Analysis: The recent insurrection in Russia may challenge the vision of the Arctic as a region of low tension

Paranoia inside president Putin’s chain-of-command may lower the nuclear threshold if the West tries to exploit Russia’s new fragility. The focus on Russia’s arsenals in the Arctic may increase, says Norwegian analyst

By Martin Breum - June 29, 2023
A military column of Wagner private mercenary group drives along M-4 highway, which links the capital Moscow with Russia’s southern cities, near Voronezh, Russia, June 24, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

By Martin Breum

The vision of the Arctic as a region with low military tension, where Russia and the West work in tandem to avoid confrontation, may have suffered a blow due to the Wagner Group’s recent mutiny in Russia.

This dealt a blow to the Kremlin and following the weakening of its authority, key commanders within President Putin’s ranks may fear that the US and other NATO members will attempt to exploit Russia’s new situation. For those harboring such angst, a more vigilant military posture and increasingly agile signaling by strategic forces cannot be ruled out. Given Russia’s current vulnerability, its’ Arctic nuclear force has become even more important, not least as a symbol of continued strength and global power projection.

This is a short summation of the recent thoughts of Tormod Heier, Professor in Military Strategy and Operations and Head of Research at the Norwegian Defence Command and Staff College in Oslo.

Profile photo of Tormod Heier
Tormod Heier

He finds that there is a risk now that the crisis in Russia may render President Putin’s most dangerous weapons in the Arctic more central to future developments:

“Right now, Russia’s state apparatus finds itself in the most serious situation since the Russian Federation rose from the ashes of the Soviet collapse in 1991. The Kremlin now has to fight a simultaneous war on two fronts: One war against one of Europe’s strongest land based defense systems in Ukraine. And another war against the primary contender to the Defence Ministry, Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner Group. He is the most authentic embodiment of Russian power right now: masculine, brutal and hands-on in trying to save Russia’s honor in Ukraine. Commanding the most effective and credible force in Ukraine, the Wagner Group, Prigozhin is a threat to Russia’s Defence Minister and his Chief of General Staff,” Heier told me over the phone from Norway.

De-facto Wagner Group Mutiny Map. Wikimedia Commons.

“The paranoia in the state apparatus may lead to heightened suspicion against rivals that may think of exploiting Russia’s vulnerability. In this sense the significance of Russia’s nuclear armaments on the Kola Peninsula could well expand. Russia’s weapon systems at the bases in the Kola region can be used as an important tool of political pressure against the West. When Russia feels a need to fight itself out of a crisis, president Putin’s submarines can threaten cities like Copenhagen, Oslo, London and Washington,” Heier continues.

Fears in the Kremlin of foreign attacks resonated late on Saturday 24 June as the Wagner Group’s armed convoys headed from the south of Russia towards Moscow in what appeared as an imminent attempt of a coup. In the late afternoon, a message sounded from the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow:

“We warn the Western countries against any hint of possible use of the domestic Russian situation to achieve their Russophobic goals,” the message said according to AFP news agency.

The depth of the implicit threat may possibly only be understood in light of Russia’s Arctic arsenals:

“Russia’s land based forces are lying with their backs broken in Ukraine. Russia no longer commands a fully balanced force with mutually reinforcing air-, sea- and land components. This leaves Russia incapable of controlling any piece of NATO territory for years to come. But Putin still has long-range missiles with conventional and nuclear warheads that can be launched from submarines or planes in the Arctic,” Tormod Heier tells me.

The Language of Power

In Washington, Moscow, Copenhagen, Ottawa, Copenhagen, and elsewhere in the Arctic, Prime Ministers, Ministers of Defense, and others have long talked of the Arctic as a region of low tension where all parties strive to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile, however, Russia, the US, and other NATO states have also scaled up their militaries in the region, often with a strong mind to the Russian nuclear armaments.

Then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

“The vision of a zone of peace and low tension had a hold until the 24th of February last year when Ukraine was attacked. Until then there was hope in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, the US that restraint and reassurance towards Russia was prudent and smart, but after the Ukraine invasion this kind of thinking has been abandoned,” says Heier.

“Today the West only uses one language with Russia, the language that President Putin respects and understands and that is the language of power. Power has to be met with power in return. This means that low tension, reassurance, and self-imposed restrictions have come under pressure — also in the Arctic. Deterrence prevails before restraints. We have a new strategic situation, where we no longer will show the same consideration towards Russia’s security concerns. Instead, we show strength and speak the language Putin respects,” he continues.

Wagner mercenary group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin speaks inside the headquarters of the Russian southern army military command centre in the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in this still image taken from a video released June 24, 2023. Press service of “Concord”/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

The Wagner Group’s show of force last weekend illuminated this implied balancing act:

“Neither the US nor NATO will be permitted to take advantage of the leadership problems in Moscow. The Western powers know that, so presently they are keeping a low profile. The American and Norwegian air crafts and naval vessels  operating in the Barents Sea are most likely now having additional safety margins imposed to avoid misperceptions, misunderstandings or unintended provocations that may spiral into an uncontrollable escalation,” Heier says.

Gorbachev’s Zone

The vision of the Arctic as a zone of peace stretching from Russia’s north across the Arctic of Scandinavia, the North Atlantic, Greenland, and further along the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska has preoccupied Western leaders and strategists since 1987, when the then-leader of the Soviet Union, the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, held a historic speech in Murmansk, picturing the Arctic as a region of peace and cooperation.

Gorbachev envisaged a region devoid of nuclear weapons, where concerns for the environment and the well-being of the peoples of the Arctic would replace the nuclear race of the Cold War; an arms race between the US and Russia had turned the Arctic into one of the most militarized regions of the world.

Then, as it remains today, the shortest route for a missile between the two great powers follows a trajectory over the Arctic. As such, for years during the Cold War both powers held nuclear arms ready for immediate deployment, should everything go desperately wrong.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, much of this fell away. However, the war in Ukraine has reinstalled nuclear arms as an integral part of Russia’s immediate military and political toolbox, and a significant portion of President Putin’s nuclear arsenal is located on the Kola Peninsula, in the extreme northwest of Russia.

The Vision Lives On

Meanwhile, in my European part of the Arctic, the vision of the Arctic as a zone of peace and low tension lives on, although now in forced confluence with the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In Denmark where I live, our government maintains —  as do the semi-autonomous governments of the Faroe Islands and Greenland — that the Danish defense forces in the North Atlantic and the Arctic can still be expanded and modernized in ways that will not add to the tension in the Arctic — even if it happens in close coordination with the US and other NATO members.

On Wednesday 28 June, a large majority in the Danish Parliament, the Folketing, agreed to military spending of more than 23 billion USD over the coming ten years, the largest boost to the defense forces of the Danish kingdom ever. Although only a few details are currently in place, a sizable portion of this funding will likely be spent on increased defense in the North Atlantic and in the Arctic around Greenland.

The agreement confirms the vision of an Arctic free of strife:

”The goal is, that the Arctic and the North Atlantic shall remain a region of low tension where potential conflicts are solved peacefully,” it says.

Our Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, however, alluded to the inherent challenges to this approach during a visit to Greenland in March:

“I still share the aim and the wish for low tension, but we cannot be naive, when there is a Russia that is arming itself against us in the West,” Frederiksen said according to KNR, Greenland’s public broadcaster.

Aaja Chemnitz, a Greenlandic member of the Danish Parliament for Inuit Ataqatigiit, the ruling party in Greenland, finds it reasonable to still describe the Arctic as a region with low tension:

“If you violate the airspace of other nations or move beyond international waters you endanger the state of low tension, but we are still far from that in the Arctic. It is completely legitimate that we monitor what is taking place — also on the Kola Peninsula,” she told me just 24 hours before the new defense agreement.

Greenland has no defense of its own, but Aaja Chemnitz, who is also Chair of the Arctic Parliamentarians, a pan-Arctic network of elected politicians, hopes that the new funding will work against further escalation in the Arctic. She finds it particularly important that it is Denmark, and not the US or NATO, that runs most defense operations in Greenland:

“It is clearly preferable that it is Denmark who is actively involved. The signal we will send to the Russians is something very different than if the US or NATO was behind,” she said.

Military Build-Up

Meanwhile, the military build-up of the Arctic by both sides continues.

Russian bombers and new generations of military submarines have long been kept ready for deployment at naval bases on the Kola Peninsula as a threat to Ukraine, Europe, and the US. In August 2022, the Arctic was made the key priority in Russia’s latest maritime strategy.

Russia’s Northern Fleet is among Russia’s most formidable military assets and it plays a central role in Ukraine, conducting bombing raids on Kyiv and other targets and transporting troops, tanks, and armored vehicles to the frontlines by rail or sea. Most recently, subsurface barriers have been installed in entryways to the bases of the fleet in order to prevent attacks by Western submersible drones.

Ground-based air defense systems have been established on the Kola Peninsula, many of them mobile, and on Russia’s islands in the Barents Sea. On Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago high in the Barents Sea, the Nagurskoye air base has been revamped and now boasts a runway capable of servicing all types of Russian bombers and fighter jets.

Naval officers in neighboring Norway talk of Russia’s frequent naval exercises and missile testing in the Arctic as “the new normal”.

Western nations have been mobilizing in response: in 2018, the US re-established its Second Fleet which now pursues maritime dominance in the North Atlantic; in October 2018, one of the mightiest US warships, the USS Harry Truman, was deployed to Tromsø in the Norwegian Arctic with schools of fighter jets and personnel. It was the first deployment of a US aircraft carrier in such close proximity to Russia’s Arctic bases since the fall of the Soviet Union; in 2020, for the first time in 30 years, a group of US frigates, and one British, pushed into the Barents Sea, nearing the sensitive bases of Russia’s Northern Fleet.

“By putting some ships up there, we’re telling them: ‘Well, no, this is not a free zone [for] submarine operations — these are international waters,” Bryan Clark, a former U.S. submarine officer and now a senior fellow at The Hudson Institute, a think-tank, told Defense News, a US news company.

Today, US warships, submarines, spy planes, bombers, and fighter jets are multitudinous in the Arctic; in excess of 50 F-35 fighter jets are based in Alaska, and US forces are once again scouting for Russian submarines on sorties from Keflavik Air Base in Iceland, otherwise given up as a US base in 2006. A new facility for submarines in Tromsø receives frequent visits from the US Navy, and US nuclear subs and naval vessels also frequent harbors and fjords in the Faroe Islands — a novel approach. In January, for the first time ever, US F-35 fighter jets landed at the US air base at Thule in Greenland, now known as Pittufik Space Base, as part of a NORAD exercise with Canada.

“Our ability to operate in the Arctic is critical to our ability to defend our homelands,” said General Glen VanHerck, Commander, North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command in a press release.

“Operation Noble Defencer successfully demonstrated our willingness and capability to conduct operations above the Arctic Circle in even the harshest weather conditions,” he added.

THULE AIR BASE, Greenland – The Thule Air Base, Greenland
The Thule Air Base, Greenland (now Pituffik Space Base) Honor Guard presents the colors during the 821st Air Base Group change of command ceremony July 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexandra M. Longfellow)

The Pentagon has established four so-called “agreed areas” in Norway, two of which are situated in Norway’s north, where US defense forces operate freely. From a new air base south of Tromsø, US Poseidon-P8 aircraft will monitor and potentially fight Russian submarines, in tandem with a fleet of similar aircraft bought by the Norwegian Air Force from the US. The Danish defense force recently aired its desire to buy one too, while Germany and Great Britain already command fleets of Poseidon aircraft.

Other spy planes based in Great Britain frequently operate along the Kola Peninsula, just outside Russian airspace, lifting electronic communications from the Russian bases. British troops are semi-permanently stationed in Northern Norway, US troops frequently train there, and last November, US marines took part in Freezing Winds, a land-based exercise in northern Finland, close to the Russian border.

In May, yet another US aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, traveled north along Norway’s coast tightly packed with fighter jets and troops. Meanwhile, some 150 military aircraft from the US, Scandinavia, and other NATO partners took part in the largest-ever joint exercise in the skies above the Nordic part of the Arctic. In mid-June, US Lancer-bombers landed in Luleå in Northern Sweden — all of it only a stone’s throw away from Russia’s nuclear bases.

“During the cold war the US defense line was drawn in the GIUK-straits between Greenland, Iceland and the UK. Today, 30 years later, under this new cold war, the maritime line of defense has been pushed eastward to the Bear-gap in the Barents Sea between Hammerfest in northern Norway, Bear Island and Svalbard much closer to the bases of Russia’s Northern Fleet,” says Tormod Heier.

The “USS Gerald R. Ford” sails inside the Arctic Circle where the carrier under NATO command will train flights and navigation with allied partners. Photo: NATO JFC Norfolk

US warships, including the destroyers USS Donald Cook and USS Ross, have occasionally patrolled the Bear-gap; equipped with the so-called AEGIS-guided missile systems, these destroyers are part of the US missile defense shield. US requests for Norwegian frigates to be part of this shield have been declined out of Norwegian fear that this may destabilize the strategic balance in the Arctic. Norway, which also shares a border with Russia, is working hard to maintain a tolerable relationship with Moscow.

Martin Breum is a Danish journalist and author specializing in Arctic affairs. He is
a frequent contributor to ArcticToday.