Russia's Arctic military build-up explained


A Russian submarine stands at Russia's Nothern Fleet base in the town of Severomorsk in 2007. CISAC fellow Katarzyna Zysk says military-strategic calculations, economic development and domestic objectives are driving Russia's military expansion in the Arctic.
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Russia’s desire to be a great power, nuclear deterrence and naval strategies are the reasons behind its rapid Arctic military build-up, a Stanford expert says.

The issue is complicated. “There are three basic drivers: military-strategic calculations, economic development, and domestic objectives,” said Katarzyna Zysk, a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Zysk has a forthcoming paper on this topic to be published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. Last year, she presented her findings at the conference, "The Russian Military in Contemporary Perspective," held by the American Foreign Policy Council. She also discussed her research at the Hoover Institution's Arctic Security Initiative meeting in November 2016. 

Putin’s foreign policy

Despite claims it would not do so, Russia since 2012 in particular has embarked on a large-scale military modernization in the Arctic across basically all defense branches, with a special focus on the air and maritime domain, Zysk said.

“The military ambitions have expanded with the more nationalist and isolationist turn in Russian policies after (Vladimir) Putin’s return as president in May 2012,” said Zysk, an associate professor at the Norwegian Defence University College who specializes in Russia’s security and defense policies.

In 2014, Russia decided to deploy military forces along the entire Russian Arctic coast, from Murmansk to Chukotka, and on permanent basis. A modernization effort is underway, too.

This trend has deepened the asymmetry of power between Russia’s forces and those of other countries in the region, such as the United States, Zysk said.

“The Arctic contributes to maintaining Russia’s great power status, which has been one of the main driving forces behind Putin’s foreign policy in recent years,” she said.

‘Startling’ military build-up

The Arctic appears as one of the most stable Russian border regions, which makes the rapid defense build-up by a Russian government with a slowing economy quite perplexing to many observers, noted Zysk.

Apart from the economy, she explains the military strategies involved:

“Russia has revived the Cold War ‘Bastion’ concept in the Barents Sea: In case of conflict, the Northern Fleet’s task is to form maritime areas closed to penetration for enemy naval forces, where Russia would deploy strategic submarines and maintain control. In the areas further south, Russia would seek to deny control for potential adversaries. It also gives Russia a possibility to attack an enemy’s sea lines of communication,” she said.

On top of this, Russia’s modernization efforts are focused on modernizing its nuclear deterrent, including building fourth-generation strategic submarines of the Borei class: three are completed, and five are under different stages of construction, according to Zysk.

Russia is also building new attack submarines, as well as new frigates and corvettes, though the shipbuilding industry is struggling with delivering these on time, she added.

Also, the Artic provides Russia a strategic gateway to both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Zysk said, which is important given that Russia’s naval forces are separated between four theaters of operations – the Pacific, the Arctic-Atlantic, the Baltic and the Black Sea.

As a result of climate change, Russia may be able to more freely move its warships between its main bases along the Northern Sea Route, she added.

“Importantly, the forces in the Arctic are not going to stay only in the Arctic. With the increased mobility, the military units can be transferred rapidly to support Russia military operations in other regions, as we have observed in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has used a brigade deployed in the High North. The trend is likely to continue, also because Russia’s military capabilities remain limited, despite the ongoing modernization,” she said.

Perceived threats

Russia considers that if it engaged in conflict with other great powers, such as the United States, the Arctic would be a major target, Zysk said. Russia has also rehearsed scenarios when the biggest part of the Russian Navy based in the Arctic, the Northern Fleet, would be activated during conflicts escalating in other regions. That’s a reason for the strengthening of its defenses in the region.

“In the Russian assessment, an aerial attack from the Arctic region may pose military threats to the entire Russian territory. In particular, however, Russia is concerned about the sea-based nuclear deterrent deployed in the Arctic. As a result, Russia has devoted a strong focus to increasing air defense and air control across the Arctic,” she said.

Apart from threats from state actors, environmental accidents, trafficking, terrorist attacks on industrial infrastructure or increased foreign intelligence also make the Arctic, in Russia’s view, a vulnerable territory. Finally, the issue of Russia’s vast energy reserves and other rich natural resources in the Arctic are another factor. The development of the Arctic is seen as one of the solutions to what ails the Russian economy.

Zysk said, “Since the early 2000s, the Russian political and military leadership has systematically argued that there will be an acute shortage of energy resources worldwide, which may lead to a conflict, and that the West, led by the United States, may attempt to seize Russia’s oil and gas.”

While this assessment is controversial, Zysk points to statements by the top Russian political and military leadership, including Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, that suggests the Russian leadership believes such scenario may occur by 2030.

“It may also explain some of the military investments in the region, such as reactivating 13 military airfields across the Arctic, paratroopers’ exercises and amphibious landing operations along the Northern Sea Route,” she said.

In addition, the Arctic holds a symbolically important place in Russia’s history and national identity, according to Zysk.

“Displays of military strength, accompanied by rhetoric that portrays Russia as the Arctic superpower, resonate well with the Russian public, especially in communities where feelings of nationalism and isolationism run deep,” she said.

As a result of the military modernization, she added, Russia is today better prepared to participate in complex military operations than a decade ago, especially in joint operations, strategic mobility and rapid deployments.

“Russia’s ability to limit or deny access and control various parts of the Arctic has increased accordingly,” Zysk said.

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Katarzyna Zysk, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 723-6840,

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,