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Russia’s Military Build‐Up in the Arctic: to What End?

Katarzyna Zysk
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Russia’s expanding military capabilities and the sharply increased activity of its armed forces in the Arctic continue to puzzle many outside observers: What war scenarios is Russia preparing for in this remote and relatively stable region? And what is driving Russia to prioritize the region and continue to inject new capabilities into all of its defense branches, expand its military infrastructure, and increase the quantity, scope, and complexity of its military exercises and training—even as the economic environment has become increasingly constrained, including periods of stagnation and recession, since 2014?

Unlike Russia’s previous attempts at rebuilding the state’s presence in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War, these efforts have been consistent and systematic, despite some overambitious timeframes and delays caused by structural and circumstantial obstacles. Russia’s military ambitions in the region have gradually expanded, even though the official rhetoric and relatively modest plans formulated in 2008 were supported by statements that Russia had “no intentions to enhance its military presence or establish military forces in the Arctic.” If this was ever the case, it has certainly changed. In particular, changes were made after the nationalist turn in Russian domestic and foreign policies following Vladimir Putin’s return to power as president in 2012. Two years later, the Russian Ministry of Defense proclaimed that Russian forces would be stationed along the entire Russian Arctic coast on a permanent basis. While this objective remains aspirational to a large degree, the focus has brought a qualitative and quantitative change in the Russian military posture in the region. This is evidenced in several ways: modernized weapons and technology; an expanded military infrastructure; an improved strategic mobility and ability to conduct complex joint operations; shortened reaction times; and a consolidated command and control structure with the addition of the Joint Strategic Command North (ob’edinionnoye strategicheskoye komandovanie (OSK) Sever) in 2014 and its transformation into Russia’s fifth military district “Northern Fleet” in 2021.

Combined with Russia’s repeated demonstration of its willingness to use force (or threaten to use force) to achieve foreign policy objectives, the development has raised questions about Russia’s intentions and end objectives behind its Arctic military buildup: What aspects of the regional development are so critical to Russia that it awards the Arctic such a high priority in defense spending? How have the strategic considerations evolved over the years? And, consequently, how are they reflected in the choice of prioritized capabilities and operational patterns?

One function of the displays of military capabilities and training is to communicate ambitions, power, determination, and competence in order to strengthen deterrence and influence potential adversaries, in addition to gathering the support of domestic audiences. Yet the actual investments and exercises viewed over time also provide useful indicators of the options that are available to—and are being considered by—the Russian military-political leadership, as well as the actual or likely ability of the armed forces to conduct certain operations. They also reveal the focus of the leadership on the type of security threats they see the need to prepare for, and the options considered in escalation management.

This study examines the evolution of Russia’s military posture in the Arctic, including current investments, training and exercises, and explores what the development trends over time can ultimately tell us about the end objectives for the revamped Russian military force in the region.

First, the paper clarifies the often-misleading definitions of the Russian Arctic and the competing narratives about Russian military development. Second, it examines the expansive Russian threat perception in the Arctic as one of the primary driving forces for the regional military buildup. Third, it discusses the traditional role of nuclear defense and deterrence in the Arctic, which still constitutes the very foundation of the region’s military-strategic importance to Moscow. Fourth, because the Arctic is not merely about the Kola Peninsula and its strategic submarines, the study examines the role of nonnuclear defense and deterrence, which has systematically expanded (in particular, since 2010). Fifth, the study analyses the relationship between nuclear and nonnuclear forces and missions, and the impact of this interaction on the shifting regional strategic equation. This section includes a discussion of the expanding Russian network of military bases and airfields. Next, the study identifies and systematizes key operational patterns in Russian military training and exercises in the region, with a special focus on naval forces, the air force and long-range aviation, and airborne troops and land forces. The final section of the paper presents the study’s conclusions.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. 09/01/2020

Details

  • Pages: 38
  • Document Number: IOP-2020-U-027998-Final
  • Publication Date: 9/1/2020
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