a tendency to write off costs due to the climate is yet another beneficiary.

In addition, turning the Arctic into a hub of increased activity for the military and FSB which provides the coastal and border guard means an extension of their control over any economic activity unrelated to major extractive enterprises. The territory also includes the Northern Sea Route which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait. Its international commercial prospects are vague but it undoubtedly constitutes an asset according to the logic of Russian bureaucrats.

The FSB formally established special frontier zones in the Arctic regions of Russia back in 2006. However, in practice, the regime of these zones which demands a special permit for citizens and companies to move or carry out economic activity there has started to be fully observed only recently.

Thus, it is precisely security officials who naturally enjoy the merits of militarization of the Russian Arctic. However, behind their economic and bureaucratic interests along with the complete absence of real benefit, a far more dangerous game à la Dr. Strangelove is playing out.

The logic of a nuclear war

Soviet military presence in the Arctic has long been governed by the one factor – nuclear weapons. The Northern Fleet ensured that operations of nuclear submarines playing hide and seek under the ice vying for an opportunity to launch ballistic missiles at any time took place whereas strategic bombers were flying over the North Pole to the shores of the USA. A network of military facilities including the nuclear testing base on the Novaya Zemlya in situ until now was created with all this in mind.

The lack of any real enemy today (and a war over the Lomonosov Ridge is hardly possible after all) under the conditions of aggravated problems in terms of the Russian budget will sooner or later pose a question about the expedience of an expensive and senseless Arctic military undertaking. However, security officials have one creep hole to utilize against the backdrop of conflict relations between Russia and the West – the use of the Arctic for nuclear deterrence again.

Bombers play a minor role here; new strategic submarines ‘Borei’, for which waters of the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk are the main areas of maneuvers, have been introduced into service by Russia since 2013. Of course, the Northern Fleet can exercise the defense of Norilsk but it is the support of these submarines that will perhaps soon become the main motif of the entire Arctic military epic.

It is noteworthy that today’s Russian political leadership is seriously considering the possibility of a nuclear war. Huge lobbying potential appears for generals accordingly. And even though the number of troops deployed in the Arctic is relatively insignificant, disproportionately high expenditures on them will become a mainstay in the budget; the nuclear deterrence obliges. At the same time, the effectiveness of such a deterrent simply cannot be verified. It means that even new Russian authorities will find it extremely difficult to alter this logic whereas, with such an approach, the military in the tundra and the Arctic seas can expect an expeditious career, public recognition as heroes and minimal real responsibility for many years to come.

And it is not a caricature dictator or general who decides to wage war against the entire world from the Arctic Ocean that is the main risk here in the least, but technical failure: aircraft, ships and submarines suffer distress sometimes. Thus, the militarization of the Arctic does pose a threat to Russian tax-payers, soldiers and officers.

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