Russia’s Arctic War Games Up the Ante on Unsettled North Pole Claims

October 22, 2019 Updated: October 23, 2019

Nuclear-capable missiles streaking across Arctic skies last week not only showcased Russia’s nuclear deterrent but also signaled to geostrategic rivals that Moscow’s bid to control vast swathes of Arctic turf is underpinned by a formidable arsenal.

Code-named “Thunder 2019” and directed personally by Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Defense Ministry’s headquarters, the drills involved five submarines, 15 surface warships, 105 aircraft, 12,000 troops, and 213 missile launchers.

Under Putin, Moscow has rushed to re-open abandoned Soviet military air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands, and to build new ones, all to buttress Russia’s claim to around half a million square miles of the Arctic.

Russian naval vessel launching a KALIBR missile at an unknown location, released on Oct. 17, 2019. (Russian Ministry of Defense via Reuters)

“Russia argues that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of the Russian Federation and so it claims the North Pole as its own, in a bid to control the North Pole,” said Dr. Leszek Sykulski, author and geopolitics expert who served as a national security analyst for Poland’s president, the late Lech Kaczynski.

“Russia not only claims the right to fully control the so-called Northern Sea Route, which is a route going from eastern China, via the Bering Strait, along the northern coast of Eurasia, or the northern coast of the Russian Federation,” Sykulski told The Epoch Times, “but Russia also lays claim to resources, to hydrocarbons and to valuable non-ferrous metals under the seabed of the Arctic Ocean.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent (90 billion barrels) of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered conventional natural gas.

“This shows the resource potential is huge, absolutely massive, and that it’s worth fighting for,” Sykulski said. “And there are other resources there that fuel modern economies, like manganese, nickel, copper, gold, and silver.”

In August 2007, in a bold display of territorial demarcation and to signal to the world that they’re not about to let a golden opportunity pass them by without a fight, Russian authorities famously planted a titanium flag on the seabed of the North Pole by means of a robotic arm attached to a mini-submarine.

Then in 2015, Russia filed its Arctic claim to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which lets countries claim an area of the world’s oceans as part of its extended continental shelf.

Denmark, as a proxy for Greenland, which it controls, has an overlapping claim to Russia’s. Canada is the most recent nation to throw its hat in the ring and fight for the North Pole.

“Canada is a proud ocean nation,” said Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, on the occasion of a 2,100-page submission (pdf) to the UN Commission in May. “The filing of the Arctic Ocean continental shelf submission is a major milestone in delivering on the government’s priority to define the outer limits of Canada’s continental shelf. Today, we are taking a major step forward in ensuring Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

Segments comprising the outer limits of Canada’s continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, as proposed by the Government of Canada in a submission to the UN in May 2019. (Government of Canada)

“There is no friendship between nations here,” Sykulski said of the growing tension around competing claims in the Arctic. “There’s just an absolute race, no longer just civil and technological, but an actual arms race in the Arctic.”

‘Defensive’ War Games

Russian officials said the “Thunder 2019” war games were defensive in nature and didn’t target any specific countries, though experts pointed out the format of the drill included scenarios suggestive of clashes over territory.

Dmitry Stefanovich, a military analyst with the Moscow-based Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told CBS News that “according to the script of the drill, there’s escalation along the borders, and it could involve deployment of short- and intermediate-range missiles.”

A Russian soldier stands in front of an RS-24 Yars mobile intercontinental ballistic missile system at the Alabino training ground on April 5, 2017. (Sergei Bobylev/Russian Defense Ministry Press Office)

Putin announced on Oct. 11 that Russia would resume the development of short- and intermediate-range missiles, which were banned for decades under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) pact, which the US has quit.

Some claim the name “Thunder-2019” is meant to evoke association with “Global Thunder,” a set of military drills run by the US and its allies and which the U.S. Strategic Command describes as “an annual homeland defense exercise focusing on the single, unyielding priority of defending the homeland from attack.”

North Pole Front and Center

Observers of the geopolitical chess game around the North Pole and those attuned to signals that the Arctic backstory may be shifting more squarely into the spotlight might consider two back-to-back press releases from TASS, Russia’s state news agency, issued just as the nuclear war games were wrapping up.

The first, published on the day “Thunder 2019” concluded, said Russia wants to cooperate peacefully with other countries in settling Arctic claims. The second, issued the following day, said the Defense Ministry had completed a battery of tests that proves Russia’s exclusive claim to control the North Pole is valid.

The Oct. 18 release cited Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, who told a session of the Russian government’s Maritime Collegium in St. Petersburg that the tests support Russia’s claim to the Lomonosov Ridge.

“The Russian Defense Ministry has carried out additional bathymetric and gravimetric studies and acoustic profiling. I believe that the findings will be an exhaustive argument in favor of our request at the commission’s session in February 2020,” Borisov said, referring to a planned meeting next year of the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which is expected to review and possibly adjudicate competing claims.

But the UN Commission only rules on the scientific validity of geological data in support of claims to demarcate the outer limits of a given country’s continental shelf. It does not define borders, which would need to be settled between interested countries through diplomacy or other means.

“International law is of secondary significance when things come down to a ruthless rivalry between superpowers,” Sykulski said. “So far, legal attempts to divide the Arctic in an orderly way into sectors of influence have failed. It is certain that in the Arctic, what we will witness—and what we can see already happening—is that the capacity to use force will be decisive.”

The Doves vs the Hawks

Not everyone is as hawkish as Sykulski.

Michael Byers, Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and author of two books on international disputes and law in the Arctic, told the Barents Observer that the process of divvying up the region is likely to drag on for years or even decades.

Andreas Osthagen, a researcher at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansens Institute, told High North News that the claims to the North Pole are more symbolic than rapacious, because resource-wise, “there is very little to fight over.”

Osthagen believes countries wrangling over the North Pole are in reality far more interested in tapping resources closer to their coastlines, which are easier and cheaper to extract, and so the claim-driven rivalry is likely to stay in a deep-freeze for years to come.

“There is nothing to suggest this is a pressing issue,” Osthagen said. “Without the presence of resources, there is not a big impetus to care about the delimitation of the North Pole.”

Russian officials, too, struck a congenial tone in their Oct. 17 press release.

On the day “Thunder-2019” concluded, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official Nikolai Korchunov told a press conference that his country’s intention was to advance cooperation within a framework known as the Arctic Council, a high-level intergovernmental forum that seeks to promote coordination and interaction among the Arctic States.

“The Russian Federation has been consistently advocating for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, advancing cooperation within the framework of the Arctic Council as the key organization determining the trajectories and details of international cooperation in this sphere,” Korchunov said.

Arctic Council as Security Broker?

Eight countries that have Arctic territories—namely the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland—are designated as the Arctic Council’s permanent Member States.

Asked about Russia’s military initiatives in the region, a representative of the Arctic Council replied to The Epoch Times with a statement:

“The Arctic Council’s mandate, as articulated in its founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, explicitly excludes military security,” explained Kristina Bär, the Council’s Communications Officer. “Thus, I hope for your understanding that the Arctic Council is not in a position to comment on questions related to military initiatives.”

Bär added that at a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, held in Rovaniemi, Finland, on May 7, “the Foreign Ministers of all eight Arctic States reaffirmed their commitment to maintain peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.”

A joint statement released at the meeting stressed the need for ongoing scientific research, sustainable development, environmental conservation, and recognition of the rights and roles of indigenous peoples.

Steeped in the language of cooperation, the statement makes no mention of conflict, military or otherwise, or its resolution, save for “emphasizing the role of Arctic States in providing leadership in addressing new opportunities and challenges in the Arctic.”

Sykulski, however, is not convinced that the frozen terrain of the Arctic will not be the setting for a hot conflict.

“When it comes to US-Russia relations, many influential US think tanks and associations of experts are literally sounding the alarm that the US is losing the battle for control of the Arctic. Russia is not only intensively developing its Arctic naval forces but also ground troop formations specialized in operating in the Arctic theater.”

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleet’s Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia, on Jan. 23, 2017. (Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation via REUTERS)

Sykulski added that Russia is also rapidly growing its fleet of nuclear-powered ice breakers and is busy developing underwater drones, which he says could be used not just for research, but also for military purposes.

Two nuclear-powered icebreakers Russia and Yamal are seen moored at Rosatomflot, the operator of Russia’s atomic icebreaker fleet, at a base at the Arctic port of Murmansk, Russia, on Dec. 11, 2011. (Andrei Poronin/Reuters)

“The European Union basically has no Arctic strategy to speak of,” Sykulski said. “The European Union is essentially sleeping through this crucial phase when there is still time to actively take part in the contest for Arctic resources. And it’s worth noting that we’re not just talking about hydrocarbons, non-ferrous metals, but also supplies of potable water, and this last resource is one over which there will be a major struggle for control over the next few decades.”

Sykulski believes the next two years will be a crucial period during which the Arctic map will be redrawn.

Resource basins in the Arctic Circle region. (USGS)

Part of the urgency comes from the expected settlement of territorial claims by the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2020, though Sykulski says when push comes to shove, the dictates of international law will be cast aside in favor of an order imposed by those regional power brokers who have the capacity to use force.

“Russia is taking deliberate political and military steps in the Arctic, using it to leverage its position in the international arena. Also, which is very significant, Russia is trying to gain the biggest possible advantage in the Arctic over NATO allied countries.”

“There is an unwritten Russian doctrine that is now being implemented in the Arctic, which says that Russia should have a real military operating capacity that is greater than the sum total of the capacities of the US, Canada, and EU countries. And this program is what Russia is pressing ahead with,” Sykulski argues.

As an example, he cites the buildup of Russian military bases and the development of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) infrastructure along Russia’s northern coast and within the Arctic circle.

Deference to international law will certainly be leveraged in the forthcoming diplomatic disputes, he explains, but this will only ever serve as a supplement to the capacity to project power.

Senior policymakers in Europe appear to be, if not taking a page from the hawks, then at least giving it a considered read.

Marie-Anne Coninsx, who has been the EU’s Ambassador at Large for the Arctic since 2017 and due to leave office in the coming weeks, told the High North News that the EU should play a greater role in the Arctic in terms of security.

“In the EU’s global strategy, we have stated that we want the Arctic to remain a low tension area, based on solid political security cooperation,” she told High North News. “In order to make that happen, we must talk together. Some of the discussions here in Reykjavik have focused on opening up for security policy discussions in the Arctic Council or creating a separate body to address this. Though I do not believe we need to create new organizations; I believe those we already have will suffice.”

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne said at an Oct. 10 meeting of the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik that “there should be more EU in the Arctic and more Arctic in the EU, because the EU has a lot to offer the region.”

Coninsx further suggested that the new EU Arctic strategy that will be formulated after her term ends should be bolder in addressing the issue of security.

“If you have a security risk, it cannot be limited to the Arctic states exclusively. This is why the EU has an active security policy. We are a global security provider. And the upcoming EU Arctic Policy will be more updated and stronger than the current, and we will be in a good position to address the challenges for all the member states,” she said.

“You cannot put up a ‘do not disturb’ sign in the Arctic,” Coninsx said. “Many argue that the EU should engage more than what it does today. The German strategy, for instance, encourages the EU and NATO to intensify their security policy role in the region.”

Finland currently holds the rotating chair of the Arctic Council.

President Donald Trump hosted, on Oct. 2, his Finnish counterpart Sauli Niinistö at the White House. During a joint press conference, Trump called for greater Arctic security.

“Both of our nations are committed to a secure Arctic region free from external intrusion, interference, and coercion,” Trump said.

Speaking at the presser, Niinistö acknowledged that there are “huge risks” in the Arctic.

“One of them is that we should keep the low tension we are used to having there. And that is what we have been discussing, and I do appreciate the president’s position to emphasize that. It is not a place for military,” Niinistö said.

The Trump administration earlier raised concerns about Russia’s military buildup in the region.

“It’s pretty clear that the Arctic should be an area for commerce and not for Russian militarization,” a senior administration official told reporters on Oct. 1.

In May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Russia for aggressive moves in the Arctic.

“In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” Pompeo said. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic.”

Another part of the backdrop for “Thunder-2019” was an ongoing debate at the UN on nuclear arms control and the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the US.

The treaty, which caps the number of missile launchers and warheads, is due to expire in February 2021.

Russia wants to prolong the treaty, while the US has so far taken the approach of wait and see.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @OZImekTOM
RECOMMENDED