Countering the Russian (Polar) Bear

By: Malte Koppermann

Photo credits: Ministry of Defence of Russia via Wikimedia

During the Cold War,  the United States and the Soviet Union were certain that a nuclear first strike would occur through the shortest flight route between the nations: the transpolar route through the Arctic. Directly following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation politically neglected the Arctic for some time, contributing to depopulation and economic hardship in the region

However, under Putin, Russia has found renewed interest in the High North, the term for territories of the Arctic beyond the Polar Circle. In particular, more than 50 Soviet-era military bases have been re-opened over the past two decades. In response to this military escalation, NATO organised a substantial response. From March 3rd to 15th, 2024, the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland hosted thousands of personnel and pieces of military hardware for NATO’s Northern Response. This exercise intended to increase allied interoperability and the ability to cope with the harsh climate conditions in the region. Furthermore, three more NATO exercises are scheduled above the Arctic Circle in the following months. 

Traditionally, the Arctic’s seemingly eternal ice was thought to shield it from geopolitical conflict. However, recent developments show that the Arctic is increasingly becoming a theatre of operations in its own right. The period of ‘Arctic exceptionalism’ is arguably ending. How can the Kremlin’s renewed interest in the region be explained? What has been and can be done to counter Russia’s ambitions in the Arctic? This article will address these questions by outlining Russia’s Arctic ambitions, the reality and escalatory potential of hybrid warfare, and providing insights into potential solutions. 

What are Russia’s Arctic ambitions?

Russian ambitions in the Arctic can be analysed in three domains: the return to great power status, economic development, and the development of the military. These are briefly laid out in the 2023 “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation,” in which Russia vows to develop the Arctic economically and to push back against alleged Western militarisation of the region. 

Firstly, Russia seeks to regain its status as a great power. Kupiecki argues that the myth of the “Western Betrayal” is the “Mother of All Myths” that underpins the belief that the Western actions, particularly NATO’s eastward expansion, blocks Russia’s return to the apex of its historical power. Although there was no promise from western powers to abstain from  eastward expansion beyond Eastern Germany, Kremlin propaganda frequently invokes this myth in order to invoke the public’s sense of  humiliation. As early as 2015, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, made claims that link Russian historical revisionism, Crimea, and the Arctic: “Last year, we had the historic reunification of Sevastopol and the Crimea. This year, we present a new view and new powerful stress on the development of the Arctic.” 

Secondly, Russia is extracting or is seeking to extract vast amounts of natural resources. According to the 2013 U.S. Coast Guard Arctic Strategy, the Arctic region boasts an estimated 13 percent of global undiscovered oil, 30 percent of undiscovered gas and hundreds of billions of dollars worth of minerals. Fossil fuels are vital for the Russian economy. In 2015, Prime Minister Medvedev stated that the energy sector “accounts for over a quarter of GDP, almost 30 percent of the national budget, more than two-thirds of export revenue, and a quarter of total investments.” Today, these revenues are more important than ever as Russia seeks to spend 6 percent of its GDP on defence in 2024. At the same time, Russia is heavily investing in Arctic infrastructure to facilitate economic development. For instance, Russia is currently modernising its port infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The Kremlin hopes that these ports will become economically beneficial for commercial shipping, as climate change will make the waterway navigable for extended periods during the year. During the winter months, when the waters become commercially unnavigable, Russia boasts more than 30 diesel- and nuclear-fueled icebreakers, the biggest fleet in the world, thus enabling safe passage. In contrast, the US operates just two icebreakers. Moreover, Russia is initiating land-based infrastructure development projects in the region, including the construction of railroads, pipelines, airports, as well as dual-use infrastructure, such as Air Traffic Control (ATC) radars

Thirdly, the expansion of Russian military presence in the Arctic can be understood by looking at the “bastion defence” concept. The main objective is securing the perimeter around the Kola Peninsula, which hosts the Northern Fleet. A multi-layered air and coastal defence ensures the survivability of Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). In total, the Northern Fleet consists of two-thirds of the navy’s nuclear assets, forming the core of Russia’s credible deterrence capabilities. Traditionally, these defensive measures were seen by the West as “legitimate interests in national defence.” However, Russian naval capabilities extend beyond the defensive. The second objective of the bastion concept is to guarantee unhampered access to the Northern Atlantic through the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom (GUIK) gap. In case of direct military confrontation with NATO, Allied reinforcements via transatlantic sea lines of communication (SLOC) would be prime targets for the Northern Fleet. Moreover, the centrality of the Northern Fleet is further exacerbated by a potential naval blockade of the Baltic Fleet in the “NATO Lake” and the closure of military naval traffic to and from the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreux Convention by Turkey. 

Schematic diagram: The Russian bastion and the reach of the bastion defence.

Source: https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/fd/dokumenter/unified-effort.pdf, Norwegian Ministry of Defence (The Norwegian Military Geographic Service)

Hybrid threats

As of  now, an imminent ground invasion of the Arctic akin to the invasion of Ukraine seems unlikely. Katarzyna Zysk notes that “80 percent of the Russian [Arctic] land forces have been sent to the front in Ukraine and [have] suffered extensive losses.” Nevertheless, Scandinavian states are experiencing a hike in hybrid warfare attacks. There has been a significant increase in cases of cyber attacks and espionage, frequently targeting government agencies, as well as energy and military infrastructure. Furthermore, European critical infrastructure is increasingly subjected to interference. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in 2022 is the most prominent case, although the investigation is still ongoing. Other disruptions include the GPS jamming, the severing of underwater fibre optic communication cables in Norwegian waters, and spying on NATO countries using civilian vessels. Additionally, Russia is actively pursuing information operations in Arctic states. These efforts aim to display Russian military build-up in the region as necessary measures for defence and the dissemination of anti-NATO narratives in Finland and Sweden, particularly after February 2022. 

What needs to be done?

The Arctic is heating up – both climatically and geopolitically. A holistic response to an increasingly hostile Russia in the Arctic should simultaneously address three strategic categories: awareness, resilience, and preparedness. First, NATO must increase its ‘comprehensive situational awareness’ in the region, especially around the GIUK gap. Investments must be made into reconnaissance capabilities, as well as communications and early-warning systems to detect accidental and deliberate incidents.

Second, critical infrastructure must be resilient to both traditional and hybrid threats. In 2016, NATO published seven “baseline requirements” for resilience that aim to ensure the survivability of a government and its core functions to prevent societal collapse. Another positive development is that NATO has recognised cyberspace as a domain of military operations. In order to prevent further sabotage on undersea energy infrastructure, NATO has increased aerial and naval presence in the Baltic and North Seas.

Lastly, the third domain of preparedness must be addressed. Both civil society and Allied militaries must be prepared for all possible scenarios. As for society, in 2018, Sweden sent a leaflet to all households informing citizens about threats ranging from natural disasters, war, and disinformation. Theory alone, however, does not suffice . Here, the Finnish “Concept of Comprehensive Security” should serve as a role model. In times of crisis, it delegates responsibility to society as a whole. For instance, NGOs are actively training civilians in crisis response capabilities. As for the Allied militaries, on the one hand, training under the Cold Weather Operations Centre of Excellence in the Arctic tundra is a necessary step towards combat readiness after decades of fighting wars in the Middle East. On the other hand, in order to be prepared for a potential disruption of Allied reinforcements along the transatlantic SLOC, the Alliance should invest more in anti-access/access denial (A2/AD) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities in the GIUK gap and North Atlantic. Currently, both sonar and non-acoustic submarine detection technologies are trying to cope with increasingly stealthy submarines. These vital assets may be “installed on the seabed or on land, or float on water”. Here, Ukraine’s naval successes point to the mounting importance of maritime unmanned systems. 

NATO is finally grasping the urgency to close the capability gap with Russia. While NATO is stepping up, Russia must be slowed down. Draining financial assets by driving down the oil price would make Arctic exploitation unprofitable and thwart the Kremlin’s efforts to increase its defence spending without having to make deeper cuts into the welfare budget.Unfortunately, the $60 oil cap that was agreed upon by the G7 and the EU in 2022 has largely failed due to sanctions evasion such as the “refinery loophole,” whereby Russian crude oil enters the EU after being processed in countries without the sanctions regime, such as India. Clearly, it is imperative that the West doubles down on its efforts – for the sake of Ukraine and the Arctic. NATO must not believe the narrative the Kremlin feeds it. Instead, it is time to proactively and constructively counter and deter Russian ambitions in the Arctic.

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