Safeguarding the Arctic
No. 3 2008 July/September

The Arctic has become the focus of everyone’s attention ever
since a Russian deepwater expedition led by members of the State
Duma installed the Russian tricolor on the floor of the Arctic
Ocean in August 2007. Discussions have sprung up everywhere about
the prospects for strong competition for resources in that region
and even the topic of climate change has acquired a geopolitical
flavor – “the Arctic ice is thinning, it is now easier to take out
what’s down there.”

A general stir among journalists and politicians plays into the
hands of experts. The expert community – in Russia and beyond – has
long complained about the lack of government interest in that
crucial part of the world. Meanwhile, the situation has brought
forth new challenges and one of them confronts the Russian
military, which has become accustomed to viewing the Arctic as its
own personal fiefdom. A hunt for mineral resources locked under a
shield of permafrost necessitates a reshaping of approaches that
were typical of the era of ideological standoffs so as to make them
more like economic competition.


Beginning at least in the 1930s, the Soviet and then Russian
military were the overlords of the Arctic, although the role that
was attached to the region in the country’s strategic security
would fluctuate depending on the foreign policy context. The
authorities looked at the Arctic from different angles:

  • Communication lines linking the Soviet Union with its allies in
    the anti-Nazi coalition;
  • Mining of strategic resources (apatite, titanium, nickel,
    copper, cobalt) for the defense industry;
  • Testing grounds (Novaya Zemlya, Plesetsk, Nenoksa) where the
    Soviet Union, as a nuclear superpower, tested its most novel
  • The frontline in an imaginary all-embracing nuclear war with
    the U.S., as it was in the Arctic that Soviet strategists expected
    the approach of strategic bombers or ballistic missiles from across
    the North Pole.

Naturally, this situation could not but affect the maps of
Russia’s northern littoral areas where the location of cities,
seaports, energy resource transportation lines, and, to some
extent, even the routes of seasonal migrations of the indigenous
peoples were tied up with considerations of strategic defense. Even
now, after more than fifteen years of persistent demilitarization,
Moscow continues to view this territory primarily from the defense

“All types of activity in the Arctic are tied to the interests
of defense and security to the maximum degree,” says The Basics of
State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Region,
Russia’s main national Arctic document which the Russian government
endorsed in 2001. The text says: “Russia’s special national
interests in the Arctic embrace, first and foremost, the economy,
ecology, defense, research and geopolitics.”

The list of priorities features the “reliable functioning of the
Russian Navy’s group of strategic sea-based nuclear forces deployed
there for deterring the threats of aggression against the Russian
Federation and its allies” as item number one. Item number two is
“reliable control over the state border of the Russian Federation
and Arctic maritime areas in order to defend the Russian
Federation’s national interests in the region.”

The nuclear truncheon has doubled its importance for Russia.
Since the country’s Armed Forces have been unable to recover
completely after the serial shocks produced by the botched-up
reforms in the 1990s, a provision admitting a nuclear strike in
retaliation to any large-scale aggression against Russia has
emerged in the doctrinal documents. Arctic waters get a unique role
in this respect. The bilateral disarmament agreements with the U.S.
and the ensuing shrinkage of national nuclear arsenals have led to
a situation that turns sea-based nuclear forces into Russia’s main
instrument of deterrence over the short term. While Soviet-era
Moscow put the main emphasis on land-based intercontinental
ballistic missiles, submarine missile cruisers should now form the
backbone of its security. Furthermore, the task of making Russian
submarines invulnerable has been vested in the so-called ‘Strategic
Northern Bastion.’

The concept of the bastion budded in the Russian Defense
Ministry in 1992. Its authors believed that a sharp drop in
Russia’s defense capability simultaneously on all theaters of naval
operations and scarce finances allocated for defense programs made
it necessary to concentrate the main group of nuclear forces in the
Northern Fleet, which operates in the Arctic. It suggested the
concealment of submarine missile cruisers from a potential enemy
under the meters-thick Arctic ice, as nuclear submarines would
become the enemy’s natural targets in case of an armed conflict.
The Arctic looked like an ideal region for erecting this bastion
for another reason: Russia had obvious advantages over other
countries in that it had many years of experience in scientific
research in sub-polar waters. The Russian Navy established a system
of “notification on the subsurface situation” based on data about
the condition of ice, hydrology, hydrography, weather conditions,
etc., that Russian experts had started accumulating in the course
of northern expeditions back in the Tsarist era.

The information concerning the Strategic Northern Bastion
concept has been strictly classified and any discussion of its
practical implementation is not really possible.

There was a brief period in the history of the ‘Bastion,’
though, when you could mention it aloud. Russian President Boris
Yeltsin quite unexpectedly revealed its existence in the summer of
1998 during war games of the Northern Fleet. For the next year and
a half or so, the Main Staff of the Navy recognized the existence
of the program officially and the expert community held open
discussions of whether the ‘Bastion’ could be efficient. But,
frankly speaking, the discussion was lax, as few people in Russia
displayed interest in the Northern Fleet until the Kursk submarine
tragedy in August 2000. The Kursk disaster made any discussions
even more complicated than before; all discussions vanished
completely after Igor Sutyagin, a leading Russian defense expert
from the Institute of U.S. and Canada Studies (he was the person
who warned about a possible inefficiency of combat control over
strategic forces in the Arctic due to severe ionospheric storms),
was sentenced on charges of espionage.

It should be noted that the Russian North teems with secrets
even without the ‘Strategic Bastion.’ Secrecy – especially what
concerns military issues – lurks all around you there. What kind of
secrecy can one expect in the mining of coal on Svalbard? Still,
the Concept of Russia’s Policy on the Norwegian Archipelago of
Svalbard that Yeltsin signed in December 1997 remains classified
even now, and the amendments to that concept authorized by Vladimir
Putin in January 2001 are classified as well. The document will be
fully rewritten by a special governmental commission – chaired by
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin – set up in April 2007 to
ensure Russia’s presence on Svalbard.

The commission faces the major task of working out a
consolidated strategy to keep a Russian presence on that
archipelago. The situation is really complicated, as the struggle
for control over the Arctic, which all Northern countries have
engaged in, may call into question Svalbard’s current status that
allows Russia to carry out economic activity there. This means that
the new concept will definitely be classified.

Moscow ventured to declassify its Arctic aces on one occasion
only and it did so just because the stakes in that game were
extremely high.


According to The Basics of State Policy of the Russian
Federation in the Arctic Region, the explored reserves of
commercial category gas in the Arctic make up 80 percent of
Russia’s total. “The Arctic accounts for 90 percent of the
recoverable hydrocarbon reserves found on the entire Russian
continental shelf, including the 70 percent of reserves that are
located in the Barents and Kara Seas,” the document says.
“Forecasts indicate the presence of 15 billion to 20 billion tons
of hydrocarbon fuel equivalent in the deepwater sectors of the
Arctic Ocean. The Arctic areas are home to facilities producing
natural gas, apatite concentrate, and many strategically
significant non-ferrous and precious metals (nickel, copper,
cobalt, etc.). The region’s industrial output ensures 11 percent of
Russia’s national income (while it accounts for only one percent of
the country’s total population) and 22 percent of Russian exported

Moscow filed a claim with the UN Commission on the Limits of the
Continental Shelf (CLCS) in December 2001 with the hope of getting
the rights to areas lying beyond its 200-mile zone. The matter at
stake involves a territory exceeding 1.2 million square kilometers
– in the Barents Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Strait, and
the ice-free waters of the Arctic Ocean – which Russia views as its
sovereign possessions. This claim rests on “Russian research of the
earth’s crust structure at the Mendeleyev Elevation in the Arctic
Ocean that has proven the continental nature of many sections of
the oceanic floor, which were previously attributed to the
sub-oceanic type.”

Formally, the claim does not contradict the norms of
international maritime law. The Convention on the Law of the Sea
passed by the UN in 1982 does envision an opportunity for littoral
countries to expand their sovereign rights beyond the 200-mile
exclusive economic zone – not infinitely, though, but only over
those sections of the seabed, of which the continental origins have
been proved conclusively.

Russia was the first country ever to lodge a claim with the
CLCS; there is no mechanism for passing decisions of this kind. The
UN regulations suggest that if a country lodging a claim agrees
with the commission’s recommendations, the latter are made public,
after which the revised borders become final and mandatory.

The first attempt did not bring the desired result, as the CLCS
required more convincing geologic and geophysical evidence that the
Mendeleyev and Lomonosov submerged ridges are extensions of
Russia’s continental shelf. Russia’s intensive Arctic research
carried out in 2005-2007 and the symbolic culmination of this
activity – the installation of the Russian tricolor on the sea
floor – were called upon to add more weight to the official claim.
The second claim will be filed in 2009 at the latest.

The very fact that Moscow furnished the CLSC with cartographical
materials gathered by the Navy in the Arctic is unique: the
research was conducted precisely for deploying the Strategic
Northern Bastion. The naval commanders were interested in measuring
depths, sea currents and ice thickness for prospective new routes
where strategic nuclear submarines could conduct combat patrolling.
Starting from Soviet times, the Navy has been searching for Arctic
areas suitable for launching missiles – “putting the missiles to
Uncle Sam’s head,” as a colorful expression of the Navy’s top brass
says. Russian Naval experts completed a detailed map of underwater
areas of the Arctic only at the end of the 1990s, and no other
country could boast of anything like that.

Nonetheless, Moscow ventured to declassify the maps and submit
them to the UN and, quite remarkably, the military raised no
objections to this. Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, the Navy’s former
commander-in-chief, loved to quote the famous Russian Admiral
Stepan Makarov (1849-1904), who described Russia as “a building
with the fa?ade turned toward the Arctic Ocean.” Admiral Kuroyedov
added on his part: “Our zone in the Arctic and the adjoining shelf
areas contain no less than 30 percent of the global reserves of oil
and gas. That’s why we can’t miss the real opportunity to stretch
the outer border of the continental shelf to the North Pole and
thus increase this country’s oil and gas production capacity by
another 15 to 20 billion tons.”

Russian military and political leaders have said more than once
at conferences in recent years that the Northern Fleet faces the
task of maintaining the status quo in the Arctic established there
back in the Soviet era. Political maps of the Soviet Union showed
the “red sector” of the Arctic that reached the North Pole and
scarcely anyone would have been audacious enough to challenge this.
As it would be impossible to prove Russia’s rights to it through
the use of force now, the military’s job de facto is to support the
current state of affairs until the moment the CLCS affirms Russia’s
rights de jure. The oil and gas resources found under the floor of
the Arctic Ocean have been included in the “Shelf” section of the
World Ocean special-purpose federal program. More than that,
operations are underway concerning the implementation of the
federal sub-program Creation of High-Tech Drilling Units, Machinery
and Equipment for the Deepwater Production of Oil and Gas and the
Development of Hydrocarbon Resources on the Arctic Continental
Shelf from 2003-2012. Under this program, Russian industry is
engaged in large-scale production of everything that is necessary
to develop the Arctic hydrocarbon wealth.


Changes related to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and
the establishment of partnership relations with the U.S. were far
more noticeable on the northern outskirts of the former empire than
anywhere else in Russia. As the Armed Forces started abandoning the
shores of the Arctic, their sweeping retreat to the south drove
whole regions to the verge of extinction. After the closure of a
nearby military base, local residents would become aware that army
aircraft had been their only means of transportation; that the base
had given them jobs; that they had got most of their goods from the
Army’s logistics shop; and that doctors from the base’s medical
unit had been the only medics within reach.

The situation exposed one more very unpleasant truth. In spite
of all the secrecy of the Soviet North, typical border defenses
were practically absent there, and this had nothing to do with
government negligence. The region simply used to have so many
military outposts that additional control over it on the part of
border services seemed unnecessary. That is why the Russian Army’s
withdrawal from the North put the country, which has the world’s
longest Arctic border stretching for over 17,500 kilometers
(one-third of the entire length of Russia’s national borders), in
danger of losing control of the area.

Once the mid-1990s arrived, it became clear that Russia might
lose the entire Arctic itself and not just control over it.

For one thing, the northern seas had turned into a very reliable
route for a massive outbound smuggling of precious, non-ferrous and
rare-earth metals (nickel, cobalt, palladium, etc.) produced at
northern deposits, as well as timber, oil products, furs, etc. More
than that, the uncontrolled Northern Sea Route, which Moscow
officially opened for international sea traffic in 1991, offered
unsurpassed opportunities for organizing all kinds of smuggling
channels that linked Europe with the sparsely populated shores of
the Arctic and which spread much farther to most of Siberia, the
Far East and even Kazakhstan. The major Lena, Yenisei and Ob rivers
and smaller rivers flowing into the Arctic Ocean allowed the
river-to-sea-going ships to get thousands of kilometers inside
Russia’s continental territory (the Ob River even gave access to
northern Kazakhstan).

For another thing, its neighbors immediately sensed Russia’s
weakness and started ousting it from the Arctic. They ignored the
frontier of the Soviet Union’s Arctic possessions, the upper corner
of which reached out to the North Pole, and foreign research ships
began to frequent Russia’s Arctic waters without notifying the
Russian maritime authorities of such visits.

Some of these incidents looked pretty anecdotal. Imagine that an
unidentified research ship is spotted in the Kara Sea. Its onboard
inscription says it is the Sverdrup II, from Norway. However, it
answers to all attempts by Russian fishing and cargo ships to send
traditional salutes to it that it is a naval ship on a
reconnaissance mission and close approaches to it are strictly
prohibited. No one ventured to check this at their own peril and
risk, while border guards – upon receiving complaints from Russian
captains – scratched their heads and wondered how the Norwegians
could get to the Kara Sea. They concluded eventually that the
Sverdrup II must have passed by the Novaya Zemlya archipelago and
then left the area by the same route.

The radar stations that the border guards have on Franz Josef
Land and at the northern extremity of Novaya Zemlya in theory
should cover all the space between them by the radar field, but
this is true in theory only.

Arctic “blindness” poses one more cumbersome problem. The
absence of proper radar control makes life in the North quite
comfortable for apparent illegal strangers, but even they do not
always profit from that ease. When a towboat belonging to a Black
Sea company was wrecked in the central part of the Laptev Sea in
September 1996, its crew obviously found little satisfaction with
having covered a large part of the Northern Sea Route unnoticed –
the border guards learned about the ship’s presence there from the
last SOS signal it managed to send. Imagine now the scale of
problems facing legal carriers, airlines in the first place. Any
flight over the Arctic – where aviation has traditionally been the
only means of transport – turns into a risky adventure. Search and
rescue support maps of Russia’s northern areas indicate the entire
coastline, water areas and islands of the Arctic seas as
“territories dangerous for flights of all kinds of aircraft.” They
indicate that the possibility of rescue in case of an accident
there does not exceed 30 percent. Experts challenge this figure,
though, calling it overly optimistic.

The situation is not much better for marine transportation
companies. Although the Northern Sea Route was officially opened
for international transportation in the early 1990s, foreign
shipping lines have declined to use it as the risks are too high
and insurance companies refuse to offer coverage for operations
there. The upkeep of secure navigation along the Northern Sea Route
has necessitated special amendments to Russian legislation. For
instance, a bill relegating responsibility for ‘navigational and
hydrographic provisioning’ in the Arctic seas from the Defense
Ministry to the Transport Ministry was urgently pushed through the
government, the parliament and the Kremlin administration in

And yet, even this extraordinary decision did not change
anything, as the Transport Ministry had to publicly admit that the
situation in its subsidiary responsible for the Northern Sea Route
– the State Unitary Hydrographic Enterprise – was disastrous due to
chronic under-financing. At the government level, Moscow recognizes
its responsibility for safe navigation. It has stressed on a number
of occasions in the past few years that in line with the 1974
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and
the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, signatory countries bear
full responsibility for safe navigation in their territorial
waters, and Russia naturally is the responsible party in the case
of the Northern Sea Route. But navigational equipment servicing
this route is getting out of date year after year, while the
federal program The Modernization of Russia’s Transport System
(2002-2010) does not offer much promise for Arctic navigation.


The revival of the Northern Sea Route loomed for quite some time
as one of Vladimir Putin’s most favorite brainchildren. A noisy
campaign advertising the would-be glamorous prospects for Arctic
navigation was one of the first electoral ploys when he was acting
president. In April 2000, addressing a special conference on the
Northern Sea Route and Russian shipbuilding, which was convened on
board the Arktika nuclear icebreaker in Murmansk, Putin gave
assurances that the volume of cargo shipments in the Arctic might
reach more than 10 million tons a year in the not-so-distant
future, while the actual volume barely exceeded a million tons at
the time.

Putin named several factors that called attention to the
Northern Sea Route.

First, he said Russia needed “a state
navigation policy, and the Arctic transport system offers a perfect
testing range for that.”

Second, “the North has the riches that may soon
be needed not only by Russia, but by all of humankind as well,”
Putin said. That is why “Northern territories are our strategic
reserve for the future.”

This led him to the logic conclusion that,
third, “the Northern Sea Route is an important
factor for ensuring the state’s security.”

Putin’s ideas are hard to contest, but their practical steps are
flawed. The Northern Sea Route still remains Russia’s internal
navigation passage that is used – at the very best – for
transporting export resources, metal ores and hydrocarbons in the
first place. Hopes for using this route for transit cargo shipments
between Europe and Asia were short-lived; and the discussions of
the prospects for the Northern Sea Route have been mitigated of
late even in Russia itself.

Vyacheslav Ruksha, the former director of the Federal Marine and
River Transport Agency, admitted in public that cargo shipments
along the Northern Sea Route cannot be profitable at the moment as
this passage includes sections like the Sannikov Strait and
Vilkitsky Strait, which are a mere 17 meters or so deep. This
limits the tonnage of cargo ships and makes the southern route
between Europe and Asia – although it is longer – much less
expensive due to a greater tonnage of ships. Ruksha said, however,
that fair prospects still existed – in case of shipping in the
Central Arctic rather than along the Northern Sea Route. This has a
hitch, too, as “completely new powerful transport ships and
icebreakers,” will be needed as “the ice there is completely

As for the new ships, the situation is bleak. Currently, the
Russian fleet has seven rapidly-aging nuclear icebreakers that
ensure navigation along the Northern Sea Route. Even considering
all the imaginable extensions of service life, the Arktika has
practically exhausted its service life; the Rossiya can remain in
operation until 2010 at the most; the Taimyr, until 2013, the
Vaigach and the Sovietsky Soyuz, until 2014; and the Yamal, until
2017. The Fifty Years of Victory icebreaker that the Murmansk
shipping line commissioned in 2007 can just barely be considered a
new one, since its construction at the Baltic Shipyards in St.
Petersburg dragged on for almost twenty years. This means that it,
too, belongs to the old family of icebreakers. New ships capable of
negotiating the Central Arctic’s ice are not even on the draft
boards, while scientists’ predictions that the Arctic Ocean could
become much warmer and clear itself of ice in the first years of
this millennium look rather far-fetched.