Contextualizing Russia’s Arctic Militarization

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleet’s Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Photo Credit: Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

By: Ashley Postler, Columnist

In 2007, Russia captured the world’s attention when it planted a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. This aggressive move, and the country’s steady ongoing militarization of its northern territories, have sparked fears in the West that Russia seeks to dominate the increasingly accessible Arctic, perhaps even by war. However, while it is true that Russia is preparing for war in the Arctic, that does not necessarily mean that it is looking to start one.

In 2014, Russia restructured its four military districts and created the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command, giving it responsibility over Russia’s Arctic territories, namely those in Russia’s northwest, the islands off its northern coast, and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an Arctic shipping lane that lies entirely within Russia’s exclusive economic zone. To date, 14 airfields, six military bases, and 16 deep-water ports from the Soviet era have been refurbished, and 10 border posts have been established across the Russian Arctic. Russia’s largest naval fleet, the Northern Fleet, in addition to regularly patrolling the NSR, maintains an estimated 120 ships including 40 icebreakers. The U.S., by contrast, has no centralized command system for the Arctic and divides responsibility for the region between EUCOM, NORTHCOM, and PACOM, operates no major Arctic base outside of Thule Air Base in Greenland, and maintains only two ocean-going icebreakers.

This strategic disparity between Russia and the U.S. can be explained by the significant value Russia places in the region. For starters, the region is a source of immense national pride and identity, with the “far north [holding] a mythological place in the Russian psyche.”[i] Moreover, Russia considers the Arctic to be its resource base for the 21st century,[ii] and Russia derives approximately 20 percent of its GDP from its northern territories[iii] which encompass one-fifth of the country.[iv] Furthermore, Russia seeks to capitalize on an increasingly navigable NSR, which it hopes will grow into a major trade “artery”[v] to rival traditional southern routes and thus provide greater revenue for the Russian government through transit fees.

While official rhetoric emphasizes protection of resources and infrastructure as justification for Russia’s Arctic militarization, analysts believe this buildup nonetheless includes an evolving military strategy primarily focused on defense and deterrence. According to Harvard’s Stephen R. Covington writing in October 2016, this strategy consists of four pillars: strategic uniqueness, strategic vulnerability, ‘going to war with all of Russia,’ and decisiveness in the initial period of war.[vi]

Considering the first two pillars, Russia’s Arctic militarization can be explained by its recognition of the country’s unique vulnerability in the region, heightened in the north by retreating Arctic ice. Despite the economic potential of an ice-free Arctic, Russia also sees its 24,140 kilometer Arctic coastline[vii] as “a new gateway through which to attack Russia…A worst case-scenario would be multiple, simultaneous attacks from several directions, something that the Russians have feared for centuries.”[viii] That Russia is the only non-NATO littoral Arctic state exacerbates this threat perception. Furthermore, the economic value of both the Arctic hydrocarbon fields and the NSR make them attractive targets for hypothetical enemies to attack in Russia’s north.[ix],[x]

The last two pillars enable us to look at this build-up as part of a broader military strategy that emphasizes preparation and preemption for war in several different regions. Russian strategists theorize that any future war Russia fights will entail an ‘all of Russia’ approach meaning that even a localized conflict will necessitate concentrating and moving massive forces and firepower throughout the country.[xi] Russia has thus identified four regions from and to which military capabilities can be brought to bear anywhere as needed: the East, the Baltic and Black Seas, and now the Arctic.[xii]

Russian strategists also place supreme importance on controlling the strategic initiative in any future war, including in the Arctic, which must first be attained in peacetime. In the Arctic, this manifests in Russia striving for superiority in forces and firepower, as well as the prevalence of snap exercises in the high north. To the West, this appears threatening, but to Russia this “decisive, dominant superiority in preparations and posturing of forces at the outset of a crisis for strategic operations—not necessarily their employment—[serves] to reduce the number of options for an opponent to wage war against Russia.”[xiii] In this sense, Russia seeks to avoid war in the Arctic as much as it is preparing for one.

The U.S. and other Arctic states must seize upon Russia’s intention to avoid war when it comes to cooperating with the latter in the region. Of course, the challenge remains that Russia’s Arctic militarization, even if pursued with the aim of deterring war in the first place by denying its opponents any strategic initiative, comes at the expense of the security of its Arctic neighbors[xiv] because it makes them feel insecure themselves. 

Despite Russia’s understandable perceptions of vulnerability along its emerging fourth front, the U.S. can take steps to reassure, but not indulge, Russia in the Arctic using existing cooperative frameworks. For example, the Arctic Council’s mandate, which deals primarily with environmental protection and scientific research, could be expanded to include regional security. This could mean the establishment of a working group to monitor militarization in the region and even produce agreements regarding the presence of armed forces.

The U.S. should also begin to demonstrate resolve akin to Russia’s by bolstering its own Arctic military presence. Conversely, the U.S. should tread carefully when deciding whether to engage in activities designed to test Russia’s claims in the Arctic, such as freedom of navigation (FONOP) operations along the NSR.[xv] While Russia has indeed centralized its management of the route in order to generate revenue, Russia’s primary aim remains to ensure national security. A U.S. FONOP would be perceived as aggressive and destabilize bi-lateral relations in the Arctic.[xvi] Such provocative activities would be counterproductive and could heighten tensions in an already sensitive region.


[i] Sergei Medvedev, “The Kremlin’s Arctic Plans: More Gutted than Grand,” Russia in Global Affairs, November 3, 2016,

[ii] “Basics of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2020 and for a Further Perspective,” Office of the President of the Russian Federation, September 18, 2008, translation available

[iii] Secretary Heather Wilson and Gen. David Goldfein, “Air Power and the Arctic: The Importance of Projecting Strength in the North,” DefenseNews, January 9, 2019,

[iv] Timothy L. Thomas, Russia Military Strategy: Impacting 21st Century Reform and Geopolitics, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies Office, 2015), 314.

[v] Thomas Nilsen, “Putin Wants a Bigger, Stronger, Wealthier Russian Arctic,” Eye on the Arctic, March 1, 2018,

[vi] Stephen R. Covington, “The Culture of Strategic Thought Behind Russia’s Modern Approaches to Warfare,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, October 2016.

[vii] “Russia: Facts and Figures,” The Arctic Institute, 2018,

[viii] Roger Howard, “Russia’s New Front Line,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, March 25, 2010, 145.

[ix] Ibid, 147.

[x] Ibid, 147-148.

[xi] Covington, 26.

[xii] Ibid, 28.

[xiii] Ibid, 44.

[xiv] Ibid, 40-41.

[xv] Dr. Rebecca Pincus, “Rushing Navy Ships into the Arctic for a FONOP is Dangerous,” Proceedings, Vol. 145, Iss. 1, January 2019,

[xvi] Pavel Gudev, “The Northern Sea Route: а National or an International Transportation Corridor?” Russian International Affairs Council, September 24, 2018,

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