Russia’s growing military operations signal new Arctic ‘ice curtain’ — report

By Christa Marshall | 08/28/2015 08:16 AM EDT

Russia has developed an “anti-access” presence in the Arctic in the past year with a stronger military presence, a push for more territory, and nationalist rhetoric, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes.

Russia has developed an "anti-access" presence in the Arctic in the past year with a stronger military presence, a push for more territory, and nationalist rhetoric, a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes.

While not focused entirely on climate change, the analysis offers a preview of ongoing geopolitical tensions — and legal issues — likely to be exacerbated by ice loss. It urges Arctic nations to negotiate a "declaration on military conduct" requiring nations to give a 21-day advance notice of major military exercises — which could prevent actions like the unannounced Russian Arctic military exercises this year involving more than 45,000 forces.

NATO has reported that Russia has increasingly been turning off aircraft tracking devices when flying over Northern Europe, and the country has announced the reopening of dozens of previously closed military bases in the Arctic.


"The Arctic is beginning to become militarized and there is no forum or place to discuss security-related issues and to promote greater transparency and confidence," states the report, which refers to the current situation as "the new ice curtain."

"We are in quite a different place than we were a year, even a year and half ago," added Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at CSIS and the report’s co-author.

According to the center, there should be a joint U.S.-Russia working group to enhance safety in the Bering Strait and more coordination between the U.S. Coast Guard and Russia over issues such as vessel traffic lanes. A new Arctic Coast Guard Forum to be launched this fall — involving the United States, Russia and other Arctic countries — offers an important opportunity to "maintain contact" with Russian officials at a time when bilateral military contacts are not an option, said the research institution.

Tensions, trade or both?

The likely drivers of Russia’s new nationalism range from internal political tensions to arrests of Greenpeace activists after they scaled a Russian oil rig in 2013, the center said. Protests and a lagging economy have put additional pressure on President Vladimir Putin’s government. Also, China has been making a push in the Russian Arctic, sending a range of ships through the Northern Sea Route, including its first container ship in 2013 on a path historically used for Russian shippers. The route runs along Russia’s coast and connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

In one sign of tension, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said this year that "some developed countries that don’t have direct access to the polar regions obstinately strive for the Arctic."

On one level, Russia’s actions are not surprising, considering that the Arctic accounts for approximately 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and exports, according to Conley. Efforts on things like search-and-rescue and oil spill prevention are "understandable," she said.

What is unusual, the report says, is the degree of the aggressiveness, and that it is occurring at a time when many Arctic oil and gas activities and infrastructure projects are still on hold. Military exercises in September 2014, for example, were the largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union and involved a new military base in the New Siberian Islands.

The report also highlights challenges that may flare up as ice melt opens up more sea lanes. The Northern Sea Route, for instance, is viewed by Russia as "internal waters" subject to transit fees for passage, while other countries view it as an open right of way. China’s recent activity along the route highlights a potential conflict that currently is "little discussed," the center said.

Claims for more territory amid cooperation

Similarly, Russia, Canada and Denmark all are vying to extend their continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. This month, Russia formally submitted a claim to the United Nations to expand its Arctic territory by more than 460,000 square miles via a process that could take a decade or longer to sort out. Down the road, jurisdiction over Arctic areas could be important for who benefits from oil, gas and mineral extraction (ClimateWire, Dec. 10, 2013).

"Could the Kremlin grow frustrated with this extensive process and assert unilateral claims?" the CSIS report asks.

It also documents a range of climate impacts to Russia, from melting permafrost bending gas lines to increased fires damaging Siberia’s peatlands.

One potential area of cooperation between the United States and Russia is scientific research on climate change, said Marlene Laruelle, a research professor of international affairs at George Washington University, during a CSIS panel discussion.

"It is something we should be pushing for," Laruelle said, noting earlier conservation measures, as well as cooperation on space exploration during the Cold War. Russia has been involved with environmental working groups of the Arctic Council and allocated $5 billion last year to implement council environmental projects in its territory, according to Russian News Agency TASS. Russia also backed a recent fishing moratorium in the central Arctic Ocean.

However, there may be limits for shared research, considering that Russia passed a law in 2012 requiring nonprofit organizations to register as "foreign agents" with the government.

"Now, in some ways, it’s anathema to have a Western scientist contact" in Russia, Conley said about the law. "That is just a practical issue that is going to make scientific cooperation more difficult."