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Russia and the Arctic: an end to cooperation?

For the past five years the Arctic region has enjoyed a high level of cooperation, not least because Russia has opted for collaboration with its Arctic neighbours. However, geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West have raised questions regarding the sustainability of that cooperation. The recent increase in Russia’s military activities in the Arctic have raised concerns over whether the Arctic can continue to be a ‘zone of peace and cooperation’ in the foreseeable future.


Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic—a concern for the transatlantic community?

The Arctic is one of Russia’s top national security priorities. In 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Arctic was ‘a concentration of practically all aspects of national security—military, political, economic, technological, environmental and that of resources’. 

Although it has pursued a strategy of cooperation in the region, Russia’s recent increase in military activities is viewed with concern by the transatlantic community. In 2012, large surface ships belonging to Russia's Northern Fleet resumed long-distance voyages, even reaching the North Atlantic seaboard of the United States. Russian military exercises in the Arctic region have also intensified, with the most recent, in March 2015, featuring up to 40 000 troops and more than 55 ships and submarines. 

Russia is modernizing the Northern Fleet’s strategic nuclear submarines, and the first Borei-class submarine Yury Dolgoruky joined the fleet in 2013. In January 2015 Russia established a new Arctic brigade in Alakkurti, located just 60 kilometres from the Finnish border. By 2016 another brigade will be established on the Yamal peninsula. 

Military infrastructure is also being restored in the Arctic. Thirteen airfields, one air force test range and ten radar sites and direction centres will be opened in the coming years. In December 2014 significant changes to the regional military command were introduced, including the establishment of ‘North’, the joint strategic command on the basis of the Northern Fleet. 

Russia facing new security challenges in the region 

Like other Arctic states Russia has ruled out the possibility of interstate conflict in the region, and it has underlined that there are no problems in the Arctic that would require ‘military solutions’. On the contrary, the Russian Government has emphasized the importance of ensuring that the Arctic continues to be a ‘zone of peace and stability’. If there is no reason for interstate conflict, what then accounts for the increase of Russian military capabilities in the region? 

Russia is facing new security challenges in the region due to climate change. Receding ice is opening up Russia’s northern borders, increasing the risk of illegal border crossing, migration, smuggling and terrorist attacks. Rising levels of economic activity, including energy resource development and shipping, are raising the risks of emergency situations occurring. 

Considerable emphasis is placed on the protection of sovereign rights in the Russian Arctic strategy. Military forces play an important role in demonstrating and ensuring Russia’s sovereignty, particularly through guarding, patrolling, supervising and controlling the Arctic territories. The voyage of the Pyotr Velikiy battlecruiser through the Barents, Kara and Laptev seas in 2012 is a case in point. 

Russia’s Arctic military capabilities and infrastructure provide Russia with strategic balance in relation to the USA and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Notably since NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe, nuclear deterrence has gained increased significance in Russia’s strategic planning. Nuclear forces are now seen as the primary guarantee of Russia’s security and military balance with NATO. The upgrades to the strategic submarine fleet and the re-opening of airfields and radar sites in the Arctic are part of this guarantee. 

Thus, Russia’s recent military build-up in the Arctic has little to do with the Arctic per se but should be seen as a part of a broader military strategy and a component of Russia’s rivalry with NATO in general and the USA in particular. In the positive regional atmosphere of the past decade, the fact that the Arctic was home to a key part of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces was seen as a separate issue in Arctic cooperation with the transatlantic community. A key question today for the Arctic states is whether this distinction will persist in a climate of international confrontation, suspicion and threat between Russia and the West. 


Arctic cooperation continues despite the Ukrainian crisis 

To date, cooperation within the Arctic Council has continued despite the Ukrainian crisis. However, rather than increasing cooperation, efforts within the Arctic Council are mostly being concentrated on minimizing spillover from Ukraine into Arctic relations and trying to consolidate past achievements. 

In April 2015 the USA will assume the Arctic Council chairmanship. It seems likely that the problematic bilateral relationship between Russia and the USA will cause difficulties within the Arctic Council. Security cooperation within the region is likely to be a key issue, as this has become more problematic due to the Ukraine crisis.

The Arctic does not have an institution dedicated to hard security and the informal cooperation that has emerged in recent years has been damaged by developments in Ukraine. For instance, the annual meetings of the chiefs of staff of the Arctic states, the only circumpolar platform for discussing security cooperation, were cancelled in 2014. It is unclear whether the 2015 meeting will take place. Important confidence-building measures, such as bilateral and multilateral military exercises, have also been suspended for an indefinite period. 

Moreover, Russia’s actions in Ukraine and its military build-up in the Arctic region have led to important shifts in regional security alliances which affect the Arctic, most notably the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. In February Sweden called for elevated defence cooperation in NORDEFCO to boost air and sea cooperation and renew the early warning systems in the Arctic region. 


The need for dialogue with Russia 

So far, Russia has been a responsible Arctic player. Despite the deterioration in relations with many of the Arctic nations as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Russia has not yet altered its plans to support the creation of common ‘rules of the game’ in the Arctic. Although Russia’s military investments and activities are increasing in the Arctic, they are mostly related to the broader security context. 

The crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s growing confrontation with the West have started a broader spiral of insecurity that has begun to spillover to the Arctic. The suspension of security dialogue between the Arctic states increases the risk of misperceptions and misinterpretations of military activities in the region. It might not immediately result in an arms race or armed conflict in the region but it could lead to increased tension. 

In order to avoid further escalation of security concerns in the Arctic region, it is necessary to continue engagement with Russia and find new ways of collaborating on hard security as current mechanisms have proved ineffective in the face of the crisis in Ukraine. 

It is also important to keep working on soft security issues within the Arctic Council, such as search and rescue. Due to increased human activity in the region, it is only a matter of time until there will be a need for joint search and rescue in the Arctic. Not having the mechanism to coordinate it might result in significant damage to the fragile Arctic environment.