Tag Archives: Arctic

Putin’s Arctic Chimera

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.

Putin on Franz Josef Land in 2010 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

Putin on Franz Josef Land in 2010 (photo: Kremlin.ru)

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.

Northern Fleet Anti-Terrorist Training (photo: Mil.ru)

Northern Fleet Anti-Terrorist Training (photo: Mil.ru)

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.

Shamanov on the VDV’s GOZ

General-Lieutenant Shamanov (photo: RIA Novosti / Petr Chernov)

Last Thursday VDV Commander, General-Lieutenant Vladimir Shamanov returned to a bit of media spotlight for the first time since returning to duty following serious injuries in a collision with a truck last fall.

Shamanov said the VDV’s part of the state defense order (GOZ) isn’t necessarily proceeding well.  But he claims the BMD-4M was ordered.  He lobbied for a piece of the Arctic defense mission.  And he repeated past calls for his own helicopters.

RIA Novosti and ITAR-TASS reported Shamanov saying he’s satisfied “on the whole” that the rearmament of the VDV:

“. . . is going according to the strict parameters which were established.  First of all, this concerns the modernization of BMD-1 and BMD-2 and ‘Nona’ self-propelled artillery with automation means.”

But he added:

“The issue of fulfilling the 2011 state defense order for 10 BMD-4M and for 10 standardized ‘Rakushka’ armored personnel carriers, built on a BMD-4M base, is not completely resolved.  The thing is Kurganmashzavod didn’t give a guarantee it would produce them.  Presently, Kurganmashzavod’s financial situation is causing concern.  There are no guarantees that, if all the money comes, the order will be met.” 

Last year Shamanov said the firm was developing and producing the first BMD-4M models on its own to the tune of 200 million rubles.

Still he hopes the problem with fulfilling the 2011 GOZ for the VDV will be resolved soon.  He said there are negotiations, and the problem should be resolved in week or two.

The VDV Commander indicated he’s sending the Genshtab a proposal under which his branch would participate in defending Russia’s Arctic shelf jointly with the Ground Troops.

He told journalists he gave his deputy, General-Major Aleksandr Lentsov,  the task of developing options for VDV units to work with the Ground Troops and Navy in the Arctic.  Shamanov invited the commanders of Naval Infantry brigades and Ground Troops’ air-assault brigades to the VDV’s operational conference in Ryazan the week before last.

Shamanov opined that establishment of an inter-service grouping for the Arctic is “fully possible” but how it might happen remains a topic of discussion.

The press services said Shamanov resurfaced his previous calls for a helicopter regiment co-located with the VDV brigade in Ulyanovsk or division in Pskov.  He said he plans to submit two variants of such a proposal to the Genshtab when it is finished.  

Press sources said he requested the same thing at this time last year.  The Ground Troops-dominated Genshtab apparently frowns on an idea that would eat resources and possibly duplicate the capabilities of the army’s own air-assault brigades.  For his part, maybe Shamanov benefits by repeatedly laying down a marker indicating that the VDV lacks something he considers essential.