Russia in the Arctic: A Different Kind of Military Presence

MIN READNov 11, 2015 | 09:58 GMT

Russia has been openly re-establishing its military presence in the Arctic for some time now, and recent satellite imagery may give some insight into Moscow's intentions. Detailed images collected by Stratfor's partners at AllSource Analysis clearly show Russia's ongoing construction and development of several permanent bases in the region. Two in particular, one on Alexandra Island and the other on Kotelny Island, reflect the broader pattern in Russia's Arctic activity: Moscow is looking to establish a monitoring outpost and stake a symbolic territorial claim, but it has not yet built up a full-blown combat presence.

The Alexandra and Kotelny island positions are military posts, but as seen in the September photographs, they look very different from the typical army base. They are limited facilities that were not necessarily built with the goal of housing significant combat forces — at least, not for now. Compared with the type of army bases one might see on the Russian mainland, there does not appear to be any major buildup of armored vehicles or air defenses. Instead, the two bases consist of a central structure that is symbolically (and quite obviously) painted in white, blue and red, the colors of the Russian flag. They also have several supporting structures such as fuel depots and heating installations, and the islands themselves have runways, both old and new, as well as anchorages that allow for the delivery of construction materials and supplies.

While both bases are capable of hosting limited military capabilities, it is clear that they were not built with combat in mind. True, military exercises have temporarily brought real combat capabilities to the Arctic region in the past, and the presence of runways on both islands does enable Russia to deploy its air assets to the bases at any given time. But Moscow has described its Arctic bases in many ways — monitoring stations, border control complexes and search-and-rescue centers, to name a few — all of which underscore their more important role of enabling Russia to monitor movement in the region and mark its territorial claims.

The Kremlin has many interests in the Arctic, but perhaps the biggest are natural resources and basic geopolitical imperatives. The Arctic is thought to contain about 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil. To Moscow, the reserves could prove to be a critical source of foreign investment that will drive economic development. The Northern Sea Route running from East Asia through the Arctic Ocean to Europe could also spur infrastructure development in northern Russia someday, offering yet another opportunity for growth. With bases in the Arctic region, Russia will be able to both project physical power into the region and monitor others' movements along the strategic sea routes. This will not only enable Moscow to protect its access to potential resources but also impact the military balance between the United States and Russia. Any scenario in which either side deploys bomber aircraft or intercontinental ballistic missiles against each other would inevitably involve the Arctic, since the shortest flight paths between the two countries cross it. 

And so, the militarization of the Arctic — and by extension, the construction of new bases or the repurposing of old Soviet facilities — will remain one of the Russian military's top priorities in the coming years. It is likely that part of the Northern Fleet, Moscow's principal naval force and a major component of Russian nuclear deterrence, will also be based on the New Siberian Island chain, which is ideally positioned for military operations in the Arctic. Activities will likely include submarine operations, anti-submarine warfare and aerial interdiction of enemy anti-submarine efforts. But again, these operations would be geared primarily toward monitoring and possibly checking the moves of other military powers in the region. Meanwhile, Russia will continue to loudly broadcast its plans to bulk up its Arctic presence. And as the Arctic continues to militarize, the bases at Alexandra and Kotelny islands will play a key role in securing Russia's strategic position in the region.

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