U.S. & NATO Need an Arctic Strategy to Counter Russia
Ever since Russia seized control of Crimea in late February 2014, the U.S.’s and NATO’s attention has been on the threats posed by Russian forces to the territorial integrity of the Alliance. New deployments of NATO forces reflect this concern. U.S. and Allied fighters have begun conducting enhanced air policing patrols in Baltic airspace. Rapid reaction units have been deployed to the Baltic States and Poland. U.S. heavy combat forces are now conducting heel-to-toe rotations in Central Europe. U.S surface combatants, some equipped with the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, have routinely conducted operations in both the Black and Baltic Seas.
As if Russian aggression in Europe were not enough to fully capture the attention of U.S. and NATO leaders, its intervention in Syria presented a new worry to Western military planners. Russia’s occupation of bases in Syria seemed to outflank the Alliance, which was struggling to enhance its military posture in Eastern Europe. It opened a second theater from which, in a conflict, Russian air and naval forces could operate against NATO’s southern flank.
As if this were not enough for NATO’s political and military leaders to cope with, they must respond to a growing danger in a third theater: the Arctic. For years, experts on Russia’s foreign and security policies have warned that Moscow has a strategy to exert control over much of the Arctic and exploit its vast resources. For more than a decade, the Kremlin has been engaged in a sophisticated, multi-faceted campaign that employs a wide range of diplomatic, legal, economic and military tools to assert and even expand its claims to the Arctic. Moscow has repeatedly sought to get international recognition for its claims to vast swathes of the Arctic, often without evidence and using the flimsiest of legal arguments.
As relations between NATO and Russia deteriorated in the aftermath of the occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Moscow has accelerated its efforts to convert theoretical claims to large portions of the Arctic into de facto possession. Simultaneously, and not coincidentally, the Russian military has been expanding its presence and basing in the far North and Arctic.
Despite the lure of oil and mineral riches underneath the Arctic’s waters, the Kremlin’s true interest in the far North is driven by security considerations. Specifically, Moscow fears that the West, led by its primary adversary, the United States, will use the newly opened waters of the Arctic as an avenue of attack. The presence of 300 U.S. Marines in northern Norway for maneuvers was interpreted by Russia as preparations for a land attack on the naval base in Murmansk.
Operating out of a state of self-induced paranoia, Putin and his generals have expended scarce resources rather freely to build a dedicated Arctic military capability. The Russian military buildup in this region includes: an array of new icebreakers, some of them nuclear powered; more than a dozen new airfields; 16 deepwater ports; around 20 air defense radar sites; a range of their best tactical and long-range air defense systems; and dedicated cold-weather training centers. The Russian Army is deploying scarce combat brigades, paratroop units, counterterrorism forces and electronic warfare units to the region. Recently, the Kremlin announced the creation of a new Arctic strategic command.
All of these capabilities stand in sharp contrast to the absence of even a single U.S. or NATO base in the Arctic and only a limited presence by national coast guards. According to General Phillip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, “Russia’s behavior in the Arctic is increasingly troubling. Their increase in stationing military forces, building and reopening bases, and creating an Arctic military district – all to counter an imagined threat to their internationally undisputed territories – stands in stark contrast to the conduct of the seven other Arctic nations.”
These investments are expensive and impose real opportunity costs on a military that is trying to modernize both its conventional and nuclear forces and conduct multiple foreign operations. Coinciding with Russia’s expanded military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, there have been reports of reduced operations in the Arctic as well as cutbacks in planned construction and force deployments. Even quasi-civil programs such as building a large fleet of polar icebreakers are reportedly short of funds.
A competitive strategies approach to dealing with Russia’s growing military threat to the West would seize on this moment. Russia is overextended geo-strategically and without the resources to pursue a military buildup on multiple fronts simultaneously. A modest effort by the U.S. and its allies to reassert their presence in the region and develop a coordinated strategy for deterring Russian aggression in the Arctic could upset Moscow’s plans in Europe and even the Middle East. The Arctic is, in fact, an area of weakness for Moscow and one where even a little show of Western strength could have disproportionate effects.
NATO and the U.S. need to make it clear that they will contest the Kremlin’s efforts to dominate the Arctic. The first thing the Trump Administration should do is make good on its pledge to fund a new generation of polar icebreakers. The second is to use lawfare against Moscow by aggressively pushing back on the Kremlin’s illegitimate claims to portions of the Arctic in international organizations. A third step would be to institute new anti-submarine warfare exercises in northern waters with allies and friends such as the U.K., Norway, Canada and Sweden. A fourth is to reinstitute patrols by U.S. attack submarines in the Arctic. Finally, the U.S. should expand Army and Marine Corps exercises in the region, with an eye to the ways land forces could support air and naval operations in the far north.
Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.