Grand strategies and natural limitations in the Russian Arctic

ZOiS Spotlight 14/2019 by Nadja Douglas (10 April 2019)

Russia has expanded its military presence across the Arctic region, but with a focus on Franz Josef Land. © ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Foto

Every two years the International Arctic Forum takes place in Russia. This year, due to an increased number of participants, it was held in St Petersburg rather than Archangelsk as previously. According to the organisers, it is the biggest forum for joint discussions on the latest challenges and perspectives with regard to the development of the Arctic region.

In the eyes of the Russian leadership, the Russian Arctic region has regained its earlier significance not only from an economic and environmental point of view but also in terms of geostrategic and military objectives.

Much has happened in recent years. In 2014, a new Arctic joint strategic command based on the Northern Fleet was set up, military bases were reinstalled, airfields were opened, and border troops were posted to the region. Large-scale military exercises also resumed. More recently, Arctic brigades have been equipped with tank forces and Russia’s State Armament Programme for 2018–2027 has included the addition of new missile systems designed to reinforce the Arctic defence line. The expeditious nature of these efforts was made clear in late 2017, when Russian minister of defence Sergey Shoigu declared the process of building military infrastructure in the Arctic complete.

Officially, the military build-up is supposed to be defensive and geared towards the protection of oil, gas, and mineral resources along Russia’s Arctic sea coast. It is also aimed at allowing Rosatomflot, which maintains Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, to safeguard the Northeast Passage as well as equipment and infrastructure. A secondary task is to empower border troops, who also protect the coast and have a search-and-rescue function.

An Arctic show of force?

Some observers expect that Russia is planning to enhance regional military security by implementing one or more Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) zones in the Russian High North, similar to those in the Kaliningrad district. Such zones are supposed to prevent an adversary from crossing or occupying an area of land, sea, or air.

Russia has built new infrastructure and capabilities across the Arctic region, but with a focus on Franz Josef Land. This archipelago is located in the extreme north and is strategically important because it lies at the intersection of the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, and the Arctic Ocean, close to underwater hydrocarbon reserves.

In the last decade, the Russian government has begun to set out the strategic relevance of the Arctic region in several documents. Notable are the Russian State Policies on the Arctic of 2008, the Russian Arctic Strategy of 2013, and the new edition of the Russian Military Doctrine of 2014; all stipulate that Russian national interests must be defended in the Arctic.

In general, there is widespread consensus that the Arctic is a suitable place for military projection and a show of force. Yet, a major problem is the institutional vacuum and lack of channels for discussing Arctic security issues at the international level. The Arctic Council explicitly excludes debates on military questions, which is widely considered a reasonable stance.

Limiting factors

However, the notion that Russia’s intensification of military activity in its High North could result in a new level of militarisation and a land grab for polar territory currently appears overstated. This suggestion neglects Russia’s precarious economic situation, current budget restrictions (there was a severe cut in funding for Arctic infrastructure in the current budget cycle), and other missing capacities to project military power beyond the Russian Arctic region. Instead, private transport and energy companies are asked to invest there. But most Arctic projects are not yet profitable and depend on state funds, which makes them far from attractive for commercial investors.

Another factor impeding development in the Arctic is climate change. Melting permafrost is undermining infrastructure and could lead to the collapse of buildings and pipelines in the medium and long term. This would eventually render the military programme unsustainable if the supporting infrastructure could not be maintained.

No matter how many state resources Russia invests in the High North, they will be largely used for military purposes and thus will not benefit the local people, who live in extreme conditions. Moreover, these investments will come at the expense of much-needed social expenditures and civilian infrastructure in more populated Russian regions.

In conclusion, Russia’s pre-emptive manner of projecting military force in the Arctic is linked more to the internal than to the external dimension of Russian politics. It has to do with the important role the Arctic traditionally plays in Russia’s identity discourse. The Arctic remains of particular significance in Russia’s contemporary emotionally charged military-patriotic discourse.


Nadja Douglas is a researcher at ZOiS.