Victor Hvozd*: Geopolitical Problems and Forecasts for the Arctic Region


One of the global impacts of the world economy is the aggravation of the international struggle for access to natural resources and key transcontinental transport routes. This issue is becoming of particular relevance as proven deposits of energy and minerals get exhausted, while freight and passenger flows grow.

This causes the growing importance of the Arctic, which has a powerful resource potential and opens the possibility of creating new transport corridors. At the same time, the above-mentioned circumstances lead to increasing disagreements between leading countries for influence in the Arctic region, threatening with conflicts, including armed ones. The greatest threat to stability in the region is Russia trying to take the place of the former Soviet Union in the Arctic as well.

The said processes affect the interests of both the Arctic and other countries, including Ukraine, so they need to be studied and analyzed in order to create favorable conditions for the international development of the Arctic and to avoid confrontation in the region.


The Arctic is a center of leading countries' special attention

In recent years, the role and place of the Arctic have been growing, as it is becoming a new center of leading countries' special attention. The reason for this is the global climate changes in the world and the emergence of new technologies, opening more access to natural resources and transportation routes in the region.

To date, these issues are of particular importance due to the decline in proven reserves of minerals in other regions of the world, as well as intensification of the struggle for access to the ability to use them. In addition, the growth of world trade and accelerated economic activities require improved transport communications. In this regard, the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia and the Pacific through the Arctic seas has some significant advantages over other routes, including its being shorter (by 30 %), lower freight cost (40 %) and a higher safety for cargo and goods delivery.

Moreover, the Arctic region is the end point of two transcontinental transport and economic corridors (belts), namely: Northern Europe — Asia-Pacific and Northern Europe — Middle East. The components of these corridors are China's strategic project to build the so-called “New Silk Road” (the “One Belt — One Road” project) and the prospective project of the Baltic-Black Sea Union consisting of the Baltic countries, Poland and Ukraine.


Disagreements between leading countries for influence in the Arctic region

These circumstances cause rise of disagreements between the leading world powers for influence in the Arctic region and for the access to its potential. This, first of all, refers to the jurisdiction of offshore zones and waters of the Arctic seas, where there are the major oil and gas deposits and transportation routs.

Besides, the recovery of the confrontation between Russia and the West after the Putin regime's armed aggression against Ukraine makes the Arctic a new arena of the parties' potential military conflict. Thus, in the Arctic region Russia has direct contact with the United States (the Far East) and NATO (Norway and Canada). It is through the Arctic Ocean that the shortest flight path of the Russian Federation, the USA and China's intercontinental ballistic missiles which can be used by them in case of a nuclear war. With this in mind, the Arctic countries are building up their troops on the North direction, while Russia and the United States are improving their national defense systems, which leads to the militarization of the Arctic.


The Arctic Council

Nowadays the main international advisory body to solve problems in the Arctic, as well as to maintain cooperation between the countries in the region and to resolve conflicts between them, is the Arctic Council (established in 1996 and including the United States, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Russia; later joined by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). Fundamental disagreements between Russia and the Western members of the Arctic Council over the above-mentioned issues actually do not allow the parties to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. The main reason for this is Moscow, which leads overtly confrontational policy within the framework of returning to the USSR's old positions in the Arctic region. In fact, the said is one of the main components of Russian President Putin's Doctrine for resurgence of Russia as a new world power.


Russia's plans regarding the Arctic

The basis of Moscow's Arctic policy is the “Strategy of Development of the Arctic Zone of Russia and Ensuring National Security”, which was approved by Putin in 2014. The main idea of the Strategy is to ensure the RF's priorities in the development of mineral resources in the region (especially oil, gas and non-ferrous and precious metals, rare earth elements and diamonds), as well as maintaining the Russian Federation's sole control over Northern Sea Route as a key transportation communication in the Arctic.

Immutability of Moscow's plans to strengthen Russian positions in the Arctic and to develop its resources despite the growing economic problems in Russia as a result of Western sanctions, was confirmed by V. Putin during his visit to the Arctic region in late April this year (visited the archipelago of Franz Josef Land and the city of Arkhangelsk).

Thus, during the Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk (with participation of V. Putin, Prime Minister of the RF D. Medvedev and representatives of the region) were expressed Russia's intentions to invest into the development of the Arctic over 5 trillion rubles within the next fifteen years. These funds are to pay the realization of some 150 infrastructure projects, most of which relates to the extraction and processing of energy and other natural resources on the continental shelf of the Barents, Pechora and Kara Seas.

These Moscow's plans are supported by measures to prove that the whole shelf of the Arctic Ocean from the coast of Siberia to the North Pole “belongs to Russia”. To this end, Russians conduct research to confirm that the Lomonosov and Mendeleev submarine ridges stretching almost to the top of the globe belong to the Siberian shelf. For this purpose, there were several Arctic expeditions involving the atomic icebreaker “Russia” and the research vessel “Academician Fedorov”.

Russia's having such ships is Moscow's major advantage over other countries in the region. Nowadays the basis of the RF Arctic Fleet consists of the nuclear icebreakers “Russia”, “Yamal” and “50 Years of Victory”. Russia also uses smaller vehicles with diesel power such as “Taimyr” and “Vaigach”. According to the Russian Federation's long-term plans, in the next ten years nuclear icebreakers of the next generation LK-60Ya and diesel icebreakers of the LK-25 project will be built.


Russia's militarizing the Arctic

All this is accompanied by Russia's measures to build up its Armed Forces on the Northern direction, and the increased military activity in the region. Thus, it continues to form a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command “North”, which was established in 2014 on the basis of the RF Northern Fleet, units of the Western, Central and Eastern Military Districts of the RF Armed Forces, and of the 45th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the VKS (Aerospace Forces). Russia's Arctic Forces also include troops in the North-East of the Russian Federation, formed on the basis of the Kamchatka (combined forces) Flotilla of the Pacific Fleet.

In this regard, Russia's main efforts have been focused on strengthening the defense capabilities of the Northern region of the country, restoration of garrisons of troops and the airfield network along the Northern Sea Route, improving the infrastructure for basing of surface ships and submarines, strengthening AD and AM systems, and creation of a joint air and surface monitoring system.

As part of the practical implementation of these plans, lately has been formed the 14th Army Corps of Coastal Forces of the Northern Fleet of the Russian Federation and the Separate Arctic Motorized Rifle Brigade in Murmansk region of the RF; another such Brigade is being formed in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Territory. Besides, garrisons of Russian troops have been fully or partially restored on the coast, islands and archipelagos of the Arctic seas (including Wrangel Island, Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Severnaya Zemlya and New Siberian Islands). In a full swing is the work to modernize 13 military airfields (including Tiksi, Naryan-Mar, Norilsk, Amderma, Anadyr, Rogachevo, Nahurskoe), an air test site, 10 technical positions of radar troops and aircraft guidance points. At the same time, in the Chukotka Autonomous Territory, a separate squad of UAV “Orlan-10” is being formed.

Moscow pays special attention to modernization of defense system elements on the Northern direction, namely: radio-technical posts of early missile attack warning (including in Murmansk region, Komi Republic and Siberia). Thus, the existing stations of early missile attack warning (SPRN) “Dnepr-M” and “Daryal” are being replaced with more modern stations “Voronezh-VP”, which can significantly improve detection and tracking of space targets.

Against this background, in the situation of the growing confrontation between Russia and the United States and NATO, Russia has significantly intensified operational and combat training of forces and means of the Arctic Joint Strategic Command (AJSC) “North”. In particular, in 2016 the period of the sea stay of surface ships increased 1.8 times and submarines — 1.3 times compared to 2015 year. At this, the intensity of missile firings increased 1.7 times (up to more than 160 a year).

At the same time, Russians tested combat use of nuclear submarines “Yuri Dolgoruky”, “Novomoskovsk” and “Bryansk” that can conduct nuclear missile strikes on the United States via the North Pole. These submarines conducted three combat-training launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In addition, the number of operational and combat-training events of the Coastal Forces of the RF Northern Fleet has grown three times (including with mastering landing of amphibious forces), and so has the intensity of launching anti-aircraft missiles.

As part of the Russian Federation's “Arctic Mission”, most demonstrative was the voyage in October 2016 of a group of warships and support vessels of the RF Northern Fleet led by the large landing ship “Vice-Admiral Kulakov” to Russia's Arctic archipelagos, including New Siberian Islands, Severnaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. During the voyage, there were landings of the amphibious forces from board of the “Kulakov”, and of reconnaissance groups from helicopters Ka-27.

Along with this, in the Arctic there was an inter-fleet exercise of the forces of the Northern and Pacific Fleets. For the first time they were fulfilling security tasks on the Northern Sea Route and joint rescue operations.

To demonstrate military power and Russia's capabilities, in the region were regular flights of long-range (strategic) aviation of the RF VKS (Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22M3) along the coast of Northern Europe to the UK.

Despite the reduction in military spending due to Russia's economic problems, the active measures of operational and combat training of the forces of the AJSC “North” continue in the current year. Thus, under the verification of the Armed Forces for the winter training in March and April 2017, there was a series of trainings of the Northern Fleet (particularly in the Barents Sea), and the 45th Air Force and Air Defense Army. Separately were mastered the actions of units of the Arctic Infantry Brigade using deer and dog sleds in the tundra zone. In addition, it is planned in 2017 to conduct several voyages of the RF Northern Fleet's ships and tactical trainings in the Arctic Islands.


Positions of the USA, Canada and countries of North Europe in the Arctic

In their turn, the United States, Canada and the Nordic countries also have made active efforts to strengthen their positions in the Arctic. Thus, according to the Directive on the US Arctic Policy (adopted in 2009), the main tasks are as follows: to expand the American economic presence in the region, to ensure freedom of air flights and free shipping across the Arctic region (including Northern Sea Route), to improve the Anti-Missile Defense of the US territory from the North direction, to deploy land and sea equipment to ensure strategic deployment of forces into the Arctic, strategic deterrence of opponents and wider abilities of the US Navy to conduct operations in the region. Other Western countries' goals in the Arctic were similar — ensuring free economic activity in the Arctic and improving regional security.

In this context the USA and its partners' significant concerns were caused by Russia's increasing military activity in the Arctic. At this, the leadership of the United States has actually recognized Russia's superiority over the United States and its allies in the Arctic zone. That is why the USA plans to build up its troops on the Arctic direction (including in the territory of NATO allies, in particular, in Norway) and to build new icebreakers. Against the background of the growing military activity in the Arctic, measures to modernize their armed forces are planned by other Arctic countries, including Canada and Norway.

Besides, there will be more military exercises. In March 2016, in the coastal waters of the US state of Alaska were conducted joint military exercises the Navies of the USA, Canada, UK and Norway (“ICEX” series) with mastering the actions of submarines in the Arctic zone. In May 2015 there was the Arctic Challenge Exercise of the USA and its allies, conducted in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland with participation of about 4 thousand military servicemen and 100 aircrafts.

At the same time the USA continues the development of the northern part of the American Air Defense system, designed to identify and intercept launches of Russian, Chinese (and in the future — North Korean) ballistic missiles across the Arctic Ocean. This applies, in particular, to the increasing of combat capabilities of Missile Defense systems at the US bases in the UK and in the State of Alaska and organizing combat patrol by cruisers and destroyers equipped with “Aegis” Combat System in the northern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.


China shows special interest to the Arctic

First of all, it concerns China's access to transport routs in the region to expand its access to the European market. As part of these intentions, China continues implementing plans to create its own icebreaker fleet, improving infrastructure of Rajin and Chongjin ports, leased by it from North Korea and conducting hydrographic, geological and climate research in the Arctic zone.

Thus, in December 2016, China began building of the first Arctic icebreaker of its own class (at the moment for Arctic research China uses the “Xue Long”/“Snow Dragon” icebreaker which was purchased from Ukraine in 1994). Besides, in early April 2017, were successfully tested technology and equipment for drilling ice shelf to the depth of 1.5 km.

Based on the available opportunities, in the future China plans to start developing the natural resources of the Arctic, including in cooperation with the Russian Federation. In 2015, China and Russia reached an agreement on a joint study of the Western areas of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea, South-Russian and Medyn-Varandey areas in the Pechora Sea. In addition, the Chinese company CNPC acquired a 20 % stake in the project “Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas”. At the same time, China is stepping up cooperation for exploration deposits of natural resources in the Arctic also with foreign companies. In particular, an example of this is the implementation of joint projects of oil and gas exploration in the area of Iceland and iron ore deposits in Greenland.


Problems in the development of the Arctic

In addition to the disagreements between Russia and other countries of the Arctic region, a significant problem in the development of the Arctic is the complexity of the natural environment of the region. Thus, the actual navigation on the Northern Sea Route is possible from June to October, which requires a powerful icebreaking fleet and intermediate bases, as well as a developed system of logistics. In turn, production of oil and gas on the shelf of Arctic seas needs new technologies and significant investment funds. However, due to US and EU's sanctions, Russia has lost the opportunity to get such technologies from Western countries.

However, the development of oil fields in the Arctic and transportation of oil include significant threat to the ecology of the region. The reason is the considerable time it takes the nature of the Arctic to recover after oil spills. Evidence of the severity of the problem was the disaster of the tanker “Exxon Valdez” of Exxon company on 23 March 1989, off the coast of Alaska. As a result of the outpouring of about 260 thousand barrels of oil, there was an oil slick area of 28 thousand square kilometers and more than 2 thousand kilometers of the coastline was polluted. The danger of a repetition of this type of disaster requires additional measures to strengthen environmental protection in the region, hence also the rising cost of development of the region.

In this respect, quite illustrative are assessments by a number of Russian experts that recognize unprofitable Russia's production of oil and gas in its Arctic zone at the present level of world prices for energy carriers.



In general, the above-mentioned processes determine the quite complex and contradicting situation around the Arctic region. Thus, on the one hand there are new opportunities for access to natural resources in the Arctic and Arctic transportation routes, but on the other — the Arctic is a new center of disagreements and potential conflicts of world level.

The most alarming trend of the growing confrontation between Russia and the West in the Arctic is the region's militarization by both the sides, the consequences of which carry other geopolitical and geo-economic risks and threats to the region, namely, territorial, technological and environmental.

All this has a direct impact on the interests of Ukraine as one of the transcontinental communications links with Arctic zone. Besides, the disagreements in the Arctic are actively used by Russia to divert the world's attention from Moscow's military aggression against Ukraine.



The Northern Sea Route



Zones of marine activity in the Arctic


The Arctic Council members and observers


Territorial claims in the Arctic


Bases of the troops of the AJSC “North”

Military infrastructure of the AJSC “North”


Yuri Dolgoruky strategic nuclear submarine: characteristics


Mastering the actions of submarines in the Arctic zone during ICEX-2016

China’s Arctic Station

Ecological problems of the Arctic


*Information about the Author:

 Victor Hvozd – The President of the Independent Analytical Center for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel”, Candidate of Military Sciences.

 The article is based on the presentation at the International Conference «Russian Activeness in the Arctic: goals, trends and security challenges»

19.05.2017 21:00:00