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The Unpredictable Russian Bear Flexes Its Muscles

As Russia steps up its military activities in the Arctic, Cold War narratives have returned. But the region is just one playing field for Russia’s geopolitical games with the West – understanding that is vital for cooperation in the High North to continue.

Written by Benjamin Schaller Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Construction of the “Arctic clover” administrative and housing complex, being built to develop the infrastructure of the Russian northern fleet in the Arctic on the Alexandra Land of the Franz Joseph Land archipelago.

The origin of the word Arctic is the Greek word “Arktikos,” meaning “close to the bear,” so it is somewhat fitting that Russia, long seen as an aggressive and unpredictable bear in international politics, has stepped up its military activities in the region – including large-scale exercises, an extensive modernization program and the reconstruction of infrastructure. Observers, mainstream media in particular, have adopted the Cold War narratives of the Russian bear vying for military superiority, border delineations and dominance over natural resources in the High North.

These should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is misleading to try to explain Russia’s actions solely from an Arctic perspective; its military activities and programs are not rooted in regional concerns. Rather, they follow a more general trend in foreign and security policy, and play into broader domestic and geopolitical dimensions that have permeated Russian politics.

Trapped in a Geopolitical State of Mind

The end of the Cold War meant the end of military block-to-block confrontation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a superpower with global military and ideological reach. After the break-up, many post-Soviet countries sought closer economic, political and military ties with the West. Moscow tried to retain its influence in the post-Soviet space, but its efforts proved insufficient and coercion continued to be Russia’s primary foreign-policy tool with many of its neighbors, who eventually sought even closer ties with NATO.

Domestically, Russia struggled with high levels of corruption, a stalling economy and human-rights abuses. In short, Moscow’s political elites maneuvered themselves into a domestic impasse as well as an international one. Russia remained a strong regional power, but it never regained the power of the former Soviet Union on the international stage.

When Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, he drastically reoriented its foreign policy. In an effort to unify civil society, he distanced Russia from the West by creating an image of NATO and the U.S. as a threat to the nation’s security and stepped up Russia’s military modernization program. Putin increasingly acts according to geopolitical spheres of influence, in particular with regard to the post-Soviet space. Negative spin-offs of this policy can be seen in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, its military intervention in Syria and in an increasing show of force in the Baltic and Black Sea regions.

The Arctic Is a Part of a Global Chess Game

Russia’s most recent maritime doctrine identifies the Arctic region as a priority. Moscow is reopening old airfields and military bases on the New Siberian Islands and the Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land and Severnaya Zemlya archipelagos – and constructing new ones. It has also deployed extra submarines, patrol vessels, nuclear-powered icebreakers, anti-aircraft systems and military aircraft in the North. Large-scale and unannounced military exercises are being carried out close to northern neighbors, with the intensity of air and submarine patrols in the region reportedly reaching levels last seen during the Cold War.

These activities are part of Russia’s increasing show of force toward its neighbors and NATO, but they do not make the Arctic exceptional. Instead, they are an attempt to reinstall Russia as a big player on the stage of world politics and secure the survival of Moscow’s current leadership. The location of the Arctic makes it an important part of Russia’s broader geopolitical considerations. For example, unlike its naval forces in the Baltic and Black Sea, Russia’s northern fleet can maneuver more freely without pressure from NATO member states – and as the Arctic ice further retreats, it is gaining even more space for its operations, toward the Atlantic Ocean.

Moreover, the passage over the North Pole still constitutes the shortest distance between Russia and North America, making northern Russia an important element in Russia’s nuclear deterrence. The strategic value of the Arctic is also reflected in the regional dimension of Moscow’s military modernization, focusing, for example, on improving icebreaker capabilities, the deployment of additional submarines and modern air defense systems.

Can Regional Interests Outplay Geopolitical Tensions?

Because of the harsh environment, there is close cooperation between the people of the Arctic, as well as between the eight Arctic states. Russia’s long coastline will likely grant it a South Africa-sized expansion of its exclusive economic zone, presumably rich in more resources than it can extract for decades to come. But this coastline also makes the country vulnerable to terrorism, piracy, organized crime and other security issues; it must be certain of this cooperation now and in the future.

Accepting that Russia’s military activities in the Arctic are not reflective of regional ambitions, but mainly driven by broader geopolitical and domestic considerations, makes it possible to find solutions to the deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. In the meantime, all actors will have to do their best to preserve the good cooperation in the High North in times of increased geopolitical tensions. The Russian bear might not be reaching for the North Pole, in a military sense, but it is stretching into the region “close to the bear.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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