Russia has been beefing up its military presence in the Arctic by reopening defunct Soviet-era bases and conducting massive military exercises in the region.
But could this be more than just a show of force? Could Russia’s real aim be to annex the Arctic?
While claims of sovereignty over the Arctic are backed by international governing bodies, Russia’s paranoia over western plots against them could push it to become more aggressive in the region. Indeed, if Russia was to use military force to extend its polar borders, how would they even be opposed?
“The deterioration in Russia’s relations with the West is only likely to up the stakes for the Kremlin when it comes to settling its maritime borders in the Arctic,” writes Duncan Depledge for Quartz. “Yet in the coming years, Russia’s neighbors are likely to remain wary about how exactly the Kremlin plans to negotiate and secure its borders along its Arctic frontier.”
Warmer polar temperatures have scaled back Arctic sea ice, especially in the summertime, and that has allowed more shipping routes. But it’s also got nations eager to tap into the Arctic’s vast natural resource potential. The Arctic is predicted to be home to billions of barrels of oil and natural gas along with billions of dollars in rare earth minerals.
The Kremlin said it would use the Arctic as a “strategic resource base” in 2008, and more recently has reopened key military bases in the region that had been abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia plans on building three new Arctic bases that can house up 5,000 soldiers. This is in addition to the five Soviet air bases it’s reopening to enforce its Arctic claims.
Russia also plans building a fleet of large ice breakers, capable of traversing the ice-choked Arctic sea — three of the ships will be nuclear powered. It’s even conducting military exercises with some 40,000 soldiers — a massive show of force.
All of this military build up comes as the U.S. is preparing to take control of the Arctic Council this year. With tensions high over Ukraine, Russia is nervous western countries will block their access to polar riches. But the U.S. has said it will make addressing global warming its top concern for the upcoming Council meeting this year.
Still, global warming concerns means the U.S. will be less interested in hydrocarbon and mineral exploration — a top priority for Russia. The Kremlin is also nervous the United Nations will reject its pleas to allow claims beyond 200 nautical miles from Russian shores.
“A second rejection of Russian claims in the Arctic might further feed Russian concerns about being kept down and encircled by Western rivals,” writes Depledge. “On the other hand, if Russia’s claim is accepted, the rest of the international community might quite rightly become concerned about how the Kremlin will exert its authority within such significantly expanded maritime borders in the Arctic.”
But even if the UN rejects Russia’s attempt to expand its Arctic maritime borders, would that stop the Kremlin from inching northward? And who would stop them? Russia has said it would back its Arctic claims through force if necessary.
“The constant military presence in the Arctic and a possibility to protect the state’s interests by the military means are regarded as an integral part of the general policy to guarantee national security,” said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister.
“It’s not a secret that the Arctic is turning into one of the world centers for producing hydrocarbons and is an important junction for transport communications,” he said. “Some developed countries that don’t have direct access to the polar regions obstinately strive for the Arctic, taking certain political and military steps in that direction.”
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