In the Arctic race, the Russians are in the lead

By Dale R. Herspring

For many years it has been believed that the Arctic has vast natural resources, but distances and especially the cold have prevented nations from operating there.

Now, however, the polar icecap is melting, and Russia has decided to solidify its presence in the northern parts of the Arctic. Russian military personnel are being sent there to make it clear that the Kremlin is in the north to stay.

On July 1, 2011, Russia’s defense minister said he planed to create two special brigades for the Arctic. The Russians already have had considerable experience in the Arctic.  They previously had airbases there and they used icebreakers to open passages for ships to sail through. However, the program collapsed along with the Soviet Union. 

By the middle of 2012, the Russians had begun serious preparations to reoccupy the abandoned airfields in the region.

Furthermore, senior Russian naval officers made clear that while the infantry forces would be light (i.e. the Marines), Russian would bring in ships and planes to guarantee sovereignty over the region.

Russia has emphasized the importance of having a series of bases along its north in order to keep the northern sea route open. The Russians have in mind waters stretching from Murmansk in the west along their northern coast to the Barents Sea near Alaska. To put it mildly, that is a major undertaking. 

It is hard to comprehend how cold the weather is in the north.  I lived in Moscow for a couple of years and I saw temperatures as low as -40 Fahrenheit.  Of the 100 coldest cities in the world, 85 of them are in Russia.

Living and working that far north is expensive. One plan called for Russia to spend 1.3 trillion rubles ($44 billion) on projects in the north.  Every-thing from food to equipment must be brought in by air or sea. Plans call for some brigades to be air mobile — able to be quickly moved from their home base to anywhere in the Arctic. Also, personnel will have special uniforms and be trained to survive extreme cold.

The weather also places extreme demands on equipment. Off-road vehicles will be needed, and buildings will have to be built out of special materials. 

Not surprisingly, some in NATO have reacted negatively to seeing an area on its periphery being armed. It makes the British, Norwegians and the Finns (who are not part of NATO) nervous.  Russians argue that its troops are not there to threaten anyone. Their task is just to keep the northern sea route open and ensure Russia’s rights to natural resources. The Russians have a point about the natural resources; China, India, Brazil, Iran and others have claimed the right to develop parts of the region.

Preparations for this operation have been moving ahead.  By last October, Marines from Russia’s Northern Fleet made the first landing on an island called Kotelny. Last summer the Defense Ministry announced that the airfields were ready and that transport planes would soon be landing there.

Last month, the Russians sent naval ships, led by the heavy cruiser, Peter the Great, to the north. They not only “showed the flag,” they also brought supplies and personnel needed to rebuild the air field. 

The rationale for Moscow’s push is questionable. One Rus-sian military analyst, Aleksandr Golts, wrote that “there is no reason to believe that Russia will get rich from the consequences of global warming.  The higher temperatures will also cause the permafrost to melt, turning the northern coastline into an icy slush several kilometers deep and make it impossible to build the infrastructure need to serve the northern sea route or to support the structures required to extract the region’s oil and gas.”

The United Nations’ rule on Law of the Sea requires Russia to permit ships of all nations to use this route. So why all the hurry and expense to open up the north?  The best answer I can come up with is that Russian President Vladimir Putin decided it is worth it and the military is just following orders.

Neither the United States nor Canada has done much to develop the far north. Despite Moscow’s building spree, I suspect our advanced nuclear submarines will continue to cruise under polar ice. Thus, what’s going on appears to be much ado about nothing.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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