The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced, on April 19, that the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command (NF JSC), headquartered in Severomorsk, will receive the status of a separate military-administrative unit by December (see EDM, April 24). The move will de facto turn the entity into Russia’s newest Military District (MD). According to available information, the NF JSC (created as an experiment in 2014) will assume full military-strategic responsibility over Arkhangelsk Oblast, the Komi Republic, Murmansk Oblast and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (Izvestia, April 19). Such a development is unprecedented for Russia’s military-administrative divisions: while the Northern Fleet is to form a separate MD, all other fleets/flotillas are integrated into the MDs where they are based.
The defense ministry’s decision to upgrade the NF JSC appears to have been driven by Russia’s wider goal to increase its military-political weight in the Arctic. Specifically, starting from 2016 (when major two-month long exercises were carried out in the region), Moscow has made a dramatic push toward militarizing the High North, reflected in:
- The buildup of technical-material compounds and the completion of the unique “Arctic Trefoil” (Arkticheskii Trilistnik) military base. Occupying an area of 14,000 square kilometers, the base is reportedly capable of hosting at least 180 military personnel for 18 months without requiring any outside supplies/provisions (see EDM, September 12, 2018);
- Boosting anti-missile and anti-aircraft capabilities (see EDM, April 30, May 7). Within the past several months, Air and Missile Defense Forces (Voyska Protivovozdushnoy i Protivoraketnoy Oborony—PVO-PRO) in the Arctic have received a new version (“Arctic model”) of the Pantsir-S1 complex (see EDM, June 18, 2018). Furthermore, the authorities are placing specific emphasis on rearming some units of the locally stationed 45th Army with S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, which are to be additionally equipped with longer-range missiles capable of striking targets up to 400 kilometers away (Izvestia, April 16); as well as
- Increasing air power (offensive military capabilities) by planning to add two squadrons of the MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft to bases in the High North (Gazeta.ru, February 5).
Commenting on the Russian MoD’s decision to increase Air Force presence in the Arctic, Russian defense expert Anton Lavrov stated, “[T]his move has once again underscored that the Arctic region is our [Russia’s] clear military priority.” His opinion was echoed by the editor-in-chief of the military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Viktor Murakhovsky, who argued that “the new status reflects the special role of Russian naval-military forces in the Arctic” (Izvestia, April 19).
Aside from military-strategic calculations, the Arctic region is seen by many in the Russian expert community as a future “locomotive” of Russia’s economy. As of September 2016, the region accounted for 11 percent of Russia’s national income and output (RIA Novosti, September 1, 2016). At the same time, Russian experts widely believe that “the United States and NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] are steadily but surely increasing their presence in the Arctic region,” which suggests that “it [the Arctic] might soon become an area where geopolitical interests of major global players will clash… Russia has to prepare for this in an appropriate manner. The Arctic is turning into a field of acute competition between Arctic, near-Arctic [priarkticheskikh] and non-regional players.” Importantly, these same experts suggest that, to prepare, Russia should consider using tools of both “soft” and “hard” power (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, April 19).
The last point is particularly important given the fact that, in pursuit of boosting its military power in the region, Russia is actively using a combination of overt and covert military approaches. One poignant example is Ice Camp Barneo, a temporary Russian base, built every year (since 2002) on an ice floe close to the North Pole. Operating under the patronage of the Russian Geographical Society, Camp Barneo is officially an expensive tourist destination, where the price of a standard tour is 19,000 euros ($21,300) per person, and a ski tour costs around 46,000 euros ($51,600).
Yet, on April 12, organizers stated that the camp will not be completed this year. The official explanation is that participants (as well as all necessary equipment) can only be transferred to Barneo by an Antonov An-74 transport aircraft specifically modified to be used in the Arctic and Antarctica. However, Ukraine (“despite a previous arrangement”) is not allowing Russia to use any more of its polar-modified An-74s. Representatives of Ukrainian Antonov Airlines claimed that the Barneo Camp organizers had attempted to take one of its chartered planes on a “suspicious route” from Longyearbyen (Spitsbergen, Norway) to Minsk—a flight route that the Russian side only revealed upon the Ukrainian aircraft’s arrival at the Norwegian airfield (BBC News—Ukrainian service, April 23).
Indeed, this story (and the Ukrainian reaction) sheds light on a more hidden aspect of Russian operations in the High North.
Despite having always been presented by Moscow as a “purely peaceful project,” Ice Camp Barneo has actually also been used for years as a remote military training center. Notably, in April 2014, over 50 members of the Russian Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) conducted experimental military exercises that involved rapid transit from Barneo to Franz Joseph Land and onward to the Olenya reconnaissance base (Murmansk Oblast) before arriving at the Ivanovo Severny military airport (Ivanovo city). The cumulative distance covered by the group (including, in part, on foot, by snowmobile and by dogsled) was close to 300 kilometers. The maneuvers were particularly unique as they were coordinated with the Russian Geographic Society, highlighting the crucial nexus between Russian military and civilian efforts in the Arctic region. In the aftermath of these exercises, military officials declared, “This experience will be used by Russian VDV Command in subsequent preparation of special and reconnaissance forces [operating in the Arctic]” (Spec-naz.org, April 14, 2014).
In 2016, Barneo also became a training site for the special forces (Spetsnaz) of the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). According to the details (legend) of this exercise, the Spetsnaz were to discover and storm an enemy camp. And this year, on April 21, the Barneo site hosted a joint military exercise conducted by VDV Spetsnaz of Belarus and Russia. Interestingly, the event was carried out once again in coordination with the Russian Geographic Society, which was proclaimed to be “the patron of the Borneo Camp” (News.mail.ru, April 23).
Curiously enough, the Society’s board of trustees (popechitelskii sovet) includes Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as well as other notable Russian officials. Last month’s sudden declaration of the closure of the ice floe camp to civilian tourists, thus, raises important questions about what skills Russian military forces have been training there.