Russian military seeks to outmuscle US in Arctic6 min read . Updated: 25 May 2021, 07:00 PM IST
- For Moscow it is the last geopolitical battleground where it holds the advantage over Washington and Beijing
Last year, on one of the northernmost air bases in the world, Russia’s military laid the final stretch of reinforced concrete on a runway to make it long enough to handle modern jet fighters and strategic bombers.
The finishing touches to Nagurskoye Airbase, located on a largely ice-locked archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, are turning a once-abandoned staging point for Soviet aircraft into one of Russia’s most advanced military outposts. It is one in a string of new and refurbished bases meant to service the Kremlin’s ambitions in the resource-rich Arctic.
Those bases were combined to form a new military district in January under the command of the Northern Fleet, Russia’s foremost Arctic naval force. The fleet has its headquarters here on the Kola Bay, near the Arctic city of Murmansk, 800 miles south of Nagurskoye.
Russia’s MiG-31 war planes have been landing in Nagurskoye since last year, and the new military district is receiving its own fleet of Su-34 fighter-bombers.
The goal is to project Russian power in a region where Washington is lagging. An aircraft taking off from Nagurskoye could reach the U.S.’s northernmost military base, in Thule, Greenland, in under an hour, and New York in around two hours.
“Russia is working to use the Arctic to regain its great power status and in doing so is becoming much more of a potential threat than it has been in decades," said Rebecca Pincus, an expert on the Arctic at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
As polar ice recedes, oil and gas reserves—as well as new sea routes—have become more accessible, and Moscow has moved to consolidate control over a region it sees as vital to Russia’s economic future. For Moscow, it is the last geopolitical battleground where it holds the advantage against Washington and Beijing, both of which are trying to expand there.
Under President Vladimir Putin, the military has become an indispensable tool of foreign policy. In the Arctic, which is fraught with territorial and legal disputes, the armed forces are working to push the boundaries of Russian control. With Russia’s western Siberian oil fields projected to decline in coming years, Moscow is looking to the Arctic as a source of new hydrocarbons.
The Northern Fleet said in 2019 it had discovered five new islands amid melting ice in the Kara Sea, where Moscow has increasingly been exploring for oil, and had claimed them for Russia.
The military has renovated other airfields across Russia’s northern coast and deployed S-400 air defense systems and state-of-the-art radar to complicate potential advances from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. In the Kola Bay, the Northern Fleet’s new class of nuclear submarines is meant to ensure that Moscow maintains an advantage underwater. New military icebreakers, potentially armed with cruise missiles, will soon be traversing Arctic waters.
“Competition is growing between the world’s strongest countries for access to resources in the Arctic Ocean and transit routes," Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in April. “Thanks to measures taken, the Northern Fleet is able to effectively withstand the challenges and threats Russia is facing in the Arctic."
Mr. Shoigu said last year that the armed forces had embarked on expeditions to collect geological evidence to support Moscow’s claims to underwater territory expected to hold oil and gas reserves. It is up to the United Nations to decide whether the underwater structure, the Lomonosov Ridge, is part of Russia, Denmark or Canada.
“Russia clearly sees these reserves as infrastructure critical to their national security," said retired Gen. Charles Jacoby, former commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command.
The U.S. has recalculated its own Arctic strategy, pushing plans to put more fifth-generation fighters in Alaska than anywhere else in the country, in an effort to overwhelm the threat from Russia’s antiaircraft defenses.
Former President Donald Trump ordered a fleet of military-grade icebreakers to be completed by 2029 and at least two international basing locations be identified for the vessels.
During the Cold War, Washington made contingency plans for Soviet planes coming over the North Pole to bomb the U.S., but later refocused attention elsewhere. When Mr. Putin came to power in 2000, the Kursk disaster, in which 118 sailors died when a submarine exploded in the icy Barents Sea, came to symbolize the decay of Russia’s military might.
However, with Russia having funneled billions of dollars into its armed forces since 2010, the U.S. is working to catch up.
The Kola Bay, which lies above the Arctic Circle, houses closed military cities as well as the Northern Fleet’s submarines and specialized docks for ship repairs. Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, stands in the waters awaiting renovations.
The fleet received this year the first of five Yasen-M nuclear-powered submarines, armed with cruise missiles, according to Russian Defense Ministry officials. Those vessels are expected to give Russian pilots better stealth capabilities with a more detailed view of the North Atlantic and Arctic seabeds.
For Russia, the control of growing sea traffic in Arctic waters is a national-security priority, and its new military-grade icebreakers, together with its fleet of Su-34 fighter-bombers, are meant to keep watch over a planned new global shipping route.
Moscow sees those waters, which it has named the Northern Sea Route, as a shipping route connecting future Arctic oil and gas fields with consumers that will cut the time it takes to travel between Asia and Europe by around half. More than 1,000 ships plied the waters last year with liquefied natural gas or cargo, 25% more vessels than in 2019.
Late last year, standing aboard a nearly 500-foot long nuclear-powered icebreaker that Moscow has touted as the biggest in the world—and with the ability to cut through 10 feet of ice—Mr. Putin said Russia’s continued superiority in the Arctic depends on its ability to control the waterways of the far north.
Mr. Putin has said the sea route lies in Russia’s waters and therefore the Kremlin should be able to regulate its traffic, if necessary by force. The U.S. and China, however, say the waters are international and should be open to all.
This has set the stage for a potential conflict with China, which has participated in multibillion-dollar gas development projects in Russia’s Arctic. Beijing is interested in the Northern Sea Route as an alternative to shipping lanes in the politically fraught South China Sea.
The Kremlin worries that China, which has described itself a “near Arctic nation," may encroach on its interests. Beijing plans to build its own nuclear icebreakers that could navigate the Northern Sea Route, potentially without Russian permission.
Russia has taken steps to prevent the Chinese from gaining too deep a foothold, such as scuttling their plans to construct a deep-water port in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, according to people with knowledge of the situation.
“Russia will try to keep a balance between having Chinese on board but without sacrificing its own rights and sovereignty in the Arctic," said Vasily Kashin, an expert on Russia-China ties at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “And it’s their military, which still outstrips Beijing in the region, that they hope will guarantee that balance in the future."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!