Russia Scores ‘Big Victory’ Over US & Its Allies In The Arctic; US Vows To Stand “Toe To Toe, Ship To Ship” With Moscow

More than 20 warships, 35 aircraft, and eight onshore units of 13 NATO allied and partner nations are to participate on May 8 in “Formidable Shield,” an exercise inside the Arctic Circle to train air and missile defense against any future Russian missile attack.

However, a major geopolitical development that has not received due attention is that while militarily, Russia is struggling to establish its ascendance over Ukraine because the latter supports NATO, it has scored a legal victory in the Arctic that has serious strategic implications for the regional countries – the  United States, Canada, Norway, and Denmark.

After more than 20 years of extensive diplomacy and expeditions with icebreakers, research vessels, and submarines under the polar sea ice, Russia has recently received “approving recommendations” for the majority of its claim to the seabed in the central parts of the Arctic Ocean from the UN Commission for the Limitation of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Now Russia will legally have approximately 1.7 million square kilometers of Arctic seabed.

Its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), thus, extends now across the North Pole to the EEZs of Canada and Greenland, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. And this needs to be seen with the Russian claim in the seas north of the Bering Strait and Alaska,  which is a straight line defined by a separate agreement with the United States, delimiting the territorial sea and the continental shelf between the two countries.

Hitherto strategic interests of all the Arctic-rim states – Russia, the United States, Denmark, Canada, and Norway – centered on “access to and use of emerging global transportation corridors, the future of data routes via submarine cables, preeminent satellite basing opportunities for both military and scientific purposes, as well as access to (and potentially control of) Arctic resources (living and nonliving).” Now the military dimensions of these interests are also coming to the surface.

The onshore areas in Canada, Russia, and the US (Alaska) have already been explored for hydrocarbons, resulting in the discovery of more than 400 oil and gas fields north of the Arctic Circle.

Some 2.6 million barrels of fossil fuels are pumped out of the Russian and Canadian Arctic daily. So far, dormant, Norway has also started exploring and producing minerals on its extended continental shelf.

Besides, some Arctic nations have welcomed non-Arctic states (like Russia and China, Norway, and the United Kingdom) to joint exploration of oil and gas, rare earth metals, fishing, and “even, remarkably, the cultivation of crops.”

Alternate sea routes connecting the Indo-Pacific to Europe through this region by avoiding the Suez Canal are also significant. In this context, the most important happens to be the Northern Sea Route (NSR).

This is a shipping lane from the Kara Sea to the Pacific Ocean, specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from Kara Gates strait between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. And it has several alternative passages and routes between Novaya Zemlya and the Bering Strait.

The NSR is expected to give Russia enormous strategic and commercial benefits. For instance, compared to the Suez Canal route, the estimated shipping through the NSR will reduce the distance between Shanghai and Rotterdam (Europe’s largest commercial port in the Netherlands) by almost 2,800 nautical miles or by 22 percent.

This route will also likely reduce the transportation cost by 30 to 40 percent. Similarly, while a container ship from Tokyo to Hamburg (Germany’s prominent port city) sails for about 48 days via the Suez Canal, it can cover the same distance in about 35 days via the NSR.

Of late, Moscow is also minimizing the uncertainties related to the seasonal state of the northern polar icecap and the Arctic transit capabilities of shippers. It says that global climate change has gradually boosted the competitiveness of the NSR.

According to a Russian study, 2020 broke yet another record in terms of temperatures, and the Arctic icecap has decreased by five to seven times compared to the 1980s. As a result, the area of ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean is shrinking by thousands of square kilometers every year.

US B-52 Stratofortress with NATO aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 and SAAB Gripen

This, in turn, has made the NSR more and more navigable, with lesser need for icebreakers, of which Russia, incidentally, has the largest fleet in the world. In any case, it is said that almost all of today’s merchant ships are well-equipped with ice-breaking capabilities, enabling them to make their voyages over the Northern Sea Route by themselves.

All these activities of Russia in the Arctic region have raised serious concerns among American policymakers.

In a recent Defense Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, Congresswoman Betty McCollum confronted Navy Chief Of Naval Operations Mike Gilday by asking hard about the United States’ preparedness in this strategic region. Her concerns highlighted the need for a stronger American presence in the area so that the US is ready to stand “toe to toe, ship to ship” with Russia and China.

China is also said to have been working hard to assume a major role in the Arctic economically and geologically.

The Chinese have been building icebreakers and ice-capable ships and promoting infrastructure development in the northern portions of Russia. “China has participated in 33 Arctic operations in the last two decades. They engage in all major Arctic institutions and continue to expand their icebreaker fleet, which now includes two medium icebreakers. They are currently developing heavy icebreakers,” Betty McCollum, another Congresswoman, said while questioning Gilday and Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.

She lamented that while “Russia alone has 40 icebreakers, including two nuclear-powered ones,” the US has only one operational heavy icebreaker, the USCGC Polar Star.

It may be noted that apart from having the world’s largest icebreaker fleet, Russia’s bases inside the Arctic Circle outnumber NATO’s by about a third, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

File Image: Russian Icebreaker

Reportedly, Moscow’s ongoing “Lider icebreaker newbuild project” plans to be equipped with two RITM-400-type nuclear reactors and have a total capacity of 120 MW, twice the power of the currently most powerful icebreakers.

Besides, Russia has unveiled a new maritime strategy, vowing to protect Arctic waters “by all means,” including with hypersonic missile systems. Russian aircraft regularly probe the region.

US & NATO Partnership

The American preparedness against any eventuality currently relies on the partnership with fellow NATO countries. NATO conducts regular military exercises. For instance, “the Formidable Shield,” kicking off on May 8, will involve  4,000 personnel in the waters outside Andøya. A series of live-fire events against subsonic, supersonic, and ballistic targets will take place.

The Russian navy and air forces have launched these kinds of cruise missiles on several training occasions in the Barents- and White Sea regions in recent years.

“NATO Allied and partner nations field the most advanced technologies and capabilities in the world, and live fire rehearsals like Formidable Shield provide an ideal venue to integrate and mature these capabilities across all domains,” according to Capt. Jon Lipps, Commander of the US Sixth Fleet.

Meanwhile, there are reports of seven Russian warships being already in the region to monitor NATO activities. The warships include the destroyer “Vice Admiral Kulakov,” four corvettes, the tanker “Kama,” and the frigate “Admiral Grigorovich.” It is also said that  Tu-142 maritime surveillance aircraft are flying missions south to the North Sea from an air base on the Kola Peninsula.

As far as the Americans are concerned, apart from preparing through NATO,  the US Strategic Command sent one of its E-6B Mercury planes to Iceland in late February 2023.

Colloquially known as a “doomsday plane,” it is designed to serve as a command-and-control center for the US Navy, enabling secure communications with its strategic nuclear submarines. In an emergency, the plane can be used as “a command post for the President, who may authorize the launch of nuclear weapons. The plane is hard to detect on radar and has considerable endurance, so its forward posting was a clear signal to the Kremlin.”

Reportedly, a similar signal was sent in early March “when the US Air Force sent a B-52H Stratofortress strategic bomber to patrol the Gulf of Finland. Being capable of carrying nuclear weapons, it approached within 200 kilometers of St. Petersburg, where it turned south across the three Baltic republics.”

File Image: Russia’s arctic militarisation

The ongoing war in Ukraine has complicated the Arctic race, which was manageable otherwise under the Arctic Council.

The Council was created in 1996 and included members of Denmark, Canada, Norway, the US, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. It was functioning well. It had successfully stabilized boundary issues between Russia and others.

The Council was also marked by cooperation among the members for the peaceful exploitation of natural resources, particularly energy. A policy document published in March 2020 called for the “strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states” in economic, scientific, cultural, and cross-border cooperation. And when Russia took over its Presidency (2021- 23) of the Council, none objected.

However, on March 3, 2022, the seven non-Russian members of the Arctic Council announced a temporary halt to participation in all meetings of the Council.

And last year, the US declared that “Moscow’s decision to invade its neighbor, an independent and sovereign state, makes cooperation virtually impossible for [the] foreseeable future.”

In other words, the US now wants the Council to work without Russia.

Russia, in return, has also amended its original Arctic strategy that it had enunciated in March 2020. That strategy had called for the “strengthening of good neighborly relations with the Arctic states” in economic, scientific, cultural, and cross-border cooperation.

But, on February 21 this year, Russian President Putin decreed an amendment by deleting all prior references to multilateral, regional cooperation formats like the Arctic Council.

The revised document now places the country’s national interests in the Arctic ahead of work toward economic, scientific, technological, and cultural cooperation. It says that any cooperation to be made now will be on a country-to-country basis bilaterally.

Significantly, the change to its Arctic policy was made the same week  Russia announced the suspension of the START nuclear arms treaty with the US.

Thus, this new US-Russian rivalry in the Arctic has challenged the well-known notion,  which other Arctic – countries, notably Norway, had always highlighted – “High North, Low Tension.” It  seems now “High North, High Tension.”

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. VIEWS PERSONAL OF THE AUTHOR
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: