The effects of climate change are opening up new areas of geopolitical and geoeconomic competition. While Russia has implemented an aggressive strategy in the Arctic since 2008, other Arctic states have only rethought their military strategies in the region in recent years. Their point of view is to balance the military presence of the Kremlin. NATO, in its current strategic document of 2010, identifies climate change as a security threat, but completely excludes the Arctic region from strategic areas of the Alliance. This explains why it has enjoyed only limited room for maneuver and so far had only limited influence on the direction of events in the Arctic Sea over the past decade.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg convened a group of experts who created a policy document called “NATO 2023”. Published in November 2020, he mentions that the next strategic document of the Atlantic alliance cannot help but mention the Arctic as one of the strategically relevant areas for the years to come. It takes into consideration the Russian military position and the challenges this poses for the Arctic member states of NATO. Russia’s strategic posture in the Arctic, torn between encirclement and trade routes, can be understood by normalizing the region and placing it within the larger Russian geostrategic framework. The Kremlin considers the Arctic not only on the same level as other theaters in military-operational terms. It also considers the Arctic Area of the Russian Federation (AZRF) as an area linked to the Baltic in the west and the Pacific in the east, from a geostrategic and geoeconomic point of view.
Unsurprisingly, the renewal and strengthening of Moscow’s military assets began between 2008 and 2010, when Russia’s foreign policy abruptly changed. It is becoming much more aggressive and hostile towards the Euro-Atlantic bloc. The latter, in a process that lasted nearly twenty years of expansion from the 1990s, built within the institutions of NATO, or the European Union, or both, cut off many parts of the former Soviet bloc. It reduced both the residual economic and political influence that Russia wielded through the Warsaw Pact, while simultaneously moving closer to its borders.
For Russia, a regional power, this move was seen as a threat and the country intervened not as a revisionist power, but in an attempt to maintain the status quo. Therefore, Moscow, inside the Arctic Theater, has determined climate change, and not political issues, as the real danger that is gradually exposing its northern border to the threat of expansion of other states belonging to it. the Euro-Atlantic area to block. Among the Five States with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean, only Russia is not a member of NATO. As a result, Moscow has extended its military capabilities with a distinctly defensive perspective, by deploying forces in the AZRF to achieve two priority objectives. One is the safeguarding of the defense perimeter of the Kola Peninsula. The other exercises control over the disputed Northern Sea Route (NSR), a trade route with enormous economic potential.
The deployment of Russian forces has developed in accordance with the above-mentioned strategic objectives. Conventional forces have been reinforced and transport infrastructure and military bases erected. In particular, in 2015, two Arctic Brigades were formed, consisting of Russian Army motorized infantry trained and equipped to conduct operations in the Arctic theater, supplemented by special forces units. The brigades were tasked with protecting the Russian Arctic coast, AZRF structures and infrastructure. The Northern Fleet began modernizing the few obsolete units inherited from the Cold War in the late 2000s. This mainly added new icebreakers and modernized pre-existing units by supplying Orlan-10, tested Russian-made drones. to withstand extreme weather conditions.
The Northern Fleet has resumed a greater operational presence since 2015, the year of the publication of the new Russian Maritime Doctrine. From January 2021, the Northern Fleet assumed the status of Military District, with the establishment of the Strategic Command, which brings together the units and structures of the North Military district and those of the Fleet, and is subject only to the authority of the State of Greater Moscow. Thus, the Kremlin increased its military presence in the Arctic but within the limits of an extended area and with units technologically and operationally framed like defensive. In addition, the geographical proximity of the deployed forces and the number of bases in the Kola Peninsula are consistent with Moscow’s defensive orientation towards the other Arctic states.
From the analysis of Russian military forces in the Arctic, certain geostrategic and geopolitical objectives of the Kremlin in the region emerge clearly. First, the Arctic is an integral part of the Grand Kremlin Strategy and not a full-fledged theater. Second, the clearly defensive posture and the deployment of Russian military forces make the Arctic a theater both far from easy escalation and close to Moscow’s geostrategic targets. These are generally the defenses of a northern border whose Russian coast contrasts with the access of NATO member states.
There is in particular the Kola Peninsula, a priority because of the nuclear arsenal stationed there. Third, the economic potential of the NSR and the increasing access to this route for Sino-European trade makes full control of Moscow geoeconomically relevant. Therefore, the Arctic states should keep in mind the role and geopolitical interests of Russia in the region during the process of implementing their strategies. This will prevent Russia from aggressively defending its northern borders, especially with a view to a future where the Arctic will be more navigable. The presence of major players in the region will increase economic interests and the grounds for conflict. Yet even though episodes of tension may be more frequent in the short to medium term, the outbreak of armed conflict in the Arctic remains highly unlikely.