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Russia Is Tightening Its Control of the Arctic Region


As global attention is directed at tackling COVID-19, Russia has tightened its control of the Arctic region. About 53% of the Arctic coastline belongs to Russia. In 2015, Russia submitted to the United Nations a revised bid to claim an additional 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic sea shelf.

In response, the United States Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite issued a strong warning on December 2nd regarding Russia's growing presence in this increasingly important region.

Historically, the frigid Arctic region has been relatively free of geopolitical tensions between nations. However, in recent decades, climate warming and technological advancement have opened up the Arctic region.

As a result, Russia, Canada, Iceland, the United States, Denmark (Greenland), Sweden, and Norway are competing for influence. However, none has been more determined to control the region than Russia, and it is achieving its goal mostly with icebreakers vessels.

The Arctic Region Map

The Arctic Region Map

Russia's Military Presence in the Arctic Region

During the Cold War era, the USSR made tremendous gains in militarizing the Arctic. However, the region was mostly inaccessible due to heavy sea ice and technological constraints. Fortunately, in recent years, climate warming and technological advancement have allowed Russia to improve on what the Soviet Union built.

In recent years, Russia used its unique fleet of icebreaker ships to renovate Soviet-era airstrips, radar facilities, and other military bases at various Arctic locations.

Russia has built over 475 military sites, spanning from its western boundary with NATO to the Bering Strait in the east.

In January 2017, Russia deployed a new radar array on the remote Wrangel Island. The radar's primary purpose is to control civilian air traffic and monitor the arctic airspace for potentially hostile targets.

In April 2017, Russia inaugurated the Trefoil military base in Franz Josef Land. Franz Josef Land is a massive ice-covered, desolate archipelago along the northeast of the Barents Sea. The military base is about 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole. The base is home to many MiG-31 & Su-34 fighters and Il-78 tankers.

Adjacent to the Trefoil military base is the Nagurskoye airbase. The Soviets established the facility in the 1950s for its long-range bombers. By 2015, Russia started renovating the facility by constructing new structures and expanding the runaway from 8,200 ft to 11,500 ft. When fully completed, the Nagurskoye base will be home to a fleet of MiG-31 fighter jets.

In Kotelny Island, Russia built the Northern Clover military base. The Kotelny base is closer to Alaska than to Moscow. The military base is responsible for maintaining air & sea surveillance and defense with anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles. In 2016, the Russian military deployed the Bastion mobile coastal missile systems. Also, it deployed the Arctic-adapted Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air missile systems that can operate in temperatures as low as -50 C.

Other bases have been completed or are under construction at Rogachevo (home to S400 Missile systems), Cape Schmidt, and Sredniy.

Russia's military bases along the Arctic

Russia's military bases along the Arctic

Energy and Minerals

Vladimir Putin visited the Arctic in 2017. During his visit, he provided a hint about why he is so keen to assert dominance over the Arctic region. He said, "natural resources, which are of paramount importance for the Russian economy, are concentrated in this region."

Fortunately, the US Geological Survey agreed with his assessment. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic might hold about 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil reserves and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Therefore, the Arctic holds 13% and 30% of the world's undiscovered crude oil and natural gas, respectively.

The region also holds huge caches of minerals such as gold, phosphate, iron ore, nickel, copper, zinc, and platinum.

Prevailing estimates put the total value of the Arctic's untapped resources at $30 trillion. That amount is over 20 times greater than Russia's GDP. No wonder Russia is increasingly determined to overcome whatever cold, distance, ice, and geopolitical competition standing between his country and these resources.

Already, Russia is tapping into these resources at an unprecedented rates. A case in point is the Yamal LNG plant, located almost 380 miles north of the Arctic circle. Thanks to Arc7 icebreakers, Russia can extract and transport Yamal's 44 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves to customers in Asia and Europe.

The Northern Sea Route

Another important goal for Russia is the development of the Northern Sea Route as an alternative shipping route.

The Northern Sea Route runs along Russia’s Arctic coast from the Kara Sea to the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean.

With this route, Russia can ship its Arctic oil & gas to Asia faster than the time needed to go west around Europe and through the Suez Canal. In the case of China, using the Northern Sea Route will cut shipment time by as much as 25 days.

In a presidential order announced shortly after his 2018 inauguration, Putin ordered a tenfold increase of shipping traffic through the Northern Sea Route by 2024.

Already, Russia is on its way to achieving that goal. For instance:

  • In 2013, about 3.9 million tons of cargo passed the route.
  • In 2018, it surged to 18 million tons.
  • In 2019, it grew further to 31.5 million tons.
  • The estimated figure for 2020 is about 32 million tons.

Putin wants to expand it further to 80 million tons by 2024 and 160 million tons by 2035.

If successful, the Northern Sea Route will benefit the global economy, just like the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and the Strait of Malacca.

However, Russia is also tightening its control on the Northern Sea Route, which falls into its Exclusive Economic Zone. As a result, it published a set of troubling measures for any foreign vessels transiting the route.

For instance, ships must request a passage from Russia 45 days in advance. Also, vessels must bring a Russian marine pilot aboard for the crossing and pay expensive transit fees.

Russia stated any ship that fails to comply could be detained and even “eliminated.” Even if a foreign vessel abides by all of the requirements, Russia can still reject the application for passage without any explanation.

Northern Sea Route

Northern Sea Route

King of the Arctic

Russia is pursuing three strategic goals in the Arctic region:

  • Control of international shipping on the Northern Sea Route to expand its commercial and military ports.
  • Protecting its oil and gas resources in the Arctic
  • Defending its territory against any encroachment by NATO and even China.

To achieve these goals, Moscow is pursuing an Anti-Access/Area Denial strategy along the Arctic region. Therefore, it has deployed surface-to-air missile batteries, radars, fighter jets, and electronic surveillance to its Arctic military bases.

Russia's growing number of icebreaker vessels and military bases will soon enable it to control the entire region. The Kremlin's new 84-point plan will allow it to explore the Arctic's vast natural resources and improve transit through the Northern Sea Route.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Meziechi Nwogu


Nell Rose from England on January 07, 2021:

Wow, interesting! Of course it's obvious one of the bigger powers would try to sneak in while the world is tackling Covid. Nothing surprises me. Great article!

Jacqueline Stamp from UK on January 05, 2021:

Great use of links and maps, Meziechi; a superb article. My own interest in the Arctic is more historical - the 16th-19th Century obsession with finding a North West Passage, for example, and the lost Franklin expedition - but it's really interesting to read about today's issues in the region. Thank you.