It was late morning on August 12th, 2000, when a fire broke out onboard the Russian submarine Kursk – the pride of the Russian Northern Fleet – while participating in an exercise under the Barents Sea. The submarine was rocked by a series of explosions, and the Kursk settled on the sea floor. The Russian Navy, with cooperation from Norwegian and British divers and mini-submarines, began rescue attempts to save the 23 sailors who had apparently survived the sinking and were trapped in a watertight compartment. However, these attempts ended nine days later when rescue divers were finally able to enter the hull and found the entire submarine flooded.
News of the sinking turned public sentiment strongly against the Russian government, and particularly against President Putin, who had at that point only been in office for eight months. Putin was passionately criticized for his “casual approach” to the disaster. In response, the president blamed Russian shortcomings on the media itself. At a meeting with the families of the Kursk sailors, the president declared that the media “… are liars. The television people who have been destroying the state for 10 years. They have been thieving money and buying up absolutely everything.”
The Kursk disaster was symbolic of Russia’s military decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union, falling from one of the world’s two superpowers to simply being “Upper Volta with missiles.” The Kursk incident, along with the ongoing challenges in the Chechen war, was a significant impetus for the Russian government to fight the “disintegration” of the military. However, serious reform and rearmament of the Russian navy would have to wait until 2007, when increasing oil revenues gave Moscow the ability to finance its military build-up.
As part of this military growth, Russia has embarked on major Arctic military expansions in the past several years, including expanding the northern fleet, reopening or building new naval and air force bases, establishing a pair of Arctic Brigades, increasing submarine patrols, and reorganizing the military structure to create an Arctic Command. Alongside this military buildup, the Russian government has engaged in deliberate provocation of its Arctic neighbors, such as bomber overflights approaching or even straying across foreign borders, or the recent surprise visit by Dmitri Rogozin – Deputy Prime minister in charge of the defense industry and head of Russia’s Arctic Commission – to Norwegian-administered Svalbard, in violation of a travel ban imposed by Oslo on Russian officials who have been connected to the conflict in Ukraine.
Although many commentators accuse Russia of preparing to use military force to resolve the ongoing jurisdictional dispute with its northern neighbors (particularly Canada and Denmark/Greenland) over rights to the sea floor resources in the High Arctic (outside of each county’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone), Russian military activities in the Arctic actually have very little to do with the controlling the “donut hole,” as the central Arctic Ocean is known. The Russian Federation’s buildup has two primary goals: to strengthen Moscow’s strategic deterrence position, and improve its capacity to monitor, defend, and operate in its own sovereign Arctic territory.
Long before the specter of climate change brought commercial interests north to the Arctic, the region was a central military theater, particularly for nuclear deterrence forces. Because the shortest distance between the former Soviet Union and the United States is over the North Pole, Soviet ballistic missiles were concentrated in the far north, where they remain today. Notably, the Kola Peninsula still has six Russian Missile Force bases, as well as the home ports for Russia’s Northern Fleet. The Northern Fleet is responsible for defending Russia’s Arctic coastline, but its primary mission is strategic defense, since the Northern Fleet is the only part of the Russian navy with easy access to the open ocean (Russia’s other fleets are forced to pass close to NATO countries at choke points or are easily monitored from Japan). The Arctic is also an excellent location for submarines to escape detection while remaining in firing position, due to the ice cover and shallow water.
All this is to say that the Arctic Ocean is a vital strategic location for the Russian Federation. The upturn in military developments throughout northern Russia should be understood as attempts to bolster Russia’s strategic forces, either by improving their defenses or demonstrating that they provide a credible threat (such as Russia’s increased bomber flights in the Arctic, especially towards North America). To a certain degree this increase in Arctic tensions is merely a geographic coincidence – the military buildup is driven by the same geographic logic that drove Cold War strategic developments, rather than the gradually-increasing use of the region and the resources found there. And the increased activity is driven more by tensions between Russia and the West over the conflict in Ukraine, not the (mostly small-scale) tensions in the Arctic.
At the same time, Russia is also developing more Arctic capabilities for generally peaceful purposes. The Arctic is a tremendously dangerous operating environment, and Russia – like all Arctic nations – relies on military forces to carry out otherwise non-military operations, because the armed forces have the structure and training to handle these risks. The Northern Sea Route runs for 3,000 miles (4,800 km) along the Siberian coast between the Barents and Bering Seas, a coast which lacks population centers or infrastructure. The government simply has limited supervisory capability in the region. Alongside the military buildup, Russia is increasing its coast guard presence in the region, building new ice-capable patrol craft, opening new Arctic command posts, and building as many as 20 bases along the Arctic coast. The new air and naval bases and Arctic-specific forces are also similarly more useful for controlling Russia’s sovereign territory, not seizing others’.
Increased domain awareness and operating capacity certainly has security implications, although these are largely defensive. But increased capabilities are also important for preventing criminal activity (although we may not always agree with what the Russian government considers a crime, such as “piracy”). But even more importantly, the Arctic military is required to provide search and rescue capabilities. Although the growth of shipping traffic on the Northern Sea Route has been anemic, the “tyranny of distance” in the Arctic makes even infrequent disasters especially challenging. The risk of a cruise ship running into trouble, similar to the sinking of the MS Explorer off the coast of Antarctica in 2007, means search and rescue operations have to be capable of saving large numbers of victims. And ships are far from the largest source of people at risk of disaster in the Arctic: the number of commercial transpolar flights has grown from only 402 in 2000 to more than 11,000 in 2012. Although airline disasters are rare, the sheer number of planes means it is only a matter of time before one goes missing over the Arctic.
The Kursk disaster was a nadir and a humiliation for Russia, as well as a personal humiliation for President Putin. The military buildup that followed in recent years has caused much concern in the West but an increased Russian military presence in the Arctic itself is not necessarily a threat to NATO or even the United States specifically. Russia has a right to monitor and defend its own territory, and provides a public good by doing so, preventing crime and providing assistance to those in need. On the other hand, the Arctic is wrapped up in deterrence considerations, with their innate security concerns, and the risks caused by belligerent Russian actions supporting their deterrence posture. In the end, the security concerns in the Arctic are being driven by developments outside of the region (particularly the conflict in Ukraine), rather than any particular polar issue.