Part 1 Russian Navy frigates – the navy’s mainstay LINK
Part 2 Russian Navy small combat ships – versatility & lethality. LINK
Part 3 – The Russian Navy submarine rescue fleet LINK
In this brief, I will present to you, the main elements underpinning the Russian Arctic presence and what it represents for the Russian Navy. If you just want to read the aspects relating to the Russian military and navy, you can jump to Section B.
Let me start with a Newsweek article from 1 February. This is how it starts: “Russia has sent ships to the subarctic waters of the Barents Sea to practice anti-missile combat on on their first artillery fire drill of the year.”LINK:
The article continues with:” The Kremlin has laid claim over the resource-rich North Pole, challenging rival claims made by the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark, all of whom also have territory in the vicinity.” In other words, there is a geopolitical tussle over the Arctic, but what is not said, all of these competing claims are done under international law, mostly under the auspices of the UN Law of the Sea framework. A case is the Lomonosov Ridge, which passes through the North Pole, contested by Canada, Denmark & Russia, over the question if the area is an extension of its continental shelf. LINK
I take a jaundiced view of the Newsweek article, since it misses to shed light on the real context for Russian presence in the Arctic. It also what I call a soft ‘sob story’ about how the West is unprepared compared to Russia, to deflect from their own inadequacies. How dare they re-establish a military presence in their own sovereignty, to the detriment of the West? How dare they have more Arctic bases than the other four Arctic states?
The Newsweek is part of a wider narrative to magnify the routine actions of the Russian military. In this case, it also downplayed something quite important to understand: the context for current Russian Arctic governance.
A. Introduction – Setting the context
The Russian Arctic region is approximately 6000 miles stretch of coastline and numerous islands from the Barents Sea, Kara Sea to the Laptev Sea inclusive. Add in 18 Arctic ports, with infrastructure upgrades being carried out or planned, some are as transhipments ports for significant natural resources extracted in the interior of Siberia. An increasing hive of activity in the Arctic is taking place, but at a slow pace, principally on land and offshore in the Western Arctic region.
MAP OF ARCTIC – EEZ Russia
Given the huge size of Russian maritime sovereignty, territorial waters & Economic Exclusive Zone,(EEZ), as established under the UN Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),as well the continental shelf, it is understandable that Russia wishes to assert its sovereign rights first & foremost, especially since it had lost the ability to hold this status in the 90s. Secondly, the Russian military is currently expanding its focus northwards and eastwards, to carry out tasks, as outlined in the Military Doctrine, Section III 33 (s) “to protect national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic region.” Thirdly, given the geopolitical tensions, viz a viz the US and NATO, the fact that Russia is re-establishing a military presence, is to project its position as a strong regional power. Essentially, the Arctic was a weak spot in Russian military defence, that required serious attention.
Military and naval activities in the Arctic are also referenced in the “The Development Strategy of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and of the National Security Protection for the Period up to 2020”;(LINK)
Natural resources extraction
In the Western Arctic seas alone, Rosneft estimated an 17.3 billion TOE of the total recoverable oil and gas resources. For the Eastern Arctic continental shelf areas, the total recoverable oil and gas resources are estimated at 12.7 billion TOE.
All of in is either in territorial waters or mostly within the Exclusive Economic EEZ. This seems to be an alien concept for certain Western elites & journalists, since they probably don’t understand how UNCLOS works anyhow. If a foreign entity wishes to explore, exploit maritime mineral resources, then it has to do so with the specific permission of the relevant Russian authorities.
Rapidly changing offshore technology will eventually enable Russia to explore and exploit further offshore, under their jurisdiction, although there are also big safety implications as well as serious environmental concerns. Yet that doesn’t seem to stop the US, EU from wishfully wanting to exploit the potential oil resources under the seabed, but only seemingly under their own terms. Hence the resulting high-level political need to malign Russia’s potential interests in the Arctic. I think Western pundits tend to take a giant leap forward in seeing what are they interpret as the Kremlin’s intentions over the North Pole claims and skip over the mundane aspects.
Most big Arctic projects are actually 1. closer to land and 2. are only just starting to become operational. Oil and gas reserves are still being discovered in places that much easier to develop and manage. LINK
The Sabetta (Yamal) plant LNG project is an example of where Russia is actually just taking its first tiny steps in taping into its vast natural resources. Officially launched in December 2017, this $27 billion project is an international joint venture between Russia’s Novatek, the French energy company Total, and China’s National Petroleum Corporation. It is likely to have a total output of 16.5 million metric tons of LNG)per year, by phase 3 in 2019. Gas is extracted from the South Tambey field, first discovered in 1974. LINK
Commercial shipping route – the Northern Sea Route and beyond.
Siberia sea routes
The number of commercial vessels and overall Arctic shipping traffic will gradually increase in the future because of the significant changes in the climate and weather conditions. The Arctic is often mooted in the media as the next viable shipping mega-highway, with principal 3 routes. One of which at times goes through Russian territorial waters & EEZ. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), or the North East Passage, runs along the Russian coast from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas, having the potential to significantly shorten voyage times between European and Far Eastern ports. The exact routing is variable and depends on the time of the year, ice conditions, and the size and draft of the ship in question.
The NSR is the principle shipping route between Franz Josef Land, (Cape Dezhnev, Kara Gate) in the west and Cape Zhelaniya to the east. The NSR is roughly 40% shorter than taking the Suez Canal from Europe to Asia, however the predicted sailing season in the next decade or so, is to remain around 4 to 5 months of relatively ice-free conditions. So the NSR won’t compete with the Suez Canal Route, certainly not for another 25-50 years.
It has to be remembered that safe navigation on various NSR ‘lanes’ Is complicated by extreme changeable weather and uncertain ice-cover conditions even during the summer period. So it is not a soft option for ship operators to consider, especially the remoteness and existing lack of support infrastructure which is needed as a vital back-up & reassurance, such as Search And Rescue (SAR), port bunkering & repairs facilities. 6 Emergency response centres operate in the Arctic. LINK
Nowadays, some commercial ships do use the NSR and most traffic tend to be ice-classed for domestic voyages along the coastline. The NSR is never going to be suitable for the container shipping’s tight port turnarounds and ‘just-in-time’ scheduling. Anyway, given the increasing size of containerships, transiting through the NSR simply won’t be an option due to very shallow straits. The winner is the growth in internal “destinational traffic” within Russia, maritime trade activities such as the Norilsk mineral shipments. Another winner, will be the dedicated fleet of LNG tankers, delivering Yamal LNG to Europe and Asia. LINK
When commercial navigation is permitted to sail through the NSR, there are four principle ‘heavy’ Russian sea-going icebreakers available for ice convoy duties, to ensure navigation safety: the nuclear-powered fleet are: ‘Vaygach’, ‘Yamal’, «Taymyr» and ’50 Let Pobedy’. The oldest of the Atomflot fleet is 28 years old and the youngest is 10 years old, so partial replacements have been planned and under construction. There are nearly 20 non-nuclear icebreakers as well, some are in government service.
Russia is modernising its icebreaker fleet as part of its efforts to enhance its Arctic presence. The ‘Arctika’ was launched in 2016, while the ‘Siberia’ and ‘Ural’ are likely to be commissioned in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Russia has allocated $75 million on Northern Sea Route development between 2018 and 2020, and it has stated to invest in the necessary coastal infrastructure, such as SAR stations and satellites systems for the Arctic. These will be vital if the NSR is to remain a viable & attractive route for potentially increasing shipping traffic. Rosatom is mooted as likely to be responsible for the NSR management and also investment. (Bellona Nov 17) China, South Korea, Japan have certainly shown a keen interest in the possibility of using the NSR more extensively. Even Singapore and India are showing interest in this route. For instance, take the case of China, COSCO did its first ‘test-run” through the NSR back in 2012. Recently, China has published a policy paper on a “Polar Silk Road”, eyeing up further presence in the frozen north. LINK
Side note: An US article states that Russia has 40 icebreakers—in service with 11 currently in production. A bit off-the mark, when the real number is lower, with planned construction included, (those in Baltic service or port icebreakers are in this figure too). However, the US itself just has the ‘Polar Star’, that is operational for Antarctic duties, since the other one is out of action, leaving just one more in service. If melting Arctic sea-ice cover does shrink considerably in the next 50 years, this is will mean that commercial ships will ultimately opt for using the Trans-Polar Route rather than the more complicated, shallower NSR. This route is largely outside Russian EEZ waters, so in the long run, Russia will not necessarily benefit from it, in the way some media & politicians are presenting it. Russia could benefit from the TPR, if it developed a suitable port hub on the Barents Sea coastline, along with the necessary rail infrastructure.
B. Russian military presence in the Arctic
It is only in paragraph 5 of the Newsweek article, does it mention that “ the Russian navy is hard pressed to recover some Soviet-era capabilities in Russia’s vast northern coastline.” In other words, regain the ability to monitor the NSR, safeguard shipping, prevent military intrusions and protect its marine natural resources.
At a time when NATO is increasingly encroaching on Russia’s northern borders and actively carrying out exercises in the Western Arctic, Russia has been countering this with a number of specific exercises in the last couple of years, including a combination of naval units, marines, airborne troops and air assets. A new Arctic brigade was created in the region of Murmansk, LINK and another located in the Arkangelsk region. Emphasis has been placed on mobility of dedicated units trained for Arctic operations. As such inter-service cooperation, mobility and coordination is therefore crucial to effective Arctic military operations in the Arctic. These exercises are routine and short in duration, but for some reason Newsweek decided to pick the first naval one of this year, to make some kind of point.
Given that the overall Russian military modernisation programs are in fact quite modest, (as partly explained in Part 1 & 2 on Russian frigates/corvettes), the intention isn’t to start an arms race or aggressive military presence in the Arctic, as it is suggested in some US-NATO circles. It is aimed at regaining some previously abandoned bases & setting up a couple of outposts. More importantly, specific military Arctic programs are more about upgrading the Russian military capabilities, either with upgraded equipment or as complete high-tech 21st century package. Similarly new equipment is also being provided to Russian border guards and Coastguard.
What irks me is the obfuscation by some who see Russia as trying to reclaim its lost Empire, by highlighting the military role and playing down or avoiding the fact that some the military activities in the Arctic have a dual-role. Examples of dual-roles include Search And Rescue, (SAR) operations, air & sea space surveillance, provision of navigation safety, and emergency response (natural and man-made). Navigation monitoring, SAR & deep-water port facilities are essential for commercial shipping, and more importantly, essential in attracting more shipping traffic along the NSR.
Air & sea defence perimeter
Russia also has on paper six military bases, 18 ports and 13 airbases above the Arctic circles, nearly all date from Soviet times. Part of this chain of defence includes installed S-400 long-range surface to air missiles batteries. Air Defence radar sites are being put into operation, to fill in a crucial gap, which is not surprising when you consider that in the last week alone, four reconnaissance aircraft were tracked close to Russian Arctic airspace.
Two significant brand-new permanent Russian military bases have been set up: – Franz Josef land – known as Arkticheskiy Trilistnik or ‘Arctic Trefoil’. Operational since 2017. LINK
Likely to have air defence radar and surface to air missile batteries.- Kotelny, known as the Severny Klever (Northern Clover), operational since 2015.LINK
Given that there were practically no military facilities along the NSR for decades, it now fills a gap in air and sea surveillance of both ends of a potentially viable & strategic shipping route. Other Soviet era military facilities are being revamped and being re-actived as part of a chain defence across the Russian Arctic.
Some Western pundits like to call this military presence ‘posturing’, but personally I’d call it ‘safeguarding’ assets from potential threats, since they are on land, as such are on sovereign land, beings the ‘eyes’ over territorial seas and the EEZ. The actual physical permanent military footprint is tiny compared to the overall national number of equipment and manpower.
The Russian Navy in the Arctic The Northern Sea Fleet has been making regular voyages, (mostly along the NSR), to the Arctic since 2012, as patrols and also as a delivery service for the construction and running of the Arctic land bases. Similarly, countless naval deployments and exercises have been done in the region, the most recent taking place much farther out and for longer periods in the eastern part of the Arctic.
Kalibrs in the Arctic – a Game changer?
Over the coming decade, the Russian navy will extend their coverage & range over the whole Russian Arctic EEZ. Military icebreaking patrol ships are being constructed as part of the plan, with 2 specially designed Arctic patrol ships, (RBTH May 2017) LINK
The ship is Project 23550, ‘Ivan Papanin’, which is unique in its dual role as a combat ship and also lead icebreaker for other ships. The aft of the ship will have a dedicated space in which containers can be removed and switched over, thereby changing the type of weapon or equipment modules carried by a warship. Thus, a naval ship is not limited to one particular mission during its lifetime.
Hence, the use of ISO type containers, (TLCs), as opposed to the fixed VLS configuration, is hinted at within this new Arctic warship build, with the modular ‘Open Stern’ concept. Its’s potential Kalibr-carrying capacity is likely to be same as for a Buyan-M class corvette, but with the option of two modular missile containers, as part of the ‘Open Stern’ concept.
It nevertheless shows a radical departure from traditional concepts of Arctic patrol ships, especially for icebreakers. This new ‘feature’ alone has made the US Coastguard commandant sit up and pay attention to what being is projected for Arctic, by raising the alarm and asking for more appropriate resources. (Cat – Pigeons – amongst springs to mind).LINK (in Russian)
The US, EU and NATO perspective on the Arctic It isn’t a case of Russia remilitarising the Arctic, as part of a “resurgent Russia” narrative, as it is often stated in the West’s media. In fact, the US Arctic policy was first distilled back in 1994, it was subsequently further refined up to 2010. Here’s an extract from an abstract of a book by James Kraska:
“The European Union and NATO are recalibrating their approach to the region just as Japan, China and Korea assess their future economic and security interests in the Arctic Ocean. The national security and homeland security interests set forth in the US Arctic policy represent a window into the Pentagon’s goals and interests in the High North and mark the course for diplomacy, military engagement and future joint and combined operations. Safe, secure and unimpeded maritime transportation is critical to US economic security and the prosperity of the global economy.”
“Recalibrating their approach, Pentagon’s goals & interests”. Indeed. This came at a time when Russia wasn’t considered as ‘aggressive’ or ‘revanchist’. Thus, the US and NATO had already set their sights on a part of the world, in Russia’s backyard, a while back.
Freelance maritime operations-tech researcher/analyst.