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