CWA Commentary

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While Trump uses Greenland in his rhetoric, the Russian Military is seen expanding in this region. It recently stationed its S-400, a surface to air missile at Yuzhny Islands, just south of the Norwegian territory of Svalbard.

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CWA # 176, 27 October 2019

The Arctic Series
Russia's Polar Military Edge

  Parikshith Pradeep

Putin’s aspirations are different now, unlike his moderate viewpoints on the Arctic a decade ago. His plan for the peaceful division of the region among nations finds lesser mention in present times.

The Arctic has seen a slew of military activities in recent years, and Russia is flexing its military capabilities in entirety as compared to its rivals. Earlier this month, the Russian Defence Ministry announced setting up of two early warning radar systems in the northern Russian region. This signifies its strategic intent to monitor the Russian Arctic. Similarly, other competitors, such as the NATO have posed military challenges in the polar region. However, Moscow’s calculated military proactiveness is useful in establishing its dominance in the Arctic.

Major Trends in Arctic 

The US, with its NATO allies, have been sluggish in forming a common Arctic policy. While Trump uses Greenland in his rhetoric, the Russian Military is seen expanding in this region. It recently stationed its S-400, a surface to air missile at Yuzhny Islands, just south of the Norwegian territory of Svalbard. This highlights the strategic threat to NATO, considering Norway’s territorial security. Putin’s clarity in the Arctic combined with NATO’s hang back makes it apt for Russia’s military sway.

Advanced nations, especially ones closer to the Arctic, have gradually migrated from scientific explorations to military expeditions. Nations with geographical proximity have inched closer to setting up arctic grade military bases. Surprisingly, China which claims to be a ‘near arctic country’ participated in Vostok 2018, a joint military exercise with Russia in Siberia and its far east. To top it all, Turkey, a NATO member was the observer country in the exercise. This depicts the global investment spike in the Arctic.

It would not be fit to assume the US’s air prowess and naval capabilities playing an active role in defeating the Russian Military stationed in the Arctic. The lack of competent military bases either from the US or its NATO allies in the Arctic also provides Moscow with the military edge it requires. Russia’s Northern Clove station in Kotelny Islands can host 250 military personnel annually in life-supporting conditions. This is to establish it is a commitment to building all-climate combat technology with the Arctic oriented Military rather than conventional military setups. Putin, in his 2019 Arctic Forum speech, announced Russia’s vision in framing an Arctic policy till 2035. This underlines its comprehensive approach to establish its supremacy in the Arctic.

Why the Arctic?

First, Putin’s aspirations are different now, unlike his moderate viewpoints on the Arctic a decade ago. His plan for the peaceful division of the region among nations finds lesser mention in present times. This is to say, Russia’s rising military solidification in the Arctic is with unfolding motives. While the era of colonization exploited land, labour and capital, the Arctic colonization exploits land, invests capital and generates labour further supplementing its economic ambitions.

Second, Russian is reworking its military base in Wrangal Islands’, situated 300 miles from the US territory of Alaska. Two observations could be made from this development. First, the islands’ geographical proximity to Alaska poses security challenges. Second, its closeness to the Northern passage can potentially hinder the movement of ships and provoke debate on freedom of navigation. With larger stakeholding in the northern passage, Russia could play a significant role in the movement of exports, especially from advanced economies like Japan, South Korea, the US, and Canada which are situated slightly north.

Third, the Northern passage could become a cheaper alternative to both Suez and Panama canal. The desire for lower freight costs, shorter freight time and movement of heavy cargo due to the melting of ice have given rise to aggressive militarization. In this regard, Russia has made considerable strides in setting up ‘nuclear-powered ice breakers’ to clear the way for transport. The role of countries like Norway, Canada, and even China in Ice Breaker technology should not be overlooked. In contrast, the US has two Soviet-era ice breakers, with only one being functional.

Fourth, one can also anticipate the growth of ‘Polar Economy’ through migration of workforce, resources and the development of peripheral sectors. This could be vital for Russia is partially shifting production from the mainland to further north, easing economic burdens while generating additional employment. This requires the tightening of territorial security by the Russian Military.

Fifth, the availability of extensive reserves of energy could supplement Russia’s position in the energy market. According to the US Geological Survey, this region has 30% of the world’s natural gas and 13% oil. Due to the absence of an ‘Arctic authority’ and lack of strong objection from global institutions, Russia is eyeing to exploit energy hotspots in this region. With fluctuating oil prices and vast exposure to energy sources, Moscow has been quick to protect its Arctic deposits through military engagements.

 

Towards a Russian Arctic: What would the Russian domination look like?

Russia’s polar dominance may eventually lead to issues of territorial sovereignty involving dominant players. Russia's increased cooperation with China in legitimizing the status of ‘near-Arctic State’ would not bode well for the west. Weak American presence and testing times for NATO may lead to tense relations between the Eurasian giant and its rivals. Military dominance could create significant barriers for non-Arctic countries in this region, creating a divide between Russian-Arctic and the global south.

However, Russia could build for itself an image through the Arctic, minimally rebalancing its leverage on global affairs. While a strategic victory in this region could create frictions, it could help revive Russia’s military outlook.

For favourable outcomes, Russia must encourage global cooperation in this region involving scientific engagements and Arctic capacity building among nations. Military conquest must transcend to military cooperation. The Russian Military may win the Arctic War, but the Arctic could remain contested for a very long time.

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The "Indo-Pacific Command": What's in the name?

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Global Politics
June 2018 | CWA # 21

Harini Madhusudhan

Trump’s Tariff Strategy: Targetting Adversaries and Allies

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East Asia
June 2018 | CWA # 20

Hely Desai

Trump-Kim Summit: Three Likely Outcomes

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West Asia
June 2018 | CWA # 19

Apoorva Sudhakar

The Lebanon Pawn: Will it change after elections?

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West Asia
June 2018 | CWA # 18

Lakshmi V Menon

Israel, the Game Changer?

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Global Politics
June 2018 | CWA # 17

Samreen Wani

Deciphering Turkey's External Push

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Global Politics
June 2018 | CWA # 16

Divyabharathi E

China and Russia: The New Alignments

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India External
May 2018 | CWA # 15

Ann Maria Shibu

Can India afford to lose Maldives to China?

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 14

Dhruv Ashok

Why Maldives is important to China?

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 13

Lakshmi V Menon

ISIS and the Yazidi victims: Why the World should stand up?

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 12

Harini Madhusudhan

US- China Tariff Face-off : Five questions

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India External
May 2018 | CWA # 11

Jamyang Dolma

Why is Free Tibet important for India

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 10

Divyabharathi E

Arctic: The Strategic Significance

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 9

Lakshmi V Menon

Do we need the Quad?

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Global Politics
May 2018 | CWA # 8

Samreen Wani

Why Trump’s Iran exit is a big mistake?

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East Asia
May 2018 | CWA # 7

Jamyang Dolma

Inter Korean Summit: Will it work?

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India-Nepal
May 2018 | CWA # 6

Shalini E

What prevents India and Nepal from moving forward?

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India-Sri Lanka
May 2018 | CWA # 5

Dhruv Ashok

The Fishermen Issue between India and Sri Lanka

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Bangladesh
May 2018 | CWA # 4

Apoorva Sudhakar

Bangladesh's Economy: Decoding a Success Story

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Water Conflicts
May 2018 | CWA # 3

Ann Maria Shibu

Why India should not pull out of the Indus water treaty?

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India
May 2018 | CWA # 2

Samreen Wani

Andaman and Nicobar Islands: India’s underutilised asset?

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India External
May 2018 | CWA # 1

Divyabharathi E

Quad and India's Strategic Dilemma

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