Struggle in the North I: Moves and Countermoves

Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions


As the U.S.-Russia relationship continues to be strained, many political pundits have proclaimed the world to be entering a new Cold War. It is appropriate therefore, that the newest front in the Russo-American rivalry will be in the Arctic, where the Cold War would literally be cold.  The economic, environmental, and security implications of a changing Arctic region will be felt by both Washington and Moscow long into the future, and could have a profound effect on the existing global order.

Over the short-term, the greatest impact will be felt by those countries with territory above the Arctic Circle. This series of articles will examine how each of them is reacting to changes in their region. It will serve to overview the military, scientific, economic, and financial interests of each country. Part I focuses on Russia's military and scientific developments as well as recent shifts in Arctic diplomatic conditions.



As early as 2013, the Russian military began re-deploying troops to its northern coast to “actively explore the promising region and use all possible channels to protect its security and national interests.” Several Soviet-era bases are being refurnished, including the significant facilities on the New Siberian Islands. President Putin described the New Siberians as being "crucial for monitoring the situation throughout the Arctic."

In 2014, the Russian military announced plans to build a drone base 420 miles off mainland Alaska. This facility will be equipped with “mobile units” operated solely by professional servicemen according to Russian spokesmen. Anton Lavrov, of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, reported that "Russia is not facing any direct military threats from the north. Its military buildup in the Arctic pursues long-term goals rather than any immediate objectives." (Emphasis added)

Moscow’s creation of the Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN) is another likely indication of long-term strategic considerations. The Polish Institute of International Affairs assessed that the JSCN will not be a typical naval group. The command will ultimately feature an air defense division, two Arctic mechanized brigades, a naval infantry brigade, a coastal defense missile system, and the placement of missile regiments in outlying archipelagos in the Arctic Ocean. Moscow has also moved S-400 Triumph air defense missile systems to its northern coast.

In April 2015, Russian paratroopers successfully landed on a drifting Arctic iceberg. It is unclear what tactical value such a capability provides to the Russian Armed Forces, but it is nevertheless an indication of further orientation towards the far north. It is highly likely that Russia will continue to conduct military drills in the Arctic region for the foreseeable future. As the ice sheets continue to recede and new resources become available, such exercises are likely to increase in both size and scope.


Scientific and Economic Developments

Beyond the military dimension, Russia has recently launched North Pole-2015, a new scientific drifting station designed for long-term missions. The launching ceremony was personally attended by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who’s portfolio includes oversight of the Russian defense industry, Economic Development Minister Aleksey Ulyukayev, and Minister of Natural Resources Sergey Donskoy. The high-level attendance indicates the projects importance to the Kremlin.

Economic exploration and development in the Arctic region has continued despite Western sanctions. The Kremlin has discussed opening the Arctic to private companies, such as Lukoil, possibly as a means of increasing their regional economic presence. Presently, state-run Rosneft and Gazprom have a monopoly on Arctic shelf exploration.


Diplomatic Developments

The 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council took place in Iqaluit, Canada on April 24th and 25th. The meeting saw Canada hand over its chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the United States, which will hold the position until 2017. Geopolitical tensions between member states had drastically increased from previous meetings, largely due to the Ukraine crisis.

Pavel Gudev, of the Russian International Affairs Council, reported the direct effects on Arctic cooperation as including the cancellation of the annual meeting of the chiefs of staff of the Arctic Council countries, the suspension of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and the cancellation of the regular Russian-US-Norwegian naval exercise.

The US Chairmanship is the Council is likely to complicate US-Russia relations in the Arctic region.


Going Forward

  • US chairmanship of the Arctic Council is likely to complicate US-Russian relations in the Arctic region, though the chairmanship stands as one area where Russia and the United States may find common ground.
  • The ongoing dispute between Denmark, Canada, and Russia may intensify given current geopolitical conditions, though the breakdown along Western vs. Russia lines are unlikely.
  • Profitable economic development in the region by Russia is unlikely in the near to medium-term given the high costs and technology requirements for resource exploitation.


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