Russia’s announcement last month that it was considering reopening a major northern naval base and resuming regular naval patrols has revived a debate over the militarization of the Arctic. In early September, a convoy of 10 Russian warships – led by missile cruiser Peter the Great and accompanied by four nuclear-powered icebreakers – completed a voyage across the Arctic Ocean. Starting from Severomorsk near Finland, the ships travelled nearly 2000 miles, reaching Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago, reportedly bringing construction material and personnel needed to reconstruct the old Soviet-era naval base shut down in 1993.
The Russian decision to rebuild a naval facility in the Arctic is a not-so-tacit reminder that as the northern ice-cap melts and critical sea-routes become navigable, Arctic nations will not be able to resist the impulse of militarizing the region. In the past few years, as vast spaces in the Arctic have opened up, a scramble has ensued for the region’s undiscovered natural resources (estimated to be 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and 13% of its undiscovered oil). This has, in turn, resulted in increasingly assertive territorial postures being adopted by regional stakeholders, and the gradual dominance of a security-driven discourse.
Unsurprisingly, the rising military presence in the Arctic is being increasingly justified by the need to project national influence and sustain claims over the region’s sea-lanes and natural resources. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the reopening of the new naval base, he noted how important is was for Russia to assert control over the operation of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Even though he did not mention it, Putin’s interest in securing the vital sea-lane seems driven by its potential to cut the regular travel time of cargo ships from Europe to Asia by almost a third.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
More importantly, the latest development has drawn critical attention to the absence of a security framework in the Arctic. Russia has, arguably, been the most militarily active Arctic state. Since 2007, when a mini-sub planted a Russian titanium flag at the base of the North Pole, the Russian Navy has maintained a strategic presence in the Arctic. Its under-sea patrol program will soon be augmented by the new Borey class submarines based on the Barents Sea coast. Equally notable are Russia’s power-projection initiatives. In 2012, a large-scale Russian naval exercise was held in the High North that included more than 7000 personnel and about 20 naval units. During the exercise, the Northern Fleet conducted Russia’s first-ever amphibious landing on the Arctic archipelago of the New Siberian Islands.
This year in July, Moscow’s held a massive exercise in the Russian Far East region – reportedly the biggest “snap-drill” since the era of the Soviet Union. The exercises involved more than 160,000 servicemen, 1000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships, and came only a month after Russia submitted a claim to the United Nations to extend its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone by another 150 miles or 1.2 million square kilometers. Moscow’s “scientific evidence,” to buttress its contention of the claimed seabed being a continuation of the continental shelf, is bitterly contested by other Arctic nations.
Russia is, however, not the only country with plans to securitize the region. After assuming the presidency of the Arctic Council in May this year, Canada made clear that it will push for a change in the Council’s focus so as to seize the economic opportunities arising from the melting of the northern polar ice cap. Its follow-up plan includes initiatives to strengthen its Arctic sovereignty claims and bolster its northern military presence. Interestingly, a study by the Canadian military’s operational support command last year had recommended military outposts in the form of basic transportation hubs, after which Ottawa began seriously considering setting up small-but-permanent military presence in remote locations in the Arctic North.
Canada’s assertive strategy, however, is not limited to military bases. Since 2007, the Canadian military has held Operation Nanook in the country’s north every year. It is an exercise aimed exclusively at exercising Canadian sovereignty. In August this year more than 1,000 personnel from the Canadian Armed Forces took part in Operation Nanook 2013, held at four different locations in the Arctic, purportedly as a counter to Moscow’s renewed territorial claims in the Arctic Ocean.