The Russian Militarization of the Arctic: the Responsibility of NATO to Counter Russian Aggression

by Jonathan Deemer
Published with Permission

Problem Statement:

Since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian Presidency, the Russian Federation has pursued an aggressive policy of militarization of the Arctic. Not only is Russia revamping Soviet-era bases near the Finnish border and in northern Siberia, it is also constructing 1 new bases off the Russian mainland extending to Aleksandra Island (the northernmost island of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago) and Sredny Ostrov. It is no coincidence that the U.S. Geological Survey has detected an estimated 726 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits and 30 billion barrels of oil in the Amerasian and West Siberian Basins of the Arctic Circle, representing 13% of the globe’s oil and 30% of its natural gas reserves.2, 3 With a warming global climate making Arctic drilling and extraction activities ever more possible, the Russian militarization of the Arctic is an effort to legitimize a claim to the wealth of untapped resources north of the 66th parallel.

This presents a particular problem to U.S. interests abroad because of the nature of Russia’s international clout. In the words of U.S. Senator John McCain, Russia functions mainly as “a gas station masquerading as country.” Though Russia has displayed willingness to use hard power in campaigns in Georgia and eastern Ukraine, Russia’s true strength come from its natural resources, namely oil and gas. In fact, in 2016, Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading producer of oil and gas.4 It weaponizes these resources and uses them as a dangerous tool of leverage. For example, Western Europe’s ever-present political tension with Russia is underscored by the fact that Russia supplied the EU with 40% of its 2016 natural gas imports.5 One could argue that such a trade dependency has played a role in Russia’s uncontested annexation of Crimea. Should Russia confiscate these Arctic resources, Russia will have an even greater capacity to foment insurrection and advance Russian interests worldwide, interests which are explicitly contradictory to U.S. and Western interests of freedom and democracy.

Policy Proposal:

At present, NATO and the United States lack a well-developed strategy to address and counter Russian aggression in the Arctic. Traditionally, and understandably, NATO forces have amassed in Eastern European Russian-border states pursuant to geopolitical necessity. The headquarters of both U.S. European and African Commands are located in southern Germany, with U.S. plans to construct new bases in northern Germany to expand its presence. Instead of housing more troops in Western European countries with larger militaries and stronger ties to the West, NATO and the United States should instead pursue a renewed strategy of containment, constructing military installations in two specific regions: northern Norway and northwestern Alaska.

Expanding on a January 2017 reshuffling of troops that led to 300 U.S. Marines being stationed at Vaernes Air Base, NATO should construct bases in the Norwegian states of Nordland, Troms, and Finnmark. At the same time, military installations in the Northwest Arctic, North Slope, and Kotzebue Sound would provide a NATO presence at the mouth of the Northern Sea Route. An already-established Canadian and Danish military presence on the opposite side of the Arctic and in Greenland would complete this strategy of containment. Russia would find itself with NATO forces to the west in Norway, the east in Alaska, and to the north across the Arctic. Any Russian territorial claims could be legitimately disputed and Russia would largely be limited to resources found on the Russian mainland, maintaining the global power equilibrium and advancing U.S. interests abroad.

Challenges of Implementation:

Our reality is world of scarce and finite resources. Therefore, any diversion of NATO troops to pursue such a strategy would inevitably leave NATO less formidable elsewhere, namely in Western Europe. It is, then, wise to be cautious. Still, a number of things must be considered when analyzing the viability of this policy. First, the suggested action is responsive—not preemptive. This means that, in order for NATO to redirect resources to the Arctic, Russia must have had to do so first. It is common knowledge that the mantra of NATO is “an attack on one is an attack on all”. Though brash at times, Russian foreign policy and military intervention is not random or naive. Russia knows it cannot match U.S. military hard power, let alone the full force of NATO. Should Russia decide to pursue a military response to this strategy, it would inexorably be met with overwhelming force. Even when it utilizes its military, Russian action must meet prerequisites: it must be justifiable (mistreatment of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine) and the target country must not identify strongly with the West (Georgia, Ukraine, etc). Leaving Western Europe more vulnerable to direct Russian attack, for lack of a better term, calls Russia’s bluff.

Finally, in the summer of 2017, the Russian budget for Arctic exploration and development underwent drastic changes. The budget was slashed from ₽209 billion to ₽12 billion, even as the scope of the program was extended until only 2025. One might be tempted6 to think that this is representative of a Russian retraction from the Arctic. However, this is not so. Over half the new budget will be spent on an ice-class drifting platform for Arctic research, and in addition to the 12 billion rubles provided by the Ministry of Economic Development, the Ministry of Defense will also be contributing ₽34 billion, according to RBC.7 This action is nothing more than a response to the effect of sanctions and lowered oil prices on the Russian economy.

1 Reevell, Patrick. “Russia flaunts Arctic expansion with new military bases” ABC News . Apr. 29, 2017.

2 Houseknecht, D.W., Bird, K.J., and Garrity, C.P., “Assessment of undiscovered petroleum resources of the Amerasia Basin Petroleum Province:
U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report” U.S. Geological Survey, 16 Nov. 2012.

3 Klett, T.R., “Assessment of undiscovered oil and gas resources of the West Siberian Basin Province” U.S. Geological Survey . 15 June 2011.

4 “Russia.” BP Global , 1 Jan. 2017.

5 Mazneva, Elena. “Putin’s Russia Seen Domination European Gas for Two Decades.” Bloomberg Markets , 28 Feb. 2017.

6 Staalesen, Atle.”Russia makes new big cuts in Arctic spending” The Independent Barents Observer . July 5, 2017.

7 Podobedova, Lyudmila. “ Правительство задумалось о сокращении расходов на Арктику в 17 раз” RBC Information Systems . June 30, 2017