The Kremlin’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has done little to slow the pace of Russian military activity and development in the Arctic – at least if you only pay attention to the statements and promises of the Russian government. According to Moscow, it remains focused on the Arctic.
However, Russian Northern Fleet troops have been heavily employed as part of Moscow’s Ukraine invasion, which has naturally limited Russia’s capabilities in the Arctic for the time being. Nonetheless, the Kremlin seems determined to press ahead with its long-term strategy of shoring up what it sees as its exposed northern flank in the Arctic, regardless of headwinds brought on by its Ukraine invasion.
Employment of Russian Arctic Troops in Ukraine
Troops from Russia’s Northern Fleet have reportedly been closely involved in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine from day one. Elements of the Northern Fleet’s 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade were spotted fighting near Kharkiv in the opening stages of the war, while the 61st Naval Infantry Brigade was rumored to be positioned in the Black Sea for a possible amphibious assault on the Ukrainian coast in the first weeks of the conflict. Both units are core elements of the Northern Fleet, which has enjoyed the status as one of Russia’s five top-level military districts since January 2021. However, while three landing ships from the Northern Fleet were also present in the Black Sea in the leadup to the invasion, the bulk of its surface firepower appears to have remained in and around the fleet’s bases on Russia’s northern Kola Peninsula.
Moscow’s Messaging on the Arctic
Since the beginning of the invasion, official Russian messaging on the Arctic has taken on a sharper tone, suggesting that Russian leadership will seek to continue to deepen its position in the Arctic through a combination of military and infrastructure development.
In a May statement, Russian Ambassador to the Arctic Council Nikolai Korchunov directly threatened that Sweden and Finland’s application to join NATO would turn the Arctic into an “international theater of military action.” In effect, Korchunov’s statement suggested that the Arctic region, which has been widely considered to be compartmentalized off from other contentious areas of confrontation between Russia and the West for decades, would no longer be separate from wider tensions in Russia’s eyes if the present standoff continues.
A March meeting of the Russian Security Council to discuss “problems in international cooperation” in the Arctic could indicate a shifting feeling in Moscow that confrontation in the Arctic is near-inevitable, a conclusion which would likely necessitate a continued buildup of military forces in the region in the Kremlin’s eyes. While the Arctic Council has never worked on military issues in the region and instead has focused on environmental and other shared matters of concern in the Arctic, the Wednesday decision by the Council’s seven members other than Russia to resume limited work without Moscow’s participation could signal that cooperation in the region is coming to a close, at least for now.
Russia’s position in the Arctic has continued to receive investments of time and energy from top Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin. In April, President Putin convened a meeting of Kremlin officials, ministry heads, and local government leaders to discuss the continued development of the Arctic.
Putin’s concluding speech at the end of the meeting declared that the Kremlin remains interested in developing the Northern Sea Route into a major shipping artery at a breakneck pace. It also featured instructions to Russian Defense Minister Shoigu to spearhead the development of the kind of military support infrastructure in the Arctic which could sustain a robust and sustained military presence. In particular, Putin drew attention to military infrastructure on the Kola Peninsula, where the bulk of Russia’s Northern Fleet and Arctic military contingent is based.
Strategic Development of the Arctic
Moscow likely sees the Arctic region as critical to the Russian economy’s current and future adaptation to heavy sanctions imposed on the country following its invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s Kremlin has long considered the Arctic to be the Russian economy’s “strategic resource base,” a belief that remains in place today.
In an effort to jump-start the development of this “strategic resource base,” Putin made a push at his April Arctic development conference to encourage the completion of the Northern Latitudinal Railway in the western Arctic. As indicated in Putin’s remarks, such a push, which Kremlin-friendly media has described as all the more necessary so long as stringent Western sanctions remain in place on Russia, would allegedly help to facilitate a pivot in Russian natural resource exports to markets in Asia while markets in Europe and the wider West continue to disconnect from Russia.
Continued Military Activity in the High North
Russian naval activity in the Arctic has not abated with the invasion. Russia’s newest Borei-class ballistic missile submarine Knyaz Oleg is currently undergoing training in Arctic operations and firing torpedoes through sea ice before reporting to its eventual posting in the Pacific Fleet.
The Barents Sea and the broader Arctic regions continue to be a focal point of Russian weapons testing, with Russia’s hypersonic Zircon cruise missile being the most recent weapon to be tested there. On shore, the Northern Fleet’s land forces appear to have acquired an advanced Monolit-BR radar system, which joins Russian Bal coastal missile systems in positions near Russia’s small land border with Norway.
Is a Sustained Buildup in the Russian Arctic Possible?
Moscow would certainly prefer outside observers to believe that significant activity is in the works in the Russian Arctic. However, just as with other large initiatives pursued by the Russian state, the question of resources and bandwidth is unavoidable, especially as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to exact an economic toll on Russia. Moscow has always needed to triage financial resources between a variety of national projects, a balancing act that will become all the more difficult in present conditions, making it all the more possible that individual projects in the Arctic could easily fall through the cracks.
Clearly, Russia’s interest in developing the Arctic is here to stay, even as its full-scale invasion of Ukraine fails to reach many of its intended goals. The broad sweeps which characterize official Kremlin policy on the Arctic are unlikely to go anywhere, regardless of the feasibility of Moscow’s projects in its northernmost regions.
Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.