How the Arctic figures into Russia’s nuclear calculus

While home to the Northern Fleet and a land border with NATO, the Arctic has seen soldiers sent away to fight in Ukraine, Norway's top general says.

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OSLO — The West should listen carefully when Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about using nuclear weapons but should remember that it is more useful for him to threaten their use than to go ahead, the head of Norway’s armed forces told Reuters.

General Eirik Kristoffersen was speaking ahead of nuclear exercises that NATO alliance members are conducting this week, with Russia planning to conduct its own soon.

Norway is part of NATO and shares a border with Russia in the Arctic. Putin and top Russian officials have repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons to protect Russia.

“First of all, we have to listen to what he (Putin) says,” Kristoffersen said in the interview on Sept 26. “Second, there is no reason for him to use any nuclear weapons … There is no threat to Russia’s existential security. So he has no reason to use it.”

For Putin, the threat of using nuclear weapons “is more valuable than if he actually uses them,” said Kristoffersen.

“Then it has lost much of its value. It’s about deterrence, as it was during the Cold War. It is about making sure that it (Russia) has the capability and showing us, the rest of the world, that it can do it,” he said.

Asked whether he thought Russia was more willing to use nuclear weapons than before, Kristoffersen said Putin was following the Russian doctrine of using nuclear weapons when the country’s “very existence” was at risk.

“He’s following his doctrine. So if there is a nuclear attack on Russia, definitely. If there is an existential threat to Russia, definitely,” he said.

The Arctic is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet, its key fighting force in the region, tasked with Russia’s nuclear second-strike capacity — its ability to respond to a nuclear attack using its own nuclear weapons against the attacker.

Moscow conducted an exercise of its nuclear deterrence forces on Feb. 19, five days before the invasion of Ukraine, he said.

“Usually they do that in the fall … that was of course a signal,” he said. “The relative importance of nuclear deterrence for Russia with the ongoing war in Ukraine has increased.”

Since the Feb. 24 invasion, Russia has reduced its land forces in the Arctic to send them to Ukraine knowing there was little risk in doing so, said Kristoffersen.

“He can move all his land forces away from the whole NATO eastern border and use them in Ukraine, without any fear of being attacked, because he knows NATO is not a threat to Russia,” he said.

These army forces had sustained heavy losses in terms of personnel and equipment, he said.

“We don’t see any capacity to have a battalion battlegroup stand up anymore, it’s down to company-sized battlegroups,” said Kristoffersen. A company counts around 200 personnel while a battalion usually counts some 1,000.

Yet, Kristoffersen stressed Russia could rebuild its land forces in a hurry given it trains about 250,000 conscripts every year.

“If you only go four years back, it’s a million soldiers and they are still, from my point of view, quite freshly trained,” he said.