As Russian President Vladimir Putin continues his protracted war in Ukraine, it may seem premature to consider where he could act next. The United States, as an Arctic nation and as a maritime nation, must look over the horizon toward a Blue Arctic.
The real cause of today’s crisis is Putin’s quest to return Ukraine to the Russian orbit. At the height of its expansion, the Russian Empire stretched across the northern portions of Europe and Asia, comprising nearly one-sixth of the earth’s landmass. It occupied modern Russia, Ukraine, and Finland, as well as many other countries today. In 2005, Putin called the Soviet collapse “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”. He expanded on this idea just last year, saying “what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost.”
The question we have to ask now is whether we can contain the fighting or whether it will expand beyond Ukraine. And if Putin succeeds at taking and holding Ukraine, we must ask ourselves–not if, but where, how, and when he will act next.
It’s here along the maritime borders of Russia and the United States where we see a rapidly melting polar ice cap; the shortest maritime trade route linking Asia, Europe, and North America; nearly one-third of the world’s untapped hydrocarbons; an increased abundance and distribution of fish and rare earth minerals; China’s third ocean strategy, and increasing tensions between Russia and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In the Arctic region, the United States and NATO face the harsh reality that this once uncontested maritime maneuver-space, which we’ve turned a blind eye to the last 30 years, is now blanketed with dense layers of Russian military capabilities and a very capable Chinese Navy operating further and longer away from its shores.
President Vladimir Putin, who like Peter the Great, has high hopes for the Arctic and has devoted much of his life trying to make Russia a great maritime power. In many ways, the Arctic will define Putin’s legacy. So he’s personally involved with building out an Arctic fleet, a string of ports along its northern coastline, and ambitious energy exploration projects—like the world’s largest LNG project in the northwestern Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula.
Why has Putin ordered the Russian military to build up its might in the Arctic?
The Arctic is core to Russia’s national identity, culture, and history. Russia is the largest country in the world, with 70 percent of its territory located in northern latitudes. The Arctic is also critical to Russia’s economy. In fact, the region accounts for nearly a quarter of Russia’s GDP, 20 percent of its exports, including 80 percent of Russian gas and 17 percent of its oil. The Arctic is key to Russia’s goal to gain a 20-percent share of the global LNG market by 2035.
A Blue Arctic makes it easier to transport these resources to Asia and Europe—and the Northern Sea Route along Russia shaves weeks of transit time and billions of dollars compared to maritime trade routes of today. Because still today 90 percent of all trade by volume still travels across the world’s oceans–with seaborne trade expected to double over the next 15 years.
Russia also wants to protect its ability to project military power from the Arctic to the North Atlantic and European Arctic in the event of a conflict with NATO. And a big part is securing the second strike capability of its Ballistic Missile submarines on the Kola Peninsula–home to ⅔ of Russia’s nuclear submarine force and Russia’s most powerful Navy fleet.
While still less than at the height of the Cold War, we’ve also seen British, French, Canadian, American, and many other NATO and non-NATO units increase their capabilities and presence in the Arctic. This comes at a time when regional dialogue and cooperation on security and defense matters with Russia, has been virtually non-existent since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Taken together, the likelihood of accidents or miscalculation with Russian forces in the Arctic has never been higher.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should lay to rest debates about whether Russia’s rapid military expansion across the Arctic region is solely for defensive purposes. Just when you thought Putin would never invade Ukraine, use cluster bombs, or attack innocent civilians—it happened.
As an Arctic nation, and as a NATO alliance, the United States must prepare for what could happen; for any challenge or contingency in the Arctic region.
The first challenge involves Finland and Sweden. There is a very real fear in Finland, Sweden, and across Europe right now that Ukraine may be Putin’s first step in using military force to reconstruct the Soviet Union empire. Putin argues that even without Ukrainian NATO membership, closer cooperation between the alliance and Ukraine poses a direct security threat to Russia. If you believe him, then the same holds true for the Arctic nations of Finland and Sweden. Like Ukraine, Finland and Sweden are two of six Enhanced Opportunity Partners with NATO — and the closest form of partnership with the alliance.
Putin’s war in Ukraine has made the NATO Alliance stronger. And it could soon be even stronger with Sweden and Finland as NATO members. As the NATO Secretary-General said earlier this year, the two countries could join the alliance “very quickly” if they decided to apply for membership. According to national polls last week, public support for NATO in both Sweden and Finland is at an all-time high.
For both Finland and Sweden, it comes down to the same realities Ukraine faces today. Realities best said by the Finish Premiere last week: If Russia crosses some red line, “Do we face them alone or together with others?”
Like Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden membership in NATO is a red line for Russia. As the Kremlin warned against last week, this would lead to”serious military and political consequences.”
The next great challenge we must be prepared for in the Blue Arctic centers on the Bering Strait. In the coming decades, the Bering Strait could very well emerge as a key global maritime chokepoint, linking Asia, Europe, and North America. The Bering Strait provides Russia an avenue of approach to swing its forces from the Arctic to the Pacific and vice versa. It also provides Russia a strategic lever to close or control the Strait.
The North Pole has long been a source of dispute and tension among Arctic states, both symbolically and because of its potential, yet unproven, strategic, and economic significance. The provisions for states to claim an extended continental shelf under the United Nations Convention on the Law slowly reignited the question: who “owns” the North Pole. Today, no one does.
The North Pole is subject to overlapping extended continental shelf claims by three states: Canada, Denmark, and Russia. The question, therefore, is: How might Russia develop and employ its military capabilities to acquire what it believes is an extension of its continental shelf?
The next great challenge deals with the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s coastline. Russia considers the passage to be internal and territorial waters. The United States disagrees, citing the waters as international. Russia has proposed new legislation, requiring advance notice, a tug escort at a premium cost, and use of Russian pilots. This legislation also challenges the immunities of warships in innocent passage and provides stricter regulation on navigation in its EEZ. These disagreements could lead to future tensions as shipping increases through the passage during the longer ice-free periods.
Finally, we also have to have our sights set on the Norwegian Island of Svalbard. Russia sure does. We recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Spitsbergen Treaty, which granted Norway sovereignty over Svalbard, including its resources. Russia wants to tap into large deposits of minerals and energy surrounding Svalbard’s waters. And from a military perspective, Svalbard is important because of its strategic location between the Barents, Greenland, and Norwegian Seas.
Whoever holds Svalbard controls the important gateway from the shallow Barents Sea to the deeper North Atlantic. And for Russia’s Northern Fleet,
the Bear Island Gap between mainland Norway and the archipelago’s southernmost island is key to conducting sea denial operations in and over the maritime areas further south, potentially threatening NATO’s
transatlantic sea lines of communication. Putin’s Arctic 2035 strategy makes clear that Russia is not giving up its attempts to get access to Svalbard’s continental shelf. In the long run, we can not rule out the idea of Russia annexing the islands for military and economic purposes.
Thirty-five years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union, made an impassioned plea in Murmansk that the North should be “a pole of peace.” Unfortunately, Putin’s war in Ukraine erodes Gorbachev’s extraordinary vision for the Arctic and his own vision of transforming the Arctic into a sustainable and stable global maritime crossroads.
As Russia contemplates its next move, we must prepare our next move in a Blue Arctic.
Walter Berbrick an Associate Professor in the War Gaming Department at the US Naval War College Group, founding director of the Arctic Studies Group, and co-lead scholar of the Newport Arctic Scholars Initiative. He has authored many reports and publications on defense and foreign policy issues and is the co-author of the forthcoming book “Newport Manual on Arctic Security.”