The Arctic—Economic Growth or Future Battlefield?

Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our first annual writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.

Now, we are pleased to present one of the essays tied for third place, from Lars S. Lervik of the United States Army War College.

"The Arctic is Russia’s Mecca."
—Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin [1]

The Arctic has always been important to Russia, and global warming has made previously unreachable natural resources like oil and gas accessible. It has also opened up new shipping routes thereby increasing the importance of the region.[2] This article argues that even though Russia has emphasized international cooperation to promote economic development in the Arctic the last few years, it has simultaneously increased its military capabilities. Russia is thus preparing for future development in the Arctic that could include both international collaboration and conflict. This paper analyses Russian interests and policy in the Arctic, discusses Russian use of the economic and military instruments of power, and offers a summary of prospects for the future in the Arctic.

Russian Interests and Policy

Russian interests in the Arctic are linked to its overall national interests. The end of the Cold War meant that the Soviet communist based national interests disappeared. In the 1990s, internal strife and unrest made it difficult for Russia to redefine its national interests. However, when Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency in 1999, it soon became apparent that his priority was to reestablish Russia as one of the great powers in the world.[3] The Russian national security strategy from December 2015 states that one of the country’s fundamental long-term interests is to ensure Russia’s status as a great global power.[4] To achieve this Russia is emphasizing military strength and economic growth.

The Arctic has traditionally been important for the Russian economy and military.[5] Currently, the Russian Arctic region accounts for about 20% of Russia’s GDP and 22% of its exports thus making it crucial for the Russian economy.[6] The relative importance of the Arctic for Russia is increasing as accelerating climate change results in easier access to resources like oil, gas, and minerals.[7] The Russian leaders acknowledge that their geopolitical influence is largely determined by their position as an energy provider and the resources in the Arctic are therefore important to reestablish Russia as a great power.[8]

Russian flotilla headed by the flagship of the Northern Fleet, cruiser Peter the Great, September 2013. (RT)

Russian flotilla headed by the flagship of the Northern Fleet, cruiser Peter the Great, September 2013. (RT)

The Russian Arctic policy from 2009 reflects this and states that the first essential interest is the use of the Arctic as a resource base to promote social and economic development.[9] Furthermore, this policy lists preservation of peace and cooperation, protection of the environment, and promotion of the Northern Sea Route as important objectives in the Arctic.[10] Military security related issues make up only a small portion of the policy signals given in this document.[11] However, the Arctic is still crucial militarily to Russia as the shortest routes for Russian missiles or aircraft targeting the United States are over the North Pole. Furthermore, unlike the naval forces stationed in the Baltic and Black Seas, the Northern Fleet can move freely from its bases in the Arctic into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As the icecap further retreats, this freedom of maneuver increases.[12] Russia’s policy in the Arctic is based on Realpolitik and both the economic and military instruments of power are utilized to secure its interests.     

Economic Development and International Cooperation

Russian activities in the Arctic the last few years indicate that economic development is a priority. The most important economic resource in the Russian Arctic is hydrocarbons. In 2013, the first offshore oil field at Prirazlomnoye south of Novia Zemlia started production, and development of similar projects are ongoing.[13] Russia recognizes that it relies on a large degree of international cooperation in the pursuit of economic development. Since the Cold War, Russia has demonstrated on several occasions that it is willing to submit to international law, organizations, and procedures in Arctic disputes. An example of this is the Russians efforts to claim sovereignty over increased parts of the Arctic. Even though the United Nations did not approve the first application, Russia forwarded a renewed claim in 2016.[14] The fact that Russia has continued to participate in Arctic Council meetings despite the fact that seven of the eight permanent member states have sanctions against it also indicates a strong will to avoid conflicts and unnecessary tension with its neighbors in the Arctic.[15]

The Prirazlomnoye platform is located on the Pechora Sea shelf 60 kilometerss offshore (at the Prirazlomnoye oilfield) and is designed to operate in extreme weather conditions. (Gazprom)

Russia has recently demonstrated willingness to find bilateral solutions to territorial disputes with its neighbors in the Arctic. The 2010 agreement with Norwegian authorities on a maritime delimitation in the Barents Sea is one example of how Russia accepted a compromise.[16] Russia’s willingness to cooperate and compromise in the Arctic is quite different from the Russian approach to other international issues like Syria and Ukraine. It is, therefore, likely that the Russian cooperation in the Arctic can be attributed to specific conditions and interests in this region.      

Europe is the largest market for Russian export of hydrocarbons.[17] The cooperative approach in the Arctic might be an attempt to ensure that these vital economic exports are as unhindered as possible. It is also worth noticing that, as of now, the sanctions against Russia from the West do not include sanctions on the import of gas and oil.[18] A second factor that could help to explain the Russian cooperative approach is the reliance on Western technology to develop the hydrocarbon industry.[19] Russian authorities recognize this, and large Western companies like the French Total and the American ExxonMobil have been invited to participate in the exploration and development of new oil and gas fields in the Russian Arctic.[20] Regardless of how successful Russia is in cooperating with the West in the exploitation and use of hydrocarbons from the Arctic, the costs associated with exploiting Arctic oil and gas resources will continue to limit the gains that can be made. Assessments indicate that a world oil price below US $120 a barrel makes the majority of Arctic oil deposits not commercially recoverable.[21] With a current oil price around US $50 per barrel, it seems clear that an oil boom in the Arctic at best is a future prospect.  

The second largest Russian economic initiative in the Arctic is the development of Northern Sea Route. The view to a new and much shorter commercial trade route between Europe and Asia has been one of the most advertised themes in the Arctic.[22] The on-going construction of more than a dozen new icebreakers signal high Russian ambitions in regards to presence in the Arctic.[23] This, combined with new and expanded port facilities along Russia’s northern coast, is a clear signal that Russia is prioritizing development of the Northern Sea Route as a route for commercial maritime traffic.[24] However, analysis of the actual use the last few years indicate that harsh conditions, costs and limits to ship size make it unlikely that this route will replace current routes in the near future.[25] The economic potential for Russia from this venture, therefore, seems to be limited. The Russian investments are most probably motivated by a recognition that the Northern Sea Route, first of all, is a domestic route that is essential to develop the Arctic region and for future hydrocarbon exploitation.[26] Other activities, like the planting of a Russian flag on the seafloor of the North Pole in 2007 and military parachute drop at the North Pole in 2015 and 2016, reflect Russian claims to sovereignty over Arctic territory and hence control over the resources located there.[27]

Map of the Arctic showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry. (Susie Harder/Arctic Council/Wikimedia)

Military Modernization and International Confrontation

The military activities in the Arctic are linked to the overall development of the Russian armed forces. Nuclear weapons are still the backbone of the Russian armed forces, and Moscow continues to rely on its nuclear weapons for deterrence.[28]  Modernization of strategic nuclear weapon systems is a top priority in the Russian weapons modernization programs.[29] However, the modernization program also includes a wide-range of conventional weapons. Many of these new nuclear and conventional capabilities operate in or from the Arctic.[30] Russia has also established several new units and bases as a part of “maintaining necessary combat potential."[31] The most important of the new units created is the Arctic Joint Strategic Command that significantly increases Russia’s ability to plan and carry out operations in the Arctic.[32] Supplementing the new units are several new military airfields, search-and-rescue stations and other facilities.[33] Russian efforts to modernize their armed forces also includes updating their doctrine. The fact that the new military doctrine from 2014 explicitly mentions the Russian interests in the Arctic is another indicator of the importance of this region.[34]

Some of the military activities in the Russian Arctic, like the establishment of search and rescue bases, are directed towards assisting domestic and international commercial activities. However, the establishment of new fighter bases and forward deployment of advanced cruise missile systems reflect the military strategic importance of the Arctic.[35] Russia’s primary objective is to restore itself as a great global power and strategic capabilities operating in the Arctic such as submarines with nuclear weapons and long-range bombers, support this objective. Also, the modernization program increases the Russian military toolbox as it introduces new weapon systems like the Kalibr cruise missile and enhances the capacity of existing systems like the S400 air defense system.[36] The introduction of modern weapon systems, combined with the establishment of new units, increased training levels and demonstrated military capabilities in operations in Ukraine and Syria, have made some Western experts assess that the Russians are closing the gap with Western military capabilities.[37]     

The increased Russian military power in the Arctic can be used in two different ways if status quo is not considered satisfactory or sufficient. The first emphasizes a defensive posture to defend the Russian strategic nuclear submarines operating in and from the Russian Arctic and is known as the Bastion Defense concept.

The Russian Bastion Defense.[38]

The nuclear weapons on the Russian ballistic missile submarines are essential components in Russian deterrence. Therefore, a tense situation or a conflict anywhere in the world that threatens vital Russian interests would probably lead to the initiation of the Bastion Defense concept. The Russian military would then deploy forward from its bases in the Arctic to deny others access to the area and thereby protect their nuclear second-strike capacity. A broad range of activities like naval operations to disrupt or stop Western naval operations in the North Atlantic, the occupation of territories in areas like the northern parts of Norway and even strategic cruise missile strikes against the U.S. homeland could be included in this approach.[39]

In Ukraine and Georgia, Russia demonstrated that it was willing to use military power even though it violated international laws and norms. We cannot rule out the possibility that Russia would be prepared to do the same in the Arctic.

The second way Russian military capabilities can be used in the Arctic is a more offensive approach to achieve strategic objectives that international cooperation have failed to secure. In Ukraine and Georgia, Russia demonstrated that it was willing to use military power even though it violated international laws and norms. We cannot rule out the possibility that Russia would be prepared to do the same in the Arctic. By utilizing the hybrid warfare concept where military means are combined with the other instruments of power, Russia would hope to achieve its objectives without provoking an all-out international war. The tension between the natives on Greenland and the Danish authorities, and the different interpretations of the Svalbard treaty are examples of issues that might be used to initiate such a campaign.[40] The Russian strengthened military posture and capabilities in the Arctic makes this a possible approach, and their initial local superiority would make escalation risky for any opponent.


The Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen called the Russian North “the land of the future” at the beginning of last century.[41] In many ways, this is still true, as most of the vast resources located in the Arctic cannot be excavated today. Russian authorities recognize this, but to position for future economic growth, they are investing significant resources to increase their control over the Arctic. So far, Russia has emphasized international cooperation with other key stakeholders in the region. However, this approach will probably only continue as long as it is considered to serve Russian interest and more aggressive use of a modernized Russian military cannot be ruled out. Large portions of the Arctic is deemed by most Russians as an essential part of the Motherland and all instruments of power, including military power, will be used to ensure that this remains true. Economic growth based on international cooperation or a gradual decline in the security situation that eventually results in armed conflict are therefore both possible future scenarios.  

Lars S. Lervik is a Norwegian Army officer and a 2017 graduate from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA. In addition to training and education in the Norwegian Armed Forces, he has a Master of Arts from Kings’ College London and is a graduate from the British Advanced Command and Staff College at Shriveham in the United Kingdom. His operational experience includes multiple deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan and he has commanded Norwegian Army units at all levels up to and including battalion command. He is currently assigned to the Norwegian Ministry of Defence in Oslo where he is responsible for readiness, crisis management and national security policy issues.

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Header Image: Los Angeles-class submarine USS Hartford (SSN-768), surfaces near Ice Camp Sargo during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. (U.S. Navy Photo/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tyler Thompson)


[1]  Ishaan Tharoor, “The Arctic is Russia’s Mecca, says top Moscow official,” The Washington Post, April 20, 2015, (accessed January 9, 2017).

[2] The Arctic is most often defined as the region above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line that circles the globe at approximately 66° 34' N. Other definitions define the Arctic as the area north of the arctic tree line or any locations in high latitudes where the average daily summer temperature does not rise above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). For more details see; National Snow and Ice Data Center, “What is the Arctic?” (accessed January 9, 2017).

[3] Kari Roberts, “Jets, flags, and a new Cold War?” International journal, Vol. 65, No. 4, autumn 2010, (accessed January 6, 2017), 959-960.

[4] Olga Olikier, “Unpacking Russia's New National Security Strategy,” Center for Strategic International Studies, January 7, 2016, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[5] This is illustrated by this speech from the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikael Gorbachev;Mikael Gorbachev, “Speech in Murmansk at the Ceremonial meeting on the occasion of the presentation of the order of Lenin and the Gold Star to the city of Murmansk,” public speech, Murmansk, 1 Oct. 1987, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[6] Lincoln Edson Flake, “Russia’s Security Intentions in a Melting Arctic,” Military and Strategic Affairs, Volume 6, No. 1, March 2014, (accessed January 10, 2017), 105.

[7] The potential represented by the natural resources in the Arctic is estimated to be 13% of the global undiscovered conventional oil resources and 30% of undiscovered conventional natural gas resources. For more details see; U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Arctic oil and natural gas resources,” U.S. Department of Energy, January 20, 2012, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[8] Roman Kupchinsky, “Energy and Russia's National Security Strategy,” Atlantic Council, May 19, 2009, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[9] D. Medvedev, “Russian Federation Policy for the Arctic to 2020,” Arctis knowledge hub, September 18, 2008, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[10] The Northern Sea Route goes along the arctic coast of Russia. This maritime route would reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe from 21,000 km using the Suez Canal to 12,800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days. For more information see; Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, “Polar Shipping Routes,” Dept. of Global Studies & Geography,Hofstra University, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[11] Indra Øverland, “Russia’s Arctic energy policy,” International journal, Vol. 65, No. 4, autumn 2010, (accessed January 10, 2017), 867-868.

[12] Benjamin Schaller, “Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic plays into global strategy,” United Press International, Aug. 18, 2016, (accessed January 6, 2017).

[13] Dmitry Gorenburg, “How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy,” The Washington Post, February 12, 2014, (accessed January 6, 2017).

[14] Richard Clifford, “How has cooperation in the Arctic survived western-Russian geopolitical tension?” The Polar Connection, December 18, 2016, (accessed January 13, 2017). Statements from Russian officials strengthen the impression that Russia is doing its utmost to limit the negative impact of geopolitical issues to the cooperation in the Arctic.  An example of this can be found in an op-ed from Alexander Darchiev, the Russian ambassador to Canada, where he stated that “Russia strongly believe that the Arctic is a territory of dialogue, not a place for name-calling and reckoning political scores.” For more details see; Alexander Darchiev, “Arctic cooperation must continue,” Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada, Press release, June 5, 2015, (accessed January 11, 2016).

[15] “Finland set to chair Arctic Council as member relations sour,” YLE news, October 14, 2016, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[16] “Agreement between Norway and Russia on maritime delimitation,” The Norwegian Mission to the EU, April 27, 2010, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[17] “Will Russia Survive the Oil & Gas Downturn?” Oil and Gas 360, October 15, 2015,  (accessed January 13, 2017).

[18] The sanctions do include equipment export ban and financial instruments ban that in a mid- to long-term perspective will have negative impact on the Russian hydrocarbon industry. For more details see; Daniel Fjaertoft, Indra Overland, “Financial sanctions impact Russian oil, equipment export ban's effects limited,” April 8, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[19] Geir Hønneland, Russia and the Arctic: Environment, Identity and Foreign Policy, (London, I. B. Tauris, 2016), 161.

[20] Currently, the restrictions that the western sanctions imposes on the use of western technology limit the effect of this participation from western oil companies. For more on cooperation with western industry see; Helga Haftendorn, “Soft solutions for hard problems,” International journal, Vol. 65, No. 4, autumn 2010, (accessed January 13, 2017), 819.

[21] Marlene Laurelle, Russia’s Arctic strategies and the future of the Far North, (New York, M.E. Sharpe, 2014), 138. 

[22] Ibid, 174. 

[23] Atle Staalesen, “New icebreakers open way for Russia in Arctic,” BarentsObserver, May 05, 2015, (accessed January 6, 2017).

[24] Joseph V. Micallef, “Polar Politics: The Competition to Control the Arctic Heats Up,” The Huffington Post, September 11, 2016, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[25] Albert Buixadé Farré et al. “Commercial Arctic shipping through the Northeast Passage: routes, resources, governance, technology, and infrastructure,” Polar Geography, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2014, (accessed January 13, 2017), 316

[26] Marlene Laurelle, Russia’s Arctic strategies and the future of the Far North, 191. 

[27] Dmitry Gorenburg, “How to understand Russia’s Arctic strategy.” Russian military parachute drops were conducted on the North Pole in both 2015 and 2016. For more details about the activities in 2015 see; TASS, “100 paratroopers from Russia, Belarus, Tajikistan air dropped to North Pole,” Russian news agency, April 07, 2015, (accessed January 10, 2017). For more details about the activities in 2016 see; Trude Pettersen, “Russian paratroopers trained on North Pole,” The Independent Barents Observer, April 26, 2016, (accessed January 10, 2017). The United Nations is currently looking into the Russian claims for sovereignty over large parts of the Arctic. For more details see; Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Presents Revised Claim of Arctic Territory to the United Nations,” The New York Times, February 9, 2016, (accessed January 10, 2017).

[28] Margarete Klein, “Russia’s new military doctrine”, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, February 2015, (accessed September 14, 2016), 2-3.

[29] Includes investments in new Borei-class ballistic missile submarines, nuclear ballistic missiles and an update of their Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber fleet. For more details see Steven Pifer, “Pay attention, America: Russia is upgrading its military”, Brookings, February 5, 2016, (accessed September 14, 2016).

[30] The overall aim of the Russian modernization program is to ensure that the conventional forces have 70% modern materiel by 2020 including acquisition of modern air defense systems, aircraft and ships. These weapon systems gives Russia a modern anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) capability that might prevent the US and NATO from deploying forces into areas like the North Atlantic. For more details about the modernization programand the capabilities this leads to see; Stephan Fruhling, Guillaume Lasconjarias, NATO, A2/AD and the Kaliningrad Challenge, Survival 58, no. 2 (April-May 2016), 96-97. In the Arctic, the deployment of new Russian weapons systems like the advanced S-400 long-range surface to air missile and the “Bastion” supersonic anti-ship missile are examples of how the military capability is significantly increased. For more details see; Kyle Mizokami, “How Russia is fortifying the Arctic,” The Week, March 29, 2016, (accessed January 9, 2017).  

[31] Katarzyna Zysk, “Russia’s Arctic strategy: ambitions and constraints,” Geopolitics in the High North, (accessed January 6, 2017).

[32] Among the most important other units that has been established are two new separate motor rifle brigades to increase the capability to protect Russian interests in the region For more details on the establishment of new units and capacities see; “Arctic Strategic Command Sever (North) Unified Strategic Command (USC),”, (accessed January 11, 2017).

[33] Jeremy Bender, “US Coast Guard chief: We are 'not even in the same league as Russia' in the Arctic,” Business Insider, July 6, 2015, (accessed January 11, 2017).

[34] Olga Oliker, “Russia’s New Military Doctrine: Same as Old Doctrine, Mostly,” The Washington Post, January 15, 2015, (accessed January 5, 2017).

[35] A good overview of Russian military infrastructure in the Arctic that is being established or modernized can be found in the following article; Jeremy Bender, “Russia just put the finishing touches on 6 Arctic military bases,” Business Insider, December 7, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[36] There are limited details available regarding number, capabilities and progress of the Russian weapons modernization programs. A good overview of the ambitions for the weapons program can be found in this article; Rakesh Krishnan Simah, “De-Dollarization: How Economic Sanctions against Russia are Promoting Bilateral Trade and Finance, Outside the Realm of the US Dollar,” Global Research, September 22, 2014, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[37] Paul Sonne, “Russia’s Military Sophistication in the Arctic Sends Echoes of the Cold War,” The Wall Street Journal, October 4, 2016, (accessed January 6, 2017). 

[38] Expert Commission on Norwegian Security and Defense Policy, Unified Effort (Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Defense, 2015), 21.

[39] Ibid, 20-22.

[40] For an interesting perspective on the Greenlanders strive for independence from Denmark, see Hector Martin, “Greenland to remain close to Denmark,” The Arctic Journal, May 20, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2017). The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 granted Norway the sovereignty of the islands but made important and far-reaching exceptions in favor of the other signatory states to the Svalbard Treaty. Signatory nations include nations like Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Norway and Russia have been the only signatories with permanent economic interest and presence in Svalbard. A source to conflict has been Norway’s unilaterally imposed economic regulations in the area. The Norwegian government for Svalbard can exercise its authority through strong environmental regulations and uses them to limit other signatories’ economic activities in the area. The most controversial example is the Exclusive Fishery Zone around the archipelago, which Norway created in 1977. Albeit non-discriminatory (Norway allocated quotas to all signatories), this does restrict economic activities in order to protect resources. So far, Russia, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Spain, the U.S. and France have declared disagreement over the interpretation of Treaty provisions and Norwegian unilateral regulations. For more details see; Maartje Tubbesing, ”Svalbard - Climate change, resources and ownership,” American University, ICE Case Studies, (accessed January 21, 2017). An example of how the Svalbard treaty recently is interpreted differently by key stakeholders can be found in this article; Trude Pettersen, “Norway has no right to stop anyone from visiting Svalbard,” Barents Observer, April 21, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2017).

[41] Fridtjof Nansen, Through Siberia – The Land of the Future (New York: Fredrick A. Stokes Co., 1914, republished by Books for Libraries Press, 1972).