By Alden Wahlstrom
Russia has no plans to militarize the Arctic. At least, that is a according to Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister charged with overseeing Russia’s defense industry. Speaking in St. Petersburg, on December 7, at the opening of the forum “Arctic: Today and the Future,” Rogozin emphasized that Russia’s rebuilding of military infrastructure in the Arctic is focused on creating the conditions necessary for Russians to live and work peacefully in the region (Kommersant, December 8, 2015). Just two days after this, however, Russia announced the opening of a major new military installation on the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya.
The Novaya Zemlya facility is home to the first full regiment of Russia’s Northern Fleet located on Russia’s Arctic islands. Previously, deployments had been limited to smaller individual units. Its primary role is to secure Russian airspace on the country’s northern borders. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, modernized S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems have been deployed to Novaya Zemlya to achieve this. These systems, which have been modified to be able to work in Arctic conditions, are capable of intercepting aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) within a 400-kilometer perimeter around the site (Mil.ru, December 9, 10, 2015; TVRain.ru, December 9, 2015). This marks a return of anti-aircraft/anti-ballistic missile capabilities to Novaya Zemlya, last present on the island in the early 1990s (Interfax, December 12, 2015).
In addition to the S-300s, the installation on Novaya Zemlya is reportedly outfitted with weapons systems to defend from both air and sea attack. The Pantsir-S1 (NATO name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) is a combination weapons system that includes short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. This system is capable of engaging aircraft and missiles flying at lower altitudes and has a 20 km range, providing air defense for the area immediately surrounding the installation. Likewise, the Bastion-P Costal Defense System (NATO name: SSC-5) is capable of defending the area from surface-level ships. This system uses Oniks supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO name: SS-N-26 “Strobile”; also known as the “Yakhont” in export markets). Traveling at a speed of Mach 2.5, these missiles have a range of 120–300 km and are capable of engaging various surfaces ships, carrier battle groups, convoys and landing crafts. Beyond providing for the general defense of the installation on Novaya Zemlya, the range of the Oniks missiles allows the Russians to create a choke point, preventing the passage of ships from the Barents Sea to the Pechora Sea and onward along the Northern Sea Route.
Further evidence of Russia’s push to establish its presence in the Arctic can be seen in both the organization of the Russian military and in official doctrine. In late December 2014, Russia’s Northern Fleet left the Western Military District to form the foundation of the newly created Arctic Joint Strategic Command. Although it does not have the title of a military district, the Arctic Joint Strategic Command is functionally a fifth military district responsible for securing Russia’s entire northern border and the Arctic. This structural reorganization, which is representative of the priority that the Kremlin is placing on the Arctic, was intended to centralize responsibility for the administration of this zone within the Russian military. Prior to this, these responsibilities were spread across the Western, Central, and Eastern military districts and the Northern and Pacific Fleets (TopWar.ru, September 15, 2014). The hope is that this restructuring will allow for the more efficient and effective administration of Russia’s growing military resources in the Arctic.
This structural reorganization came in the lead-up to the Russian government’s release of its new maritime doctrine this past August (see EDM, August 11, 2015). The Kremlin’s Arctic ambitions are reflected in the document, which dedicates a whole section to the region. At a glance, establishing firm control over its northern borders and the nearby Arctic zone is important to Russia for two reasons: 1) ensuring the passage of its Northern Fleet to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and 2) safeguarding Russia’s access to the abundant oil and gas resources in the area. Russia’s new Maritime Doctrine clearly articulates both of these points. However, the doctrine also dedicates significant attention to the increase of Russian military activity in the Arctic and specifies that one of Moscow’s goals is to restrict foreign military activity in the area (Kremlin.ru, July 26, 2015). Russia’s opening of the military installation on Novaya Zemlya is a major step toward establishing the regional capabilities that will make these goals a reality.
The opening of the new Russian military installation on Novaya Zemlya is all the more notable when contextualized with Russia’s other activities in the Arctic. In conjunction with Rogozin’s aforementioned proclamation, the opening of a new S-400 site in Tiksi, Sakha Republic, was also announced (Kommersant, December 8, 2015). Furthermore, Russia has built five other military bases on its Arctic islands (New Siberian Islands, Alexandra Land, Severnaya Zemlya, Cape Schmidt, and Wrangle Island) and began construction of over 440 military infrastructure projects that were due to be completed by the end of 2015. Future projects include the construction of a major airbase that is due to be completed by 2017 (Kommersant, December 8, 2015).
As a part of a larger network of new and reopened Russian military installations in the Arctic, the base on Novaya Zemlya is the Russian military’s largest unveiling in the region thus far. The weapons systems deployed there give it firm control over the Western end of the Northern Sea Route, as it exists along Russia’s borders. Continued development in the region promises to increase Russia’s capabilities and extend this level of control across Russia’s entire expansive northern border. Russian officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, continuously emphasize that their goal is only to maintain stability and security in the region so that life in Russia’s northernmost regions can develop peacefully and its people can prosper from the resource wealth of the area. Nevertheless, the reality remains that Russia is rapidly changing the facts on the ground in the Arctic. While Moscow claims it is not trying to militarize the High North, Russia’s rapidly expanding military presence in the Arctic increases the possibility for conflict as other countries begin to assert their interests in the region.