Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea? Aggressively Countering Russian Action in the Arctic

As Arctic temperatures rise and the region undergoes extreme environmental change, new economic, scientific, maritime, and political opportunities have led to the gradual militarization of the region and its potential as a new theater for strategic competition between the United States and Russia. Previously impassable areas are becoming increasingly accessible to navigation and exploitation due to diminishing sea ice coverage, opening commercial routes through the Arctic Ocean that can shorten travel times between Europe and Asia by as much as 40 percent. Russia—whose military footprint and territorial claims in the region dwarf those of the United States—has become more assertive in the Arctic, raising questions of how the United States and its allies can best achieve their Arctic objectives, and of the region’s relevance and role in emerging great power competition. Amid such rapid change, the strategic outlook of the Arctic over the next two decades—whether cooperative or competitive—is an open question.

The following is a point-counterpoint analysis that seeks to answer the question: Is aggressively countering Russian action in the Arctic a bad idea? Maxwell Simon (MS) argues that seeking to match Russia’s presence is a bad idea while Alexandra Huber (AH) counters that avoiding a strong rebalance in the face of Russian action is the real bad idea.

How would you characterize Russia’s behavior in the Arctic?

MS: Russia has committed significant resources to energy extraction and the militarization of the Arctic by reactivating Cold War military installations, modernizing submarine and missile capabilities, and reorganizing its regional assets under one command in the Northern Joint Strategic Command. Russia also poses a significant threat to NATO in general. Nevertheless, given limited resources, it would be a bad idea for the United States to overreact and develop a hyperfocus on the Arctic, where its interests are limited and U.S.-Russian interaction is largely cooperative. Compared to Russia—who relies upon Arctic resource extraction for 15-20 percent of its annual economy and expects the region to provide $500 billion in annual GDP by 2030, or 30 percent of its current GDP—U.S. strategic interests in the Arctic are minimal (less than a third of one percent of U.S. GDP comes from the Arctic). While Russia has a sizeable nuclear footprint along the Kola Peninsula and ascribes immense importance to maintaining its sea-based nuclear deterrent in the Arctic, the United States stations none of its nuclear weapons in the region and does not patrol it with any of its nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs). Thus, as a CSIS Europe Program report states, it is “understandable” that Russia has enhanced its Arctic capabilities to account for increased activity along its northern coastline.

Moreover, Russia’s buildup should not be overstated: the majority of its existing icebreakers will be decommissioned over the next several years, deep-sea port construction has encountered problems and delays, economic infrastructure remains extremely sparse, and the Arctic is still significantly less militarized than other regions where the United States and NATO compete with Russia. Put in context with Russia’s wider military modernization efforts, its allocation of resources to the Arctic are no more concerning than its behavior elsewhere, as the majority of its new naval assets are going to other theaters.

Indeed, interaction in the Arctic between the United States and Russia is highly cooperative, even as NATO-Russian relations have worsened elsewhere on a range of issues in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis—such as U.S.-Russia withdrawal from the INF Treaty, sanctions imposition, and removal of Russia from the G8. Moscow has remained an active participant in the Arctic Council, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF), and numerous environmental and scientific treaties.

AH: Russia’s recent Arctic development efforts have crossed into potentially dangerous areas of naval competition. Total sovereignty over a sizeable area of the ocean provides the Russian Navy an ideal opportunity for weapon and tactical development safe from interference and virtually unmonitored by potential Western adversaries. While many Soviet-era submarines and icebreakers are scheduled to be decommissioned by the end of 2019, the Russian Navy plans to replace them with new warships delivered in 2020. As Russian military forces edge closer to Norwegian territory – the only other country with a claim to the Barents Sea – Putin’s intentions in the Arctic appear increasingly hostile.

The 2010 “agreed demarcation line” between Russia and Norway no longer provides the same level of assurance for the West that it once did. In October 2019, the Barents Observer noted the launch and start of underwater weapons testing in the Norwegian Sea, just a day after a peaceful meeting between Russian and Norwegian military leaders. Two Russian Sierra-class nuclear-powered submarines sailed into the Norwegian Sea to begin deep-diving exercises and underwater weapons training and testing. According to Norwegian military officials,“[The Russians] are rebuilding the Northern Fleet, building new submarines; they’re flying more; they are exercising more in the northwest of Russia with their battalions…” Russian weapons training within Scandinavian territory , where significant NATO anti-submarine operations were conducted during the Cold War, is ongoing and hostile. In response to the latest Russian exercise in these waters in November 2019, Norwegian intelligence concluded that “[t]he aim of the massive operation is to get as far out to the North Atlantic as possible without being discovered by NATO.” Although Russia appears cooperative within larger Arctic institutions such as the Arctic Council or ACGF, the Russian Navy’s actions in the area speak significantly louder than adherence to diplomatic agreements.

What role should NATO play in the Arctic? How should the U.S. respond to the Arctic challenge?

MS: Though Russian submarine exercises and weapons tests are concerning, especially in Norway’s backyard, cooperation has been the predominant pattern of U.S.-Russian interaction in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War. It is important not to overstate Russian aggression in the Arctic; Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said the Arctic does not pose core security concerns today, and other Norwegian analysts have suggested they “do not consider a conflict likely.”

The same cannot be said for Europe or the Indo-Pacific, where U.S. interests are considerably more robust. Practically, the shift in U.S. and NATO strategic goals that would be required to match Russian capabilities and credibly compete with Moscow in the Arctic is not feasible. While Russia has twenty-two fully operational military icebreakers, the United States only has two. There is also no consensus within NATO if the Arctic is an area of military concern; Canada, an “Arctic Five” littoral state, has said repeatedly that it does not believe NATO should play any role in Arctic matters.

Given limited resources, the United States and NATO should be focusing on regions of existing contention with Russia, not simply shifting military capabilities to a region out of some ill-defined need to “match” Russia.

Aggressively rebalancing Russia in the Arctic is also not desirable. There are many feasible scenarios where military confrontation could break out—over resource competition, territorial disputes, and unsanctioned passage through the Northern Sea Route, to name a few. But the most plausible scenario that could drive military conflict and greater frequency of Russian military exercises is a larger NATO military presence. Given Moscow’s sensitivity to strategic encirclement, a concern that has extended into the Arctic, increasing NATO operations are likely to contribute to the security dilemma and increase the likelihood of misperception and miscalculation, undermining strategic stability in a rapidly changing region where there is currently no mechanism for dialogue on security issues.

The United States and its allies must find a way to preserve their influence in an increasingly important region without making military conflict more likely. For one, improving intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance (ISR) and communications infrastructure is a pivotal, though less antagonistic, way to improve Arctic operational readiness. The United States and its allies could utilize unmanned aerial systems, high altitude balloons, and satellites in highly elliptical orbits (HEO), which spend extended periods over the Arctic, to close the positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) gap and monitor Russian assets in the region. Perhaps more importantly, since there is currently no Arctic security forum that includes Russia, Arctic states should use NATO’s established dialogue channels with Moscow through the NATO-Russia Council, as Dr. Rebecca Pincus has advocated. While NATO’s military function would be counterproductive, its political-organizational function could help to lower the likelihood of miscommunication. This forum would also open the possibility for greater collaboration on rules to govern the region as it becomes more accessible to other actors.

Ultimately, at a time of extreme regional flux, it would be a bad idea to aggressively rebalance to the Arctic.

AH: Due to Russia’s increasingly aggressive mining of Arctic natural resources and rapid military development, NATO stands a significant chance of being overwhelmed in the Arctic by Russia economically and militarily in the next decade. In addition, the development of the Russian transnational pipeline Nord Stream 2 and Russia’s current relationship with China pose an environmental hazard which threatens current Arctic Council environmental agreements.

In a May 2019 report, the CSIS Europe Program argued that “The greatest failing of U.S. policy has been its reluctance to understand the strategic implications of great power competition in the Arctic.” While the competition here does not necessarily determine total Arctic superiority, it is crucial to maintain strategic preparedness against hostile neighbors as well as ensure Russian acts in the Arctic are kept within both physical and diplomatic confines.

If the United States is to uphold its reputation as a responsible NATO ally, ignoring this increasingly dire situation is not the answer. While Norway is one of the strongest of its regional allies, further assistance in their region is needed to counter the superiority of the Russian Northern Fleet and its weapons development. Stricter ocean border controls on the edges of Russia’s Arctic territory are vital for Norwegian national security and to prevent Russian naval forces from moving closer to the West. Increased deployment of NATO ground troops and continued military emergency drills in the Arctic would provide Norway the means to enforce these controls as well as sending a warning to the Russian forces that continue to close in on Norway’s border.

Proactive steps by NATO are necessary to ensure future international stability in the Arctic. If NATO maintains its passivity towards Russian military advancement and aggression in the Arctic and continues to ignore Norwegian authorities’ concerns over Russia hostility and military action, this could be a bad idea with more significant repercussions in future decades.

(Photo credit: DoD photo by Master Sgt. Michael Q. Retana, U.S. Marine Corps/Released)