Russia's Arctic Ambitions
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday that Russia would rebuild a naval base in the Arctic and restart naval patrols in the region. Russia's interest in the Arctic has both an economic and security dimension, one which will only grow as the region will become more accessible in the coming decades. However, following through with such plans will be both technologically difficult and expensive, so for now such naval plans can be seen mostly as military posturing on the part of Moscow.
Putin's statements came a few days after a convoy of 10 Russian warships successfully completed a journey from Severomorsk, near Finland, to Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago, a distance of over 2,000 nautical miles. This journey went through the Northern Sea Route along Russia's Arctic coastline, an important transit corridor increasingly used for commercial shipping. While just five years ago there were no ships that transited through this corridor, 495 ships have received permission to travel the route this year as access has increased due to warmer summers and melting ice levels.
Russia has also been making plans to exploit and develop offshore oil and gas fields in the Arctic. This region is believed to have more than a fifth of the world's undiscovered hydrocarbon resources, something which has drawn in the interest of other littoral Arctic countries — like the United States, Norway and Canada — as well as energy-hungry countries like China, Japan and South Korea.
These factors have increased Russia's interest in establishing a greater security presence in the Arctic, as shipping lanes and potential energy production will need to be secured while other countries strengthen their military presence in the region as well. The last time Russia had a functional military base in the Arctic was during the Soviet period, which included the Temp military airfield on Kotelny Island. It is this base that Russia hopes to revive, with plans to modify an airstrip to be able to receive heavy cargo planes and bring in supplies for the reactivated air base.
A military presence in the form of a naval and air base would give Russia the coverage and ability to put air power over most of the Arctic. Considering that establishing alternative transit routes and access to the open seas, as well as developing cost-effective hydrocarbon deposits, are two important imperatives for Russia, the construction of such a base makes sense in Moscow's overall grand strategy.
However, there are many hurdles to Russia's plans for the Arctic. One of the biggest obstacles to the further development of the Northern Sea Route is the lack of search and rescue and navigation infrastructure in the Arctic. Furthermore, building such military infrastructure in the Arctic is very expensive, and previous projects planned by the Russians have not panned out due to lack of necessary funds. Also, the economic viability of the Northern Sea Route is still limited because ships have to be accompanied by costly icebreakers and the route only offers limited seasonal access. With Russia currently experiencing an economic slowdown and long-term prospects far from positive, such plans should be seen with similar skepticism.
Despite these challenges, Russia feels the need to stake a claim on what will become a more contested region in the coming years. While the specifics of Russia's plans and its ability to realize them are from clear, the growing interest in the Arctic from Moscow and a number of other players is much more certain. However, there are plenty of technical and financial considerations that will need to be sorted out before these countries start to come into direct competition in the Arctic.