Nato should be­ware Rus­sia’s Arc­tic surge

Un­chal­lenged, Moscow is forg­ing ahead with its north­ern am­bi­tions, which leave the West vul­ner­a­ble

The Daily Telegraph - - Comment - an­drew fox­all Dr An­drew Fox­all is Direc­tor of the Rus­sia Stud­ies Cen­tre at The Henry Jack­son So­ci­ety

The world is not short of hotspots: Syria; North Korea; Libya; Ukraine… But one of the hottest is also one of the cold­est – the Arc­tic, which is rapidly be­com­ing the front line in a new Rus­sian game of ex­pan­sion. On Franz Josef Land, an ice-cov­ered, des­o­late archipelago well into the Arc­tic cir­cle, Rus­sia has just opened a new mil­i­tary base. If Nato is to re­spond, which it must, then Bri­tain, po­si­tioned at the gate­way to the Arc­tic Ocean, will be at the heart of the show­down.

This lit­tle-known geo-po­lit­i­cal bat­tle be­gan al­most 20 years ago, when Vladimir Putin came to power. The fol­low­ing year, 2001, Rus­sia sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion to the United Na­tions as­sert­ing that a vast un­claimed area of the Arc­tic Ocean, in­clud­ing the North Pole, should be sub­ject to Moscow’s over­sight. Ini­tially re­jected, the bid was re­sub­mit­ted two years ago; if suc­cess­ful, it would see Rus­sia’s bound­aries en­larged by 463,000 square miles.

The Rus­sian flag was even planted on the cen­tral Arc­tic seabed 10 years ago, with the Krem­lin aim­ing to ex­ploit the area’s unique am­bi­gu­ity of gov­er­nance. For in con­trast to the Antarc­tic, which is largely land be­neath the ice, the Arc­tic is mostly just frozen sea­wa­ter and thus sub­ject to mar­itime ju­ris­dic­tions, which are of­ten less than clear.

Rus­sian ef­forts in the frozen north are only partly ter­ri­to­rial, how­ever. Cru­cial re­sources are also at stake. A study re­leased by the United States Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey in 2008 es­ti­mated that 13 per cent of the world’s re­main­ing oil and 30 per cent of its nat­u­ral gas re­serves are in the Arc­tic. Rus­sia wants to har­vest th­ese; its of­fi­cial Arc­tic pol­icy, adopted in 2008, makes clear that Moscow’s am­bi­tion is to turn the Arc­tic into the coun­try’s “strate­gic re­source base”.

To this end, it has spent the past decade mil­i­taris­ing the re­gion – far out­strip­ping Western ef­forts. In 2007, it re­sumed the Cold War-era prac­tice of long-range air pa­trols over the Arc­tic. A year later, the for­mi­da­ble North­ern Fleet re­sumed sur­face pa­trols of its wa­ters. Mean­while, Rus­sian sub­ma­rine ac­tiv­ity in the North At­lantic is re­port­edly reach­ing lev­els not seen since the Cold War.

As part of an in­tense pro­gramme of mil­i­tary modernisation, Rus­sia has es­tab­lished an Arc­tic Joint Strate­gic Com­mand to co­or­di­nate all of th­ese ac­tiv­i­ties, made con­sid­er­able in­vest­ments in a num­ber of new Arc­tic brigades, and re-opened Soviet-era mil­i­tary bases as well as build­ing new fa­cil­i­ties. The po­lar re­gion is now a ma­jor site for its war games.

As a re­sult, the West is vul­ner­a­ble. The US has only one ice­breaker ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing in Arc­tic wa­ters, and this ves­sel is 10 years past re­tire­ment. Rus­sia, how­ever, has 40, and is de­vel­op­ing an ad­di­tional 11 as part of its ef­forts to con­trol the North­ern Sea Route for ship­ping.

In re­sponse to Moscow’s ac­tions, Nato is be­lieved to be con­sid­er­ing the re­vival of the At­lantic Com­mand, dis­solved af­ter the Cold War. But what else can be done? Dur­ing the Cold War, the so-called Green­landice­land-uk Gap, the prin­ci­pal choke point between Rus­sia’s North­ern Fleet in the Arc­tic and its strate­gic in­ter­ests in the North At­lantic, was prob­a­bly the most minutely ob­served stretch of ocean on the planet – with the Royal Navy play­ing a prin­ci­pal role.

The “GIUK Gap” re­ceded in im­por­tance af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed. But now, as Rus­sia be­comes more as­sertive, the UK – to­gether with Nato al­lies – is scrab­bling to re­cover its ca­pa­bil­i­ties there. In July 2016, the Min­istry of De­fence an­nounced it would spend £3bn to buy nine P-8 Po­sei­don air­craft, in or­der to mon­i­tor ac­tiv­ity across the North At­lantic.

Nato has long ig­nored the Arc­tic. This must change. It needs to en­sure that there is a com­mon un­der­stand­ing of the re­gion’s se­cu­rity chal­lenges as well as a com­pre­hen­sive pol­icy to ad­dress them. Ar­tur Chilin­garov, Rus­sia’s special en­voy to the Arc­tic, said on Wed­nes­day that he ex­pects the UN to ap­prove the ex­ten­sion of Rus­sia’s Arc­tic bound­aries. Sup­pose the op­po­site were to hap­pen, how­ever, and Rus­sia were to use force to se­cure its in­ter­ests, just as in Ukraine and Syria. How would Nato re­act?

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