The Russians are not coming, at least not to Alaska

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting on integrated development of the Arctic at a military base in Alexandra Land in remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land, Russia, on March 29, 2017. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting on integrated development of the Arctic at a military base in Alexandra Land in remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land, Russia, on March 29, 2017. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

Russian Arctic policy is often characterized as “threatening” to its neighbors and the regional status quo.  This tone can be seen in commentary such as the Alaska Dispatch News feature on Feb. 3, “Putin’s call to arms,” in which Russia is “on the march” and making its “biggest Arctic military push” since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This military-centric theme also runs through a number of recent position papers which emphasize growing Russian “Arctic aggression.”  But this is tactical mirror-imagining of Russian intent which mischaracterizes and obscures Russia’s true geopolitical objectives. This is true for both U.S. strategic policy and Alaska’s own subset of issues.

Since 2012 Russia has been significantly reinvesting in its Arctic infrastructure, security and coast guard capabilities, as well as refurbishing and re-energizing the operational tempo of its strategic nuclear force.  Though perhaps counterintuitive, these actions do not foretell a bellicose attempt by Russia to dispossess Arctic territory from its neighbors.  It is best to view Russian policy in the Arctic in the context of grand strategy — not as a regional or tactical threat.

Geography is destiny

Geography determines that Russia will continue to have the greatest influence of any nation on the character of the Arctic region; half of the littoral region is under its sovereign control, including most of the recoverable oil and gas.  It does have current international legal claims, allowed under UNCLOS, to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, but so do Canada, Norway and Denmark — nations rarely characterized as “aggressive.”  Russia is significantly improving its military and security posture along its Arctic coast, but these forces, in a conventional military sense, are very small in proportion to the enormity of Russia’s maritime region.  The impact on the regional military balance, for example, of a new base with 150 troops on Franz Joseph land, are minuscule in terms of a military “threat,” though they do enhance control and sovereignty in these remote areas.

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Russia’s regional policing or “soft security” requirements are also much greater than our own, and not just because of the sheer expanse of its Arctic coast. Its Arctic Northern Sea Route, compared to North America’s Northwest Passage, integrates an incomparably greater domestic industrial infrastructure and is, and has been, integral to extracting resources and industrial output from the north-flowing great river basins in its Eurasian landmass. What is fundamentally different from Putin’s Russia and the Soviet era is that Russia is not reinvesting in Arctic coastal infrastructure to support a domestic heavy industry closed within a “Command Economy.” Rather this investment is designed and fundamentally linked to international trade and a global market. The Northern Sea Route, which also benefits from more favorable meteorological conditions (ice character and extent), supports an internal as well as a modest quantity of international shipping, whereas Canada’s Northwest Passage, and its Alaskan approaches, is not an operating entity.

Icebreaker illustration

The U.S. icebreaker fleet is indeed inadequate, woefully so, to support future projected increases in Arctic shipping. This could prove particularly critical in the capacity to respond to human or ecological disasters — which is the proper context to judge U.S. lack of capacity.  Russian investment in a dozen new icebreakers to upgrade an existing fleet of more than 40 vessels, while the U.S. Coast Guard has been fighting a losing battle to fund one new ship, is a good illustration of a U.S. lack of priority on this important mission, not Russian aggression or a “threat.”  Russia maintains a much larger fleet of icebreakers because it has a much larger Arctic maritime industrial enterprise.

Some Russian improvements in “soft security,” such as search and rescue  and other emergency response capabilities, are valuable to all nations transiting Russian waters, especially its Arctic neighbors.  There is a discernible pattern, going back decades, of Russian cooperation in international Arctic forums, such as the Arctic Council, better than in any other global region.  This holds true for regional relations with the U.S., which it views as its primary strategic rival.  Even after the annexation of the Crimea and the continuing Ukraine and Syrian crises, within the Arctic Council (under U.S. leadership until May 2017), Russia has remained engaged in seeking consensus on search and rescue, scientific endeavors, coast guard coordination and in addressing the impacts of climate change.

Strategic vision

The Arctic is central to the Putin regime’s strategic intent to reconstitute Russia as a global power.  Russia has indeed been progressively threatening border nations, particularly those which emerged like itself, from the former Soviet Union, to include the Baltic States, Georgia and of course Ukraine.  This global policy is intended to challenge the geopolitical order (and specifically America’s dominant position in that order).

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But Russia’s calculated aggressive foreign policy is unlikely to spill into the Arctic because it undermines an even greater, long-term necessity for Putin’s grand strategy: the necessity to extract Arctic resources for economic sustainability, and in the long term, survivability.  Russia’s Arctic strategic documents candidly refer to their “Arctic Zone’s” hydrocarbon resources as critical to the future stability and economic viability of the central state.  Moreover, very much unlike the Cold War, Russia is cognizant that it needs Western management know-how, technology, financial institutions and capital to extract these resources (primarily hydrocarbons) and that it must “market” them to a global consumer base.  To achieve it’s ambition it needs to cooperate, particularly with the other Arctic nations, to sustain the massive industrial extractive enterprise it envisions.

Russia does pose a military threat to the U.S. from the Arctic; a strategic nuclear capacity that could destroy us like no other.  Recent improvements to its premier strategic forces, particularly to its ballistic missile submarines and its Arctic-based air defenses, improve its relative position in the complex balance of nuclear deterrence with which both Russia and the U.S. continue to coexist.  But these are forces intended for regime survival, not regional territorial expansion.  As was true in the Cold War, the Arctic is “the” critical battlespace in a global nuclear war; but very much otherwise far from the critical hot spots at any threshold below that level.  There is little threat of a battalion of Russian naval infantry making a landing to capture Nome anytime in the foreseeable future — unless we would have already lost a strategic nuclear exchange.

Russia needs cooperation in the Arctic to achieve its strategic goals, not confrontation.  The threat for Alaska’s Arctic future is not that the Russians are coming; rather it is that they may have no incentive to come at all.  They can develop their NSR with only incidental interaction with Alaska and its minimal Arctic coastal infrastructure.  They already have deep water ports well positioned along their coasts.  The challenge for Alaska is to create a viable, realistic, incentive for inclusion in future Russian NSR maritime commerce. The onus is on us to find a way to integrate their Arctic development ambitions with our own.

Jon Skinner is a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer and a 40-year Alaska resident. He is a December 2016 doctoral graduate in polar geography and strategic studies from the University of Alaska. His doctoral dissertation was titled “Russian Capacity to Develop its Offshore Hydrocarbon Resources in the Kara Sea: Arctic and Global Implications.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)