Russian and NATO militaries are getting more active in the Arctic, but neither is sure about what the other is doing

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Anti-submarine warfare corvette Brest during a large-scale Northern Fleet military exercise in the Barents Sea, May 29, 2019. Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty Images
  • Russia and NATO members have both increased their activity in the Arctic, jockeying for position in a region that’s becoming more accessible for military and commercial activity.
  • The risk of conflict in the Arctic is still seen as low, but the growing military presence there and a lack of certainty on both sides about the other’s intent have added to the tension.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Russian and NATO forces have ramped up their activity in the Arctic, seeking to bolster their presence in a region set to grow as a venue for “great power competition” as receding ice and rising temperatures make it more accessible.

But increasing military activity by each side has worried the other. While the potential for conflict in the Arctic is considered low, the risk remains that a crisis elsewhere could spill over into conflict there, and both sides are making sure they can fight in harsh Arctic conditions.

Much of the recent activity has been in the European Arctic, where Russia and NATO members are in close proximity.

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British navy frigate HMS Kent; US Navy guided-missile destroyers USS Roosevelt, USS Porter, USS Donald Cook; and supply ship USNS Supply in the Arctic Ocean, May 5, 2020. Royal Navy/LPhot Dan Rosenbaum

Exercise Trident Juncture in late 2018 saw a US aircraft carrier above the Arctic Circle for the first time since the 1990s, and US Navy ships have travelled into the high north several times since then – most recently in May, when Navy surface ships sailed into the Barents Sea for the first time in over 30 years.

That exercise was “a show-and-tell game aimed at demonstrating credibility of access and operation in a potentially contested environment, as well as improving maritime domain awareness,” Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at the UK’s Chatham House think tank, said in late June.

Russia called the exercise “provocative” and held its own live-fire exercise days later, but overall its response was “tepid,” Boulegue said, adding that Moscow may feel validated that “after years of remilitarizing the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, the perceived threat of NATO and US deployments is ‘finally’ coming true.”

US bombers have also ventured into the high north several times in late 2019 and continued to do so during the first half of 2020, often exercising with NATO allies.

“The Arctic remains a key area for us to continue to best understand how we will operate up there, and key to me for that is how we operate with our partners,” Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, told Insider during a Defence Writers Group event in June.

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US airmen conduct a landing zone survey at Jan Mayen Airfield, Norway, November 19, 2019. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Kyle Yeager

US airmen travelled to an island in the Norwegian Sea in late 2019 to see if military transport aircraft could land there, causing immediate alarm in Russia. Harrigian said it was “crystal clear” that US partners have the best understanding of the Arctic, “so our reliance on them, and the interaction, as demonstrated by our visit up there to learn from our partners, is really going to be key to our success.”

Russia has deployed sophisticated defensive weaponry around the European Arctic, part of its defence of the “bastion” where it would want to deny access to opponents in a conflict. Russia’s powerful Northern Fleet, based on the nearby Kola Peninsula, has also increased its operational tempo and range at sea and in the air.

Russia’s Ocean Shield exercise in late 2019 saw 70 warships take part in drills across the Arctic and northern Europe, and Northern Fleet aircraft have also flown farther south than usual several times already this year, including a flight all the way to the Bay of Biscay, off the coast of France.

Those flights are a message, according to Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee in the British House of Commons.

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Russian fighter aircraft during training in the Arctic. Russian Ministry of Defence

“My district is on the very south coast of the UK. We’ve seen these [Russian] aircraft do a full circle around Ireland and the UK … and then fly all the way back,” Ellwood said at another recent CSIS event. “So this is all a statement of intent, to say that, ‘we are growing and growing, don’t mess with us.'”

More recently, the Northern Fleet kicked off its largest exercise of the year. Vice Adm. Aleksandr Moiseev, the fleet’s commander,said the drills “are defensive in nature and are not directed against anyone” but added that the “actions of our forces are planned taking into account the international situation.”

The US-UK exercise in the Barents was “uncomparable” to the scale and nature of recent Russian exercises, Katrazyna Zysk, head of centre for security policy at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, said at a recent CSIS event.

Russian aircraft have simulated attacks on Norway and Russia’s neighbours have accused it of interfering with GPS. “There is not certainly about the intentions behind these kind of activities,” Zysk said.

‘Political-military pressure’

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A US Air Force F-22s intercepts a Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft in the Alaskan Air Defence Identification Zone, March 9, 2020. NORAD

The Arctic north of the Pacific is generally less tense than the European Arctic and often sees US-Russian cooperation on issues like waterway management.

But Russia has pursued modernisation there as well, upgrading runways and bases and opening new or refurbished facilities on nearby islands, according to Alexey Muraviev, a professor at Australia’s Curtain University.

“They’re effectively building up the radar shield but also intercept capability that would allow them to engage or deter any surprise aerial attacks,” Muraviev said in late June. Wrangel Island, 300 miles from Alaska, has the easternmost radar in the “protective dome” of radars covering Russia’s northern coastline.

While there don’t appear to be plans to base sizable military units on the the Arctic perimeter, “what the Russians do is practice a lot of manoeuvre, so they have been staging naval deployments along the Northern Sea Route,” and Russia’s Pacific Fleet plans to stage a large-scale amphibious exercise in the Arctic later in the year, Muraviev said.

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A strategic missile aircraft from the Russian Aerospace Forces takes off for a flight over the Chukotka, Bering and Okhotsk seas. Russian Ministry of Defence

US officials, with Russia in mind, have focused on Alaska as a prime vantage point and an important training area. Alaska is already home to ballistic-missile-defence systems, and the Air Force is ramping up the number of F-35s based there.

While the Far East is relatively calm, tensions elsewhere influence military activity there.

US and Canadian aircraft intercepted Russian aircraft entering the Alaska Air Defence Identification Zone at least nine occasions in the first half of this year – an increase from the average of six or seven intercepts a year since Moscow restarted long-range aviation patrols in 2007.

The uptick is a response to strained US-Russian relations, to Moscow’s dismay over the collapse of major arms-control agreements, and, in part, to increased NATO military flights around the Baltic and Black seas, Muraviev said.

It’s “an application of political-military pressure” by Moscow, Muraviev said. “What is happening in Russia’s Western regions can get a mirror reflection [in] Russia’s increased activity in the Far East.”

“The Russians do flex their muscles in a variety of ways, and they certainly look at their strategic bomber force as a form of power projection, similar to naval capability,” Muraviev added. “In fact, to some extent, they substitute a limited number of ocean-going vessels by increasing the operational tempo of their strategic bombers.”

Other motives

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An underwater anti-sabotage detachment on combat duty at the Northern Fleet’s main base in Severomorsk, on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, February 1, 2019. Lev FedoseyevTASS via Getty Images

Russia announced in June that the Northern Fleet would become its own military district on January 1, 2021.

“The North Command (OSK Sever) was already half-autonomous in-between the Central and Western military districts,” Boulegue said. “But now it’s official: Russia will get its 5th military district, which means even more attention to anything Arctic.”

There are a number of reasons Russia would want more military capability across the Arctic. It has the world’s longest Arctic coastline and derives about one-quarter of its GDP from the region. Russian economic interests stretch across the region, especially the Northern Sea Route, which Moscow sees a valuable corridor for shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Russia’s military is also typically the best suited for operating in the harsh conditions in the Arctic, but its activity still worries the neighbours.

Russia’s exercise tempo “has gone through the roof” without clarity about its goals, Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at CSIS, said a recent event.

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US soldiers sprint across a flight line toward their objective during an exercise in Deadhorse, Alaska, March 13, 2018 US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Isaac Johnson

“There is a lack of transparency. There’s a lack of confidence-building measures. We don’t … completely understand Russia’s interest and intentions,” Conley added, arguing for a forum to discuss military issues in the region.

Russia, for its part, sees NATO military activity and other efforts to counter it as signs it’s “being squeezed from the United States on the Alaska side [and by] NATO from the European side,” Mike Sfraga, director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Centre think tank, said at an event in March.

Keeping track of what the US and NATO might be doing across the Arctic “is a significant concern” for the Russians, Sfraga added.

Adding military capabilities and infrastructure to secure economic interests is “quite rational,” Sfraga said. “All good nations protect their assets and their interests.”

“Our question is trying to get a handle on are there other motives, like any other nation, in terms of projecting force, influencing areas outside of their national boundaries, and that kind of thing,” Sfraga said.