Russia steps up efforts to dominate Arctic region

Amos Chapple/RFE/RL

Moscow approved a number of policy decrees on January 30 that de facto establish a foundation for the introduction of a Russian Arctic strategy until 2035. Russia’s huge expectations for the Arctic region center on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), whose strategic importance is premised on two main pillars. The first of these is, naturally, to boost the transportation capabilities along Russia’s northern coast (inseparable from and integrated with the Chinese east–west Belt and Road Initiative). By 2024, the NSR is supposed to be able to carry 80 million of tons of cargo annually and 160 million by 2035 (currently, 26 million tons). To reach these ambitious targets, Russia has already planned 84 large-to-medium projects in the territories of the Nenets and Chukotka Autonomous okrugs as well as in Sakha Republic (Yakutia). The second pillar anticipates developing the region’s vast natural resources, which include large deposits of hydrocarbons—approximately “80 percent of all oil and nearly all [of Russia’s] natural gas”.

These calculations are reflected in a document entitled “Plan on the Development of the Northern Sea Route Until 2035,” prepared near the end of 2019 by the state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom. The document recognizes the strategic importance of the NSR to the Russian economy and national security. The key element of the plan is premised on increasing Russia’s capabilities through the following measures:

– Constructing and introducing 29 new small-to-medium-sized vessels in the Arctic;

– Building four new icebreakers (with special attention devoted to the Lider- and Arctica-class icebreakers, whose completion is scheduled for 2026);

– Developing a new helicopter model that can land and be stationed aboard icebreakers;

– Completing a proposal for a new model of “Arctic ramp cargo plane” capable of transporting 10,000 tons of cargo and of traveling up to 4,000 kilometers non-stop; and

– Securing “uninterrupted satellite connections along the NSR.” To this end, the Russian authorities are planning to deploy four Arktika-M remote-sensing and emergency communications satellites by 2024 and, in 2025, three Resurs-PM and three Kondor-FKS satellites.

Related: Russian warplanes armed with hypersonic missiles deployed in Arctic

This program has attracted some criticism even though it is supported by mainstream Russian experts. Namely, Vera Smorchkova, a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, pointed out a number of general weakness in the “social” aspects (attraction of human capital) of the project. Furthermore, the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation voiced other concerns, doubting that the NSR can be expanded to carry 80 million tons of cargo annually within the proposed timeframe.

These economic initiatives—though heavily promoted by the Kremlin—are in actuality taking a backseat to Russian icebreaker construction plans. Specifically, Russia is determined to move forward on its Project 10510 Lider-class nuclear-powered icebreakers (under contract by the Rosatom corporation and slated for completion in 2027). According to Russian sources, icebreakers of this type “should raise transportation capabilities [in the Arctic] to a qualitatively new level.” Moreover, this type of icebreaker (primarily intended to transport hydrocarbons) will facilitate the navigation of both civilian and military vessels. This will be possible due to the following technical characteristics:

– Year-round operational capabilities (“practically unconstrained length of sea voyages” and the ability to operate for no less than eight months straight with 130 men onboard);

– Ability to overcome various types of ice up to two meters deep;

– New technological solutions, including spaces for helicopters and “special munition as well as weaponry;” and finally

– The latest in radio-electronic equipment, which will secure steady navigation under even the most challenging geographic and climactic conditions.

The third point—the ability to equip icebreakers with onboard weapons—deserves particular attention. The idea to use “military icebreakers” to secure Russian strategic dominance in the Arctic region has been seen before in Moscow’s military-strategic calculations. Indeed, the first concrete step in this direction was made on October 25, 2019, when the Ivan Papanin (Project 23550) military icebreaker officially launched. According to Russian sources, the icebreaker will be equipped with a new missile-defense system, radio-electronic defense, and Poliment-Redut ship-borne anti-aircraft weapons systems. At the same time, this icebreaker class could be equipped with the 3M22 Tsirkon anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile, with a reported striking distance of up to 1,000 kilometers. The latter prospect is a distant one, however; for now, the missile is still undergoing tests and will not become fully operable for at least “a couple of years”. Notably, having introduced the Ivan Papanin, Russia has demonstrated its ability to produce vessels combining civilian and military functions—a capability Western naval forces currently do not wield.

Related: Russia prepares ambitious economic strategy for Arctic region

In general, Russia has repeatedly reiterated its strong determination to rely on “military icebreakers” in the Arctic. According to Valery Poliakov, an advisor to the CEO of the Krylov State Research Center, the decision to put specific weaponry and special equipment on its “military icebreakers” will primarily rely on the variation in ice thickness in the regions of the Arctic where the vessels will be operating.

The most recent steps in the High North point to Russia’s determination to elaborate a strategy that, at present, is more virtual than real. Moscow must still introduce and implement a whole package of integrated measures in the realms of security, economics, social development and foreign policy before it can credibly argue that its Arctic strategy is grounded in more than simply rhetoric and inflated threat assessments.

Related: US combat aviation reaches Norway's Arctic, alarms Russia

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