The arena north of the Arctic Circle has remained largely void of conflict and a shining example of interstate cooperation. This has been made possible, in large part, by the existence of international institutions like the eight-member Arctic Council and the United Nations.

Some analysts, however, have begun to fear that the great power politics subscribed to by Russian president Vladimir Putin, played out through his repeated comments on the need for Russia to invest in military infrastructure in the Arctic and, more recently, through the annexation of Crimea, may have altered the status quo between Russia and certain Arctic neighbors.

As a result, Russia must proceed with caution in its military strategy in the Arctic if it wants to maintain the same level of cooperation that it claimed it desired when it laid out its Arctic strategy for 2020.This new approach should begin with a re-examination of the reasons why it is investing in its regional military capabilities in the first place. As part of its 2007-2015 re-armament program, the Ministry of Defense announced its intention to add 40 new vessels to the Russian Navy by 2014. These additions include icebreakers, and a sizeable number of the new units will undoubtedly be assigned to the Northern Fleet, Russia’s largest. Yet, apart from a dispute with Canada over ownership of the undersea Lomonosov Ridge, which is set to be resolved through the United Nations, Russia has no immediate territorial disagreement in the region. Russian policymakers have been keen to support the use of international bodies to resolve disputes in the region in the past. This was particularly the case after the bilateral agreement reached with Norway in 2010 over a territorial spat in the Barents Sea. As long as these international bodies remain apolitical in Arctic affairs, as they have mostly been to this point, there is no reason Moscow should stop trusting in them now. With tensions over Ukraine still high, choosing instead to continue a militarization of the region only breeds mistrust while at the same time risking a deterioration of the security dilemma and a possible arms race.

The Kremlin must also adjust its military posture. A more assertive policy began in 2007 when Putin announced the resumption of strategic bomber flights over the Arctic. These flights are unannounced, and have led American F-22s and Canadian F-18s to be hastily scrambled on several occasions through the years. In 2008, Russia resumed regular Arctic naval patrols, sailing surface ships into waters that, at the time, were disputed with Norway. Four months ago, amidst the crisis in Crimea, 350 paratroopers conducted test jumps on Kotelny Island. In addition, the Defense Ministry has announced plans to increase investments in offensive weapons, including six new aircraft carriers and a number of Borei-class nuclear submarines intended for the North Sea Fleet. Whether the new additions are realized or not given budgetary constraints, these are actions that send clear signals that Russia is preparing not to simply defend and police its assets, but for a conflict in the region. Once again, all of these actions only communicate to other states that they must do the same in order to keep up, increasing the risk for a wider escalation, an eventuality clearly outside Russia’s interests.

The Russian government will, of course, respond to this by saying that they are only reacting to the reinforcement of NATO forces in the region. In 2013, the Obama administration revealed its “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” listing “Advance United States Security Interests” as one of its highest priorities. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has deemed the North Pole Canadian and made trips to the region to oversee military drills of Canadian Rangers now stationed there. The Norwegians base their largest army unit, Brigade Nord, above the Arctic Circle, and recently added a multi-million dollar intelligence ship to its Arctic fleet. Russia may also feel itself justified operating under the supposition that, as the ice continues to melt, states will desire the option to use hard power forces to act as deterrents, re-enforcers of energy claims, and guardians of new sea lanes; the most important of which will be the Northern Sea Route which runs the entire length of Russia’s 17,500km long north coast.

Interstate conflict, however, remains an unlikely possibility given the potential costs. NATO, for its part, has repeatedly resisted permanent expansion into the Arctic. It is time for the Kremlin to take a step back, be honest, and admit that the actions of individual states to shore up defenses in the region are largely in response to Russia’s fundamentally more bellicose policies. Russia’s real security need in the region lies not in balancing against NATO, but in securing its assets and fomenting an environment of safety and cooperation. This can be done with units that are defensive in nature so as not to enflame competition, and in a manner where intentions are clearly communicated and understood.

While, indeed, communicating these intensions may be difficult given recent events, Putin has demonstrated a degree of pragmatism of late, reaching out to President Obama in a phone call expressing a desire for better relations and then asking the Duma to withdraw his permission to use military force in Ukraine. Although re-establishing full ties with NATO may take some time, offering to restart joint military drills like Northern Eagle, which was cancelled over Crimea, would be a solid start. Over the long haul, Russia should seek to use other forums like the Russia-NATO Council to further communicate intensions and reduce suspicion. Identifying areas of mutual concern, such as environmental security, fighting terrorism, and securing borders could also be useful. Only time will tell if the hawks in the Kremlin will be willing to engage in cooperation rather than see the region as a zero-sum game.

Brock Bodine is an intern at the Carnegie Moscow Center and an MA candidate concentrating in strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

  • Brock Bodine