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Russia Plans Massive Arctic Expansion

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Russia plans to expand its military presence in the Arctic, officials said Monday. According to Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB) and the current head of the Security Council, Russia is going to create a number of “dual use” facilities in the Arctic, facilities that will be expected to host commercial craft as well as vessels of both the Northern Fleet and the FSB’s border service.1


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Patrushev’s announcement is connected with the continued development of the or the “northern sea path,” basically an updated and modernized version of what was once known as the “northeast passage.” The rapid melting of the Arctic has opened up previously unreachable parts of Russia’s northern coast and has made what was once a near-impossible voyage far more practical. Traffic on the route, while still paltry compared with the traffic going through the Suez or Panama canals, has grown rapidly in recent years, and is forecast to increase as the Arctic stays ice-free for longer periods of time. Should warming continue, the northern sea path could very easily become one of the world’s busier maritime corridors. In comparison with the route through the Suez, it allows container traffic from Europe to Asia to reach its destination traveling about 4,000 fewer miles and roughly 13 fewer days.

The Russian announcement of an increased military presence in the Arctic was hardly unusual. As Russian newspapers were quick to note, Russia was not the first country to announce its intention to build military bases in the Arctic. Earlier this year Canada announced it was going to build a base on Cornwallis Island, and other Arctic states, Denmark and Norway, have already boosted their military capabilities or announced the formation of new military commands specifically focused on the Arctic. The announcement by Patrushev wasn’t even the most noteworthy once to come out of Russia over the past several years, as the Ministry of Defense last winter announced that it would create several new “Arctic brigades” that would be specially trained and outfitted to operate in the extreme climates of Russia’s north.

While Patrushev’s announcement did not specify exactly where the new naval bases would be, his specific terminology “dual use,” has led most Russian analysts to speculate that these bases will be co-located in the 10 new “emergency-rescue centers” whose construction was announced in November. These “rescue centers” will be located across a broad swath of Russia’s north at Murmansk, Archangelsk, Naryan-Mar, Vorkuta, Nadym, Dudinka, Tiksi, Pevek, Provideniya, and Andyr. Although some of these locations (such as Vorkuta) are not at all suitable for naval bases, being too far inland or too far from navigable rivers, several others are ideally placed to service military vessels transiting through or operating in the Arctic.

While Patrushev’s announcement will attract a lot of attention, the bases whose pending creation was announced are initially going to be pretty small-scale operations, far closer in size and appearance to the paltry Russian re-supply station at Tartus, Syria, than the enormous American naval base in Bahrain. The initial goal of these bases will be to provide ships with fuel and ammunition and allow for “light repairs” of military vehicles on deployment. But in 10 to 15 years down the line, any of these installations could be developed to the point that they are considered legitimate military bases —assuming that the money allocated for their development isn’t misspent and that everything goes according to plan (always decidedly optimistic assumptions when dealing with the Russian military).

Russian defense experts reacted quite positively to the announcement about the new bases. They (with a great deal of probably unwarranted optimism) tend to think that Russian naval vessels are broadly equal in performance and capability to their British and American counterparts. But because of the crippling lack of mooring stations and bases, Russian vessels are almost constantly under way and end up wearing out in a much shorter period of time than would otherwise be the case.2 To wit, the creation of new bases in the Arctic will address two crucial weaknesses of the Russian fleet: The difficult and time-consuming method of transferring ships between the Pacific and Northern fleets (these ships now must sail all the way through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal) and the overall lack of permanent berths in Russian ports. If built properly and on schedule, the new bases will significantly augment Russia’s overall naval capability.

The military dimension of Patrushev’s announcement is obvious and part of a broad and comprehensive Russian effort to extend its sovereignty and its economic and political influence in the Arctic. In Monday’s speech, Patrushev also said that the Russian government is preparing a number of additional tax and tariff measures meant to stimulate economic activity in the region. Russia’s naval expansion in the Arctic, then, should not be seen as naked militarization of the region but as a constituent part of a much larger effort to capitalize on the region’s natural resources.

As always with Russia’s navy, a healthy dash of skepticism is necessary. Although it has warmed significantly, the Arctic is still an extraordinarily inhospitable environment for naval operations. While the Russians seem serious about expanding their capabilities in the area, this will be neither cheap nor easy. Additionally, given Russia’s geography, a Russian presence in the Arctic is basically inevitable: any fair delineation of geographical boundaries will give Russia an overwhelming presence. So keep an eye on Russia’s role in the Arctic, but the recent announcement reflects a broad continuity of its plans, not a sudden escalation or “militarization” of its posture.

1 The FSB’s border service is a far more heavily armed and numerous version of its American counterparts in the Coast Guard and the Customs and Border Patrol. The Russians inherited from the Soviet Union a wide range of paramilitary-type forces that were armed and trained up to a full military standard, and the FSB’s privileged political position has meant that these bloated and somewhat unnecessary forces have been preserved.

2 It’s worth noting here that almost all of Russia’s naval surface vessels are conventionally powered and that they are not designed to run for years at a time without refueling or