The Svalbard tragedy illuminates the downside of heavy militarization of Russia’s Arctic policy

Norwegian search operation (photo NTB)

Taking ownership of and “conquering” the Arctic are themes Russian authorities love to amplify. But sometimes, the harsh Northern reality interferes. The crash of an Mi-8 helicopter in Svalbard (Spitsbergen), last Thursday (October 26), with eight lives lost, was one such occasion. Norway launched a rescue operation within 30 minutes, while Russian officials continued to falter for hours about the unclear circumstances surrounding the incident; the Russian search party arrived only on Sunday. The crew aboard the doomed helicopter had no reason to attempt that trip to the long-abandoned mining village of Piramida in poor weather, but Moscow insists on maintaining an active presence on the Norwegian archipelago. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at a recent meeting of the Barents Council, departed from the usual cooperative discourse and accused Norway of enforcing restrictions on Russian activities in Spitsbergen, including helicopter flights. The Russian Ministry of Defense, meanwhile, has accused Norway of threatening Russia’s interests in the Arctic, and specifically on Spitsbergen.

This persistent exaggeration of external threats is supposed to justify Russia’s own build-up of military capabilities and infrastructure in the High North. The Northern Fleet demonstrated its firepower during the Zapad 2017 series of exercises, which are still being evaluated at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) headquarters. Amphibious operations supported by missile strikes were the main feature of this year’s Zapad war games, which extended from the new base on Kotelny Island, in the East Siberian Sea, to Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land, in the Barents Sea. The Russian Arctic Command, established in December 2014, seeks to show readiness to defend navigation along the Northern Sea Route (NSR); but the main problem there is the rotten infrastructure, not piracy. Rosatom, which owns the fleet of Russian nuclear icebreakers, has been trying to gain administrative control over the NSR, but the Ministry of Transport defends its turf, arguing that new funding should go to projects that have no nuclear content.

For Moscow, the strategic importance of the Arctic theater came into sharp focus last week, during night-long exercises of Russian strategic forces involving the whole triad of long-range aviation, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and strategic nuclear submarines. The bombers did not venture far, but aimed their missiles at targets in the northern Pemboi test-site; the only ICBM tested was an old Topol, launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome, in the Arkhangelsk region; one submarine fired a missile from the Barents Sea toward Kamchatka, and another fired two missiles from the Sea of Okhotsk toward the White Sea. The submarines involved were not named, so it is unclear whether at least one advanced Bulava missiles was tested—indeed, the track record of its tests is abridged and checkered. The Kremlin announced that President Vladimir Putin personally launched four ballistic missiles. The credibility of this statement appears dubious because a submerged submarine can launch its missiles only by an order of its commander.

For more, take a look at Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 30, 2017

Russian Foreign Policy Concept is vague on the Arctic

Kuznetsov before departing to the Mediterranean.

Kuznetsov before departing to the Mediterranean.

Russia has found itself in a very different international situation than that envisaged by its basic documents in 2013, so there was clearly a need in revising its Foreign Policy Concept – and President Vladimir Putin duly approved a new one on 30 November 2016. The Concept is more assertive and harshly worded than the previous one, and in the opinion of Andrei Kortunov, one of the voices of reason among the mainstream experts in Moscow, doesn’t reflect the most recent changes in the Russian course, so it appears like “the light of a distant star, which reaches us on a delay”.

The Concept comes to the Arctic matters only in Article 76, so it is definitely not a set of issues of high priority, which doesn’t preclude Russian commentators to claim that the “course is set toward the Arctic“. Nothing is said about Russia’s claim for expanding its continental shelf, which is presently under consideration in the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), but the point is made that the international law provides a “sufficient base” for resolving all disputes. The Concept acknowledges the particular role of the Arctic Council, and also mentions particular responsibilities of the five littoral states.

The main emphasis is placed on preserving “peace, stability and constructive international cooperation in the Arctic”, and it is further reinforced by the pledge to counter any efforts aimed at bringing to the Arctic “elements of policy of confrontation and military counter-balancing”. Rather more difficult to understand is the follow-up to this pledge rejecting “politicization of international interaction in the region.” Politicization is far preferable to militarization, and Russia is firm set on this latter track. For that matter, the Norther Fleet has proudly reported a 60% increase in missile launches in 2016 comparing  with 2015, which is difficult to check, but quite certainly the test launch of the anti-ship Granit missile on a target on-shore was a first. The Northern Fleet is going to get back a major surface combatant, as the modernization of Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser is finally coming to completion. The flagship of the Northern Fleet, Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory in the first combat deployment to Eastern Mediterranean, as two fighters were lost due to technical failures.

The Concept also has a few things to say about the Northern Europe (nothing about Southern Europe, or Eastern Europe, or the Balkans, for that matter), where a “zone of peace and stability based on the principle of equal and indivisible security” is to be preserved (Article 71). Sounds very nice, but makes a poor fit to the prevalent discourse on “Anglo-Saxon strategy of hybrid threats”, as exemplified by this recent lengthy article in Nezavisimaya gazeta.

Moscow keeps promising responses to NATO activities

Spanish frigates visiting Trondheim as a part of the Cold Response 2016 exercises

Spanish frigates visiting Trondheim as a part of the Cold Response 2016 exercises

Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to President Vladimir Putin, is generally not known for eloquence. But his comment last week (June 7) about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s exercises in the Baltic region stands out both for its convolutedness and uncharacteristic meekness. His point, reproduced by all Russian mainstream media, can be approximately translated as: “In any case, such exercises, which have a legend based on rather straightforward identification in the quite clear direction, they do not contribute to the atmosphere of trust and security” (RIA Novosti, June 7). Peskov’s elliptic reference to the lack of trust between Moscow and the West in fact highlights the unusual self-restraint present in Russia’s military behavior over the past couple of months. This moderation—while sometimes camouflaged by harsh rhetoric—remains largely unexplained.

NATO’s Anakonda 2016 exercises in Poland as well as the Baltops 2016 naval exercises in the Baltic Sea are being thoroughly covered by the Russian media, and there is no shortage of hysterical commentary (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, June 8; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 6). Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued several vague promises to respond to these exercises, including in the case of the USS Porter, which recently paid a planned visit to the Black Sea (, June 10). Nevertheless, no aggressive Russian intercepts or mock attacks have been registered so far, and the official news agencies are even airing Western military opinions on professional and problem-free encounters with the Russians (RIA Novosti, June 11). In 2015, Russia conspicuously responded to any scheduled NATO exercises with its own snap drills that tended to be at least twice as large; presently, the picture is strikingly different.

It is certainly not the case that Russia is doing nothing. Two army brigades are being redeployed from the Volga-Urals region closer to the borders with Ukraine without any public fanfare (RBC, June 11). This most probably fits into the plans for building three new divisions in the Western direction, announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at the start of the year (, June 1; see EDM, January 19, April 5). It is possible that the plan for deploying batteries of Iskander-M tactical missiles to the Kaliningrad region and to Crimea is also being implemented in a clandestine manner (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, June 3). Allegedly, these secret missile redeployments, if true, are being made in response to the opening of the United States’ missile defense base in Romania, which Putin pointedly condemned as a “direct threat” to Russia’s security (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, May 30). This US missile defense facility is incapable of threatening Russia’s overwhelming strategic nuclear forces. And neither could the SM-3 missile interceptors be converted into strike weapons by a mere “change of software” (as Putin claims). Nonetheless, Moscow’s desire to counter the long-prepared US “aggressive” step was unmistakable—although any overt tangible response has apparently been postponed (New Times, June 10).

Signs of the same cautiousness can also be seen in the conduct of Russia’s military intervention in Syria. On June 10, in Tehran, Shoigu discussed with his Iranian and Syrian counterparts the course of the offensive operation against Raqqa, the stronghold of the Islamic State. However, he did not commit to any increase in the intensity of airstrikes (Kommersant, June 10). The arrival of the US aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman to the Eastern Mediterranean was duly noted in Moscow, but the combat order of the Russian naval squadron in the Syrian waters was left unchanged (, June 6). Apparently, the Russian top brass are more worried about the risks to Russia’s own forces than about the lack of success in suppressing Syrian rebels of various persuasions, particularly as yet another fighter jet crashed, outside Moscow, in recent days (RBC, June 9).

Russian ambiguity and slowness in delivering on the promised responses to all sorts of challenges may be aimed at exploiting divisions in the Western camp. Indeed, it makes perfect sense to postpone the probing of NATO vulnerabilities in the Baltic theater until after the Warsaw summit (, June 10). The Kremlin is upset with the firm position taken by Germany on the need to contain the Russian challenge, but holds out hope for a heavy blow to Europe’s unity should the United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union in the upcoming referendum (Novaya Gazeta, June 6). The key matter here is certainly the relaxation of the sanctions regime, even if 71 percent of Russians now expect that sanctions will be prolonged for another year (, June 8).

Such expectations reflect the growing public pessimism about Russia’s economic prospects, and no amount of upbeat propaganda can counter the impact of steadily falling incomes. Putin is trying to put a positive spin on the carefully doctored macro-economic statistics, but the contraction of domestic consumption is set to deepen (RBC, June 8). Meanwhile, enthusiasm about effective power projection in Syria has dissipated, and Russians now express the opinion that it is economic prosperity and not military power that constitutes the key characteristic of a “great power” (Kommersant, June 10). This shift in public mood plays into the hands of economic pragmatists, such as Alexei Kudrin, who try to convince Putin that a return to growth and prosperity is possible only with a reduction in geopolitical tensions (, June 6).

Russia’s ambivalent self-restraint in the last couple of months is probably an attempt at such de-escalation, but there are few reasons to believe that it will pay any dividends. The resonance in the West of Russia’s gross violations of the norms of international behavior far outweighs any impression made by a pause in Russian military exercises—particularly since the hostility of Moscow’s anti-Western rhetoric has remained severe. Putin may wish to increase his space for maneuver, but the Kremlin’s promises to forcefully respond to NATO’s strengthening containment capabilities and to the imaginary encroachments on Russia’s security frontiers keep multiplying. Although nobody is going to hold Putin to these promises, he knows that he can demand loyalty from the disgruntled and squabbling siloviki (security services personnel) only as long as he keeps proving the firmness of his ruling hand. As long as the demonstrated prudence serves the purpose of deception and maskirovka (Russian military deception), it is perfectly fine, but going for real compromises risks showing weakness. Attempting another proactive move might be a safer option, but Putin needs to score on the cheap—and the bills for the earlier “victories” keep piling up.

Originally published in Eurasia Daily Monitor, June 13

With Russia overextended elsewhere, Arctic cooperation gets a new chance

The presentation of the Russian claim on expanding its continental shelf in the Arctic was a low-key affair at the UN.

The presentation of the Russian claim on expanding its continental shelf in the Arctic was a low-key affair at the UN.

Can the United States and Russia actually cooperate in the Arctic? It might seem like wishful thinking, given that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asserted that there is in fact a “New Cold War” between the two countries in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. Many people—at that conference and elsewhere—see the idea as far-fetched. Sure, Russia is launching air strikes in what has become an all-out proxy war in Syria, continues to be aggressive against Ukraine, and has increased its military build-up in the High North. To many observers, the notion of cooperating with Russia in the Arctic was a non-starter as recently as the mid-2015. There have been, however, significant changes in Russia’s behavior in the last several months—so, maybe it is possible to bracket the Arctic out of the evolving confrontation.

These and other matters were the subject of discussion at a recent conference at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in New York, in which we had the pleasure to partake last week.

More reflections from Pavel Baev and Tim Boersma are at the Order from Chaos, 18 February 2016.

Russia’s Arctic illusions

Russian Arctic brigade exercises on Taimyr

Russian Arctic brigade exercises on Taimyr

Russia appears firmly set on its course of militarization of the Arctic. In a region where economic activities are mostly declining and where environmental challenges are on the rise, Russia appears to be engaged in a one-sided arms race. It is glaringly obvious to observers outside the Kremlin that Russia’s severe economic recession makes this course unsustainable. Russia may aspire to Arctic greatness, but there is little there to achieve and Russia is unlikely to be able to achieve it.

This is the bottom line from my post at the Brookings blog Order from Chaos, August 27.

And there is also a feature article in New York Times by Steven Lee Myers, which has this point:

Some have questioned whether Russia, whose economy is sinking under the weight of sanctions and the falling price of oil, can sustain its efforts in the Arctic.

“The only challenge to Russian exploitation of the Arctic came from Greenpeace,” he said.

Arctic fishing and Russian Maritime Doctrine

Putin addresses the naval parade in Baltiisk.

Putin addresses the naval parade in Baltiisk.

Many Arctic watchers were glad to hear about the agreement on prohibiting fishing in the newly-opening waters around the North Pole, signed a couple of weeks ago in Oslo by Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA. Indeed, it was a significant step in protecting migrating fish stocks – but Iceland declared strong reservations. It often resents activities in the Arctic-five format because it is not included on formal grounds, while to all intents and purposes, it is certainly a maritime Arctic state. For Russia, the agreement constituted an important proof of its commitment to Arctic cooperation and readiness to address particular issues, despite the evolving confrontation shaped by the Ukraine crisis.

This commitment stands in huge contrast with Russia’s expanding military activities in the High North, which the Arctic Council cannot address in any meaningful way due to the limits of its mandate – but neither can it ignore this militarization. It was very strongly pronounced in the new version of Russian Maritime Doctrine, approved by President Putin last Sunday. It was Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin who presented this document and he placed a particular emphasis on the Arctic strategic direction, giving the Sevmorput as the main reason, then pointing to the free access to the Atlantic and (rather anti-geographically) to the Pacific, and then mentioning the natural resources. It is interesting that oil-and-gas matters, which used to be the highest priority in Russian perceptions of Arctic politics, are de-prioritized, but such mundane matters as fisheries are hardly registering at all in the big geopolitical picture.

Putin used the occasion of the Navy day to announce the revisions in the Maritime Doctrine and the expansion of naval activities in the Arctic is indeed very visible. A couple of days prior to this announcement, Admiral Vladimir Korolev,the Commander of the Navy, had informed that the tree Borei-class submarines (Yuri Dolgoruky, Aleksandr Nevsky, and Vladimir Monomakh) would go this year into the Arctic for combat training. It is unclear, whether this means that the plan for transfer of Aleksandr Nevsky to the Pacific Fleet in September this year is cancelled. 

Setting new ambitious maritime goals may sound very grand and make international headlines, but in fact, the Russian Navy is not in a very good shape – and is set to be a big loser in the unavoidable deep cuts in the 2020 Armament program. Rogozin was forced to admit earlier this month that shipbuilding was severely affected by the interruption of cooperative ties and had failed to proceed with import substitution. The cancellation of the major deal with France on the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for the Russian navy was a big blow to the plans for expanding naval power projection capabilities. Symbolically, at the naval parade in Baltiisk which Putin attended, a missile failed to launch from a ship, and at the Black Sea Fleet parade in Sevastopol, a missile broke down immediately after launch.

These embarrassing technical failures remind that the Bulava missile for the Borei-class submarines is now mass-produced without completing the whole program of tests, and the track record of these tests is far from stellar. The risks involved in demonstrating Russia’s naval might may be acceptable by Russian standards – but they are seriously worrisome for the European states who happen to be its neighbors.

EU is paying attention to Arctic security matters

It was a peaceful place once upon a times.

It was a peaceful place once upon a times.

EUISS has just published a report entitled Arctic Security Matters concluding that the EU, “as a distinctly ‘soft’ security actor”, could play a useful role “in attempts to build up mutual trust and to give assurances that military assets in the Arctic create stability”. The bottom lime is “While much of this positive assessment of the role that the EU may be able to play in the Arctic is largely dependent on future environmental, economic and political developments occurring beyond the boundaries of the Arctic region, political will, translated into strategic action, is now needed to secure the foundations of Arctic cooperation laid down during previous decades.”

In my contribution, I argue that “Russia’s course towards militarisation of inter-state relations in the Arctic region presents a difficult problem for the EU, which has to rely on ‘soft power’ instruments in building its profile as an ‘Arctic actor’. At the same time, the EU has assumed a central role in the complex confrontation with Moscow as the sanctions regime – in combination with lower oil prices – is having an increasingly painful impact on the targeted sectors of the Russian economy. Seeing the EU as a key antagonist, Moscow has effectively prevented it from gaining observer status in the Arctic Council – and will expect this institution to take an anti-Russian stance as the chairmanship passes from Canada to the US.”

Russia’s accident-prone air might

These ageing workhorses hardly make a convincing demonstration of Russia's air might.

These ageing workhorses hardly make a convincing demonstration of Russia’s air might.

I made an argument about Russia’s weakening and vulnerability in Brookings’ blog Order from Chaos, suggesting, in particular, that

What is less obvious for many Russia-watchers is that the military strength demonstrated so pompously on the Red Square during the May 9 Victory Day parade is also in decline. In Ukraine, the lack of any meaningful political or strategic Russian goals erodes the morale of the troops who are clandestinely deployed there. Nervous about the domestic political consequences of growing casualties, Putin has classified information about warzone deaths as a state secret. The costs of the war are mounting, and over-spending in the Armaments 2020 priority procurement program is yet another item in the list of embarrassing fiscal setbacks. It is clear to serious Russian economists that military expenditures have been out of control for the last four quarters at least. Such spending cannot be sustained indefinitely, and deep cuts in the defense budget are certain this year.

I didn’t expect this point to find corroborating evidence in the accident with a Tu-95MS strategic bomber that caught fire on the runway of the Ukrainka airbase in the Far East with the loss of life of one pilot. It is a striking coincidence that earlier this week two other accidents happened in the Russian Air Force: a MiG-29 fighter crushed during a training flight in Astrakhan oblast (both pilots safely landed on parachutes) and a Su-34 fighter-bomber had a hard landing in Voronezh oblast (the pilot was rescued). Norwegian and other NATO pilots have become quite familiar with ageing Tu-95s, and it is very fortunate indeed that the accident happened on the ground – and not during a strategic patrol over the Arctic ice, where suspicions about foul play would have inevitably exploded in Moscow leading to a further escalation of tensions.

Clash of exercises in the High North

Busy in Bodø.

Busy in Bodø.

International Air Force exercises Arctic Challenge 2015 are going on in the High North with Norway as the lead nation and 9 states (including, remarkably, Switzerland) participating with squadrons of various jet fighters (as well as NATO AWACS E3 planes). Russia found it necessary to respond with snap military exercises of its own, engaging not only air assets, but ships of the Northern Fleet and the newly-deployed Arctic brigade.

There is quite a lot of coverage of these overlapping exercises in the Russian media (this article in Nezavisimaya gazeta provides an overview), but the statement that strikes me as pretty odd comes from Russian envoy to NATO Aleksandr Grushko, who ventured the proposition that there is absolutely no need for NATO to be present in the Arctic region.

Despite the tall number of troops and aircraft involved in the Russian exercise (250 planes in total, though mostly in the Central military district and not in the Northern theater), Moscow is worried that its long-range aviation is growing old, and the plan for developing a new generation bomber cannot possibly come to fruition by the end of this decade – and most probably by the middle of the next one. Seeking to bridge this gap, the Defense Ministry announced a new addition to the 2020 Armament Program (which is prohibitively expensive) – 50 relatively modern Tu-160 strategic bombers are to be ordered and produced  at the Kazan Aviation Plant.

The clash of exercises certainly involves security risks, but at least no incidents similar to the “intercept” of US destroyer Ross by Russian Su-24 fighter-bombers in the Black Sea last week, as proudly reported by Rossiiskaya gazeta.

Rogozin’s escapade grows into a political crisis

Rogozin argued that Russia had to mark the perimeter of its Arctic possessions, or it would lose the struggle for its sovereignty and independence.

Rogozin argued that Russia had to mark the perimeter of its Arctic possessions, or it would lose the struggle for its sovereignty and independence.

It was entirely possible for the Russian Foreign Ministry to downplay the minor scandal around Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin surprise visit to Spitsbergen, but instead the choice was for making a full-blown crisis. It was quite embarrassing for the Norwegian authorities that they learned about Rogozin’s arrival to Longyearbyen and excursion to Barentsburg from the media, that picked Rogozin’s own Twitter posts (Barents Observer, April 18). Since Rogozin is – deservedly – on the list of persons sanctioned by the EU, USA and Norway, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was obliged to call Russian Ambassador for explanations (Aftenposten, April 19). Some explanations (logistics and weather conditions) were indeed provided, but the emphasis in the statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry is on “puzzlement” about the Norwegian reaction, which is characterized as “inexplicable and absurd” (MID, April 20). Rogozin loves to play an “enfant terrible” role and his urge to add insult to injury in Twitter posts is very much in character, but this sort of official response – instantly picked up by the official media – makes it a very different matter (Rossiiskaya gazeta, April 20). Norwegian sovereignty over Spitsbergen is questioned directly and crudely. In Russian understanding, sovereignty exists if a state can exercise it, and if it cannot – it doesn’t. Certainly, something more than a diplomatic note is necessary if Norway wants to prove that Svalbard is not “terra nullis”.