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Polar opposites: Russia and NATO in the Arctic

Jacob Stokes | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

For the past few years, the West has been trying to decipher exactly what Russia is doing in the Arctic. Top secret military bases and mysterious missile launches have kept the West, and NATO in particular, on edge about Russia’s militarisation of the Arctic. Yet, for a country famed for its secrecy and coverups, the Kremlin has done a poor job over the past few weeks of keeping its Arctic Territory activities out of the global spotlight.

On 29 May, 20,000 tonnes of oil was spilt into the Ambarnaya River near the remote city of Norilsk, 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. This has since become one of the largest oil spills in Russian history. While the environmental impact of the spill could last for decades to come, of greater concern is the potential knock-on effects the accident could have for the Arctic Ocean.

Flow on from the spill has spewed into a large nearby lake, Lake Pyasino, which feeds directly into the Kara Sea and onward to the Arctic Ocean. Usually, the Kara Sea is ice-bound from October to June, making water flow minimal. However, record-breaking heatwaves in the region have melted the ice sheets, creating a direct link between the site of the oil spill and the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Not two weeks later, Russia and the Arctic were breaking news again when the head of Russia’s Arctic Academy of Sciences, Valery Mitko, was accused of spying and passing state secrets to China. Mitko, Russia’s top Arctic scientist, is alleged to have handed Beijing intelligence information on hydro-acoustics which can be applied to underwater navigation and submarine monitoring. Mitko denies the allegations, yet there is little hope of winning his case, with Russia having a history of accusing and convicting potential wrongdoers who have access to highly sensitive information despite limited proof.

Russia’s paranoia is likely due to its awareness of the lengths its top Arctic scientists and KGB operatives have gone to in order to steal intelligence from foreign states. In April 2019, Norwegian fisherman in the Arctic found a beluga whale with camera equipment and a GoPro attachment harnessed to it - etched into the camera was “Equipment St. Petersburg”. It is not uncommon for marine mammals to be conscripted into the Russian Armed Forces, with the Russian Navy known to possess ‘combat dolphins’ who play their part in defence procedures and in raiding enemy ships.

However, killer dolphins and climate disasters are not what is on the West’s radar when it comes to Russian ventures in the Arctic.

Within its 15 year Arctic strategy released in March this year, Russia has made clear the region’s importance to Moscow’s economic and military future. The Kremlin has outlined plans for 40 Arctic vessels, the construction of airports, seaports and railways, underwater communication cables, and the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear-powered icebreaker at a cost of €1.85 billion (AUD $3 billion).

Increased temperatures as a result of climate change have seen the average September ice coverage in the Arctic drop from 7.58 million square kilometres in 1996 to 4.32 million square kilometres in 2019, opening new shipping routes in the process. Russia is hoping to capitalise on the economic possibilities of the emerging Northern Sea Route, which offers merchant ships a vastly shorter route between Europe and Asia and can drastically reduce the cost of maritime trade between the two continents.

Russia’s resource-dependent economy means Moscow is also hoping to tap into the Arctic’s vast oil and natural gas potential. With melting sea ice exposing previously inaccessible oil and natural gas, the Arctic resource race has begun, with over 400 billion barrels of energy resources up for grabs, the vast majority of which lies within Russia’s maritime jurisdiction.

To achieve its goal of monopolising the Northern Sea Route, Russia has established sophisticated military bases in the Arctic. Lots of them.

Russia has militarised six islands in the Arctic, reopening 50 former Soviet Arctic bases in the process. These militarised islands provide state-of-the-art land, sea and air capabilities to reinforce Russian control over the Northern Sea Route. Some of the newly established bases are located along a strategically important shipping lane for NATO members.

Bases on Alexander Land Island threaten a vital maritime trade route for Iceland, Norway, Greenland and the United Kingdom, while military outposts on Cape Schmidt provide Moscow with opportunities to hinder U.S. military reinforcement to Europe.

NATO must do more to address Russia’s increased investment and capacity in the Arctic. Yet, NATO faces difficulties trying to achieve a foothold in the north. Of the European Arctic nations, only Norway is a NATO member, meaning an increased NATO presence in Arctic waters threatens the leadership and sovereignty of non-NATO Arctic nations such as Sweden, Finland and Iceland.

NATO’s ability to function is further hamstrung by its icy relationship with President Trump. But regardless of these roadblocks, NATO must work to develop a more cohesive and coherent Arctic strategy before Russia’s control of the region becomes unyielding and climate catastrophes, militarised ice sheets and armed aquatic mammals become the norm.

Jacob Stokes is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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