Safeguarding the Arctic

9 august 2008

Yuri Golotyuk

Resume: The global situation in the North 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 necessitates a reshaping of approaches that were typical of the era of ideological standoffs.

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 armaments;
  • 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 angle.

“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 commodities.”

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 2001.

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 different.”

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.

Last updated 9 august 2008, 13:55

} Page 1 of 5