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Russia’s Arctic Militarization: A Reality Check

Russia is not looking to carve up the circumpolar North and the region is not in the midst of an arms race, writes Adam Lajeunesse and P. Whitney Lackenbauer.

Written by Adam Lajeunesse, Whitney Lackenbauer Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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This tracked transport vehicle is among the new equipment being tested by the Russian military in the Arctic.Ministry of defence of the Russian Federation

In a speech to the FSB (the successor to the old KGB) in February, Russian president Vladimir Putin called for further reinforcement of the Arctic border. Capping a week of press reporting on Moscow’s militarization of the Arctic (from organizations like the National Post, BBC, the Daily Star and Foreign Policy), Russia seems to be – as the National Post phrased it – “on the march in the Arctic.”

New airbases, icebreakers, ground forces, missiles and the like would seem to support this widely held concern over Russia’s Arctic militarization. Moscow has built or refurbished various facilities along its Arctic coast and on many of its northernmost islands, many of which are already defended by advanced air defense systems. Russia has also announced the establishment of Arctic brigades in the area while increasing its naval activity.

In spite of this Arctic sabre rattling, it is important to keep this capability in perspective. Few of these new Russian capabilities can actually be projected beyond the Russian Arctic. Russia’s strategic bomber flights into the region are flown from bases to the south and, if Russia were to redeploy its Arctic-based ground forces for offensive action, those troops would also have to be redeployed through larger bases – also in the south. Its new anti-air capabilities are local-area defenses and no threat to allied aircraft operating away from Russia’s northern coasts.

Most of these capabilities have only defensive application and often serve a dual purpose in supporting other government objectives, such as enabling resource development, supporting shipping along the Northern Sea Route, or contributing to Russia’s broader search and rescue capability. In fact, none of these developments present a real threat to Canada or the North American Arctic.

This may be of little comfort to our European allies, who look on with concern at Russian exercises in the Barents Sea, close to Norway. However, the threat to the European Arctic – as real as it is – has not been materially increased by the establishment of these new defense facilities, the new Arctic brigades or the construction of more icebreakers.

Since the Cold War, the importance of Russia’s military presence in the Arctic has revolved around its ability to project power from its bases to areas outside the region – into the North Atlantic or Scandinavia, for instance. As such, the expansion of Russia’s Arctic capabilities should only be of concern to the extent that they enable the projection of Russian power.

Very little of this Arctic “reinforcement” gives Russia any kind of new power projection capability. Its new icebreakers have no combat capability, its new missile systems are short-range air defense weapons, and its new bases are more suited to search and rescue and surveillance of its own territory than as jumping-off points for a foreign invasion. The new Arctic brigades pose no more threat to other Arctic countries than forces stationed elsewhere in Russia.

The prospect of an Arctic conflict is minimal. Canada, Russia and the other Arctic states are in general agreement over who owns the hydrocarbon resources in the offshore region, while the remote extremities of continental shelves in the central Arctic Ocean, which might (or might not) hold anything of economic value, are being divided up according to universally accepted rules laid down in international law.

Arctic hysteria should be put in its place. Russia is not looking to carve up the region, there is no scramble for resources, and the circumpolar North is not in the midst of an arms race.

None of this is meant to suggest that Putin’s Russia is not a threat to global security and stability. From Ukraine to Syria, the Russian military is destabilizing entire regions and purposefully murdering civilians to achieve its policy objectives. It is precisely the severity of Russia’s actions and the reality of the danger it now presents to Canada and her NATO allies that demands a level-headed analysis of Russian intentions and capabilities – and where we need to worry about Russia truly being aggressive next.

Whatever Putin’s global intentions may be, the vague but provocative forecasts of Russian military adventurism in the Arctic are simply unrealistic. They also tend to overstate Russia’s conventional expeditionary capabilities in the region, playing into Putin’s hands as he attempts to depict his country as an Arctic hegemon.

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