Pronouncements on plans for stronger Russian military forces in the Arctic have been studiously ignored on these pages.
For two reasons . . . first, one can’t write about everything, and second (because of the first), one has to focus on a few significant topics.
The Russian military in the Arctic hasn’t been one of them.
President Vladimir Putin’s interest in the Arctic made news in 2007 when a mini-submarine planted a Russian flag on ocean floor under the North Pole. The Kremlin wanted to stake a symbolic claim to the lion’s share of the Arctic’s potential underwater wealth.
The vast, frozen region may indeed have large percentages of the world’s undiscovered natural gas and oil deposits.
More than a few observers see Putin’s concern with the Arctic as an effort to extend Russia’s hydrocarbon export-based model of economic growth.
The friend-of-Putin state oligarchs running Gazprom and Rosneft would certainly like the Russian treasury (and military) to underwrite their efforts to get at Arctic resources and line their pockets with more cash.
But the capital investment and technology required would be staggering. Canadian expert Michael Byers has been widely quoted:
“We’re talking about the center of a large, inhospitable ocean that is in total darkness for three months each year, thousands of miles from any port.”
“The water in the North Pole is 12,000 feet deep and will always be covered by sea ice in the winter. It’s not a place where anyone is going to be drilling for oil and gas. So it’s not about economic stakes, it’s about domestic politics.”
It’s an easy place to show Russia’s leader defending national sovereignty and interests. The news stories and press releases track with an established Kremlin narrative about hostile Western powers trying to grab Russia’s natural bounty.
All of which brings us back round to the military in the Arctic.
During Serdyukov’s tenure, the Ministry of Defense first raised the prospect of basing two army brigades there. In September, Kirov-class CGN Petr Velikiy and other ships sailed the Northern Sea Route into the eastern Arctic. And late in the year, Putin himself was prominent in giving the order to build, or re-build, various Russian military bases in the Arctic.
But things have a way of taking ridiculous turns.
On 17 February, an unidentified source told ITAR-TASS that the MOD and Genshtab have proposed forming a new Arctic unified strategic command with the Northern Fleet as its basis. The source claimed this Northern Fleet-Unified Strategic Command (SF-OSK or СФ-ОСК) would be a new de facto MD, even if it isn’t called one.
The Northern Fleet and major units and formations based in the north would be taken from the Western MD, and put into new groupings deployed in the Arctic, including on Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands, and Franz Josef Land. Ouch.
SK-OSK is supposed to be inter-departmental too, with FSB Border Guards added. The whole thing would report to the MOD, Genshtab, and, at some point, the NTsUOG.
The proposal is reportedly with Putin now, and a decision is expected in the coming months.
To make matters more interesting, Western MD Commander, General-Colonel Anatoliy Sidorov was cool, perhaps even balky, when confronted by the possibility of an “Arctic OSK.”
He told media representatives last Friday that his troops need no additional knowledge, and his equipment no additional preparation, for service in Arctic conditions. He would not comment on possibly losing a large part of his current command. According to RIA Novosti, he said only, “When there are directives, we will fulfill them.”
ITAR-TASS last week also reported on a company-sized anti-terrorist exercise in the Northern Fleet.
But there’s no “Al Qaida in the Arctic” yet. Only Greenpeace.
Russia’s Arctic is enormous, and it is likely to be increasingly important, but not necessarily as the next big theater of war. Naturally, Moscow wants to prepare for contingencies, but it’s already prepared and positioned as well as the few other regional players. The money, time, and attention might be better spent on more palpable threats. But, as Byers pointed out, the Arctic seems to be good politics.