Russia flaunts Arctic expansion with new military bases

PHOTO: Soldiers of the Arctic motorized rifle brigade of Russias Northern Fleet stand near military vehicles during an exercise in Alakurtti, Russia.PlayDmitry Kozlov/AP Photo
WATCH Russia stakes Arctic claim with military bases

Russia has launched a push to show off its growing military presence in the Arctic in the past two months, even inviting foreign journalists on a rare tour of one of its bases in the region.

The Alakurtti base, which ABC News and several other foreign media organizations were invited to see this week, is above the Arctic Circle, about 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.

A Soviet-era base, surrounded by forest and around 8 foot of snow in April, Alakurtti was presented to foreign journalists as an example of Russia’s wider military expansion back into the Arctic.

The Soviet Union had deployed huge forces to the Arctic Circle as part of its strategic defenses; the peninsula on which Alakurtti is located is nicknamed the “unsinkable aircraft-carrier” because of the number of airbases there.

But after the collapse of the USSR, the number of troops dropped steeply and many bases fell into disrepair.

Now, however, Russia is returning. In the past two years, Russia has launched a major effort to build up its military presence, constructing a string of new bases, as well as refurbishing Soviet ones and building up its communications infrastructure along its northern coast.

The reason is new: as ice around it recedes, uncovering resources and opening up shipping routes, the Arctic is emerging as a new arena for geopolitical competition. With the U.S. Geological Survey estimating 13 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas to be located there, jostling to claim the resources has already begun.

PHOTO: Russias Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.ABC News
Russia's Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.

But while other Arctic countries, including the United States, have only slowly begun to declare their interests in the region, Russia has rushed in.

“For the scale of what Russia is doing, it’s hard to find a comparison in any of the other Arctic states,” said Katarzyna Zysk, a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford and an associate professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies who has researched Russian military policy in the Arctic.

The most impressive new base is a huge new facility on Franz Josef Land, an empty, ice-blasted archipelago jutting into the Arctic Sea. In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the base, known as the “Northern Shamrock,” which will house 150 personnel and host air defense units.

Russia is building three more bases in the Arctic, and says it is creating an air defense shield to cover much of the northern coast. A new “Arctic Brigade” has also been established at Alakurtti, the first of two planned.

PHOTO: Russias Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.ABC News
Russia's Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.

Many of the facilities are meant to have a dual-purpose in also serving as support infrastructure for the Northern Sea Route, a shipping passage that is predicted to become increasingly used as much of the Arctic becomes ice-free during summers by mid-century.

Russia is also paying serious political attention to staking its claim for the resources beneath the Arctic: it has submitted a claim to the U.N. that 460,000 square miles of ocean floor should be considered its territory.

But while the plans and some of the construction are already impressive, how significant the Russian build-up will be remains open to debate.

Some analysts have also puzzled over Russia’s motivations for the Arctic push, to what extent it reflects a genuine long-term strategy to shape the region or whether it’s ultimately primarily political posturing.

Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, said that although the vision was clear, in reality the expansion appeared to make little sense now when Russia is enduring an economic crisis and beginning to make cuts in its military.

“It’s a luxury you can ill-afford,” Baev said.

PHOTO: Russias Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.ABC News
Russia's Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.

Some of the questions marks around Russia's Arctic plans were illustrated by Alakurtti, the base that ABC News visited.

To some extent, Russia’s Arctic expansion is a rebranding exercise. The new Arctic Brigade at Alakurtti is partly carved out of an existing force at the base, which already hosts the 80th Motor Rifle Brigade.

The approaches to the base are a broken-down village and a cluster of peeling Soviet-era apartment blocks. The base itself has been impressively refurbished: new plastic cladding on the outside of the buildings. Inside, the canteen, classroom areas and living quarters the journalists were shown were spotlessly clean; one would be tempted to say virtually untouched, in fact.

Militarily, the base is also something of an outlier. Unlike the others, it cannot service the northern sea route. It’s only apparent military purpose, Baev said, could be a defense (or attack) against Finland.

“What was the point of this base was never convincingly explained,” said Baev, who believes there are signs that the second Arctic Brigade may now never materialize.

While useful for training forces in Arctic conditions, one of the base’s purposes, or at least the Arctic brigade’s presence there, seems to be symbolic, meant to telegraph Russia’s wider Arctic plans to its potential competitors and to impress the audience at home.

The mastering of the Arctic certainly plays well into the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia’s revival as a global power. Putin, a nature buff who heads the board of the Russian Geographical Society, also seems to have taken a personal interest in the region.

PHOTO: Russias Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.ABC News
Russia's Alakurtti base is located above the Arctic Circle, around 250 miles from the northern port Murmansk and on the border with Finland.

But, professor Zysk said, the public relations benefits can't explain the scale of the effort.

“It’s very expensive propaganda,” she said.

Russian military planners view the Arctic as a vulnerable area in the event of a conflict with the United States and NATO, she said. They also see real economic potential in establishing infrastructure that will facilitate shipping while accessing resources in the long-term.

Likewise, in the territorial disputes to come, Moscow appears to be preparing to negotiate from a position of strength. In Zysk's opinion, Russian authorities consider the Arctic to be of real importance.

“In general there are good reasons to think that this investment Russian is making in the Arctic is irrational,” she said. “Everyone thinks that the Arctic is the last place that Russia should invest. And still Russia is doing it. I think it’s genuinely important for the Russian authorities.”

Some in the United States agree with them. The head of the U.S. Coast Guard, Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, has been calling for the United States to begin seriously boosting its capabilities in the Arctic and warning against leaving Russia's expansion there unchallenged.

“When Russia put Sputnik in outer space, did we sit with our hands in pocket with great fascination and say, ‘Good for Mother Russia’?” Adm. Zukunft asked at a conference in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

In some ways, the analysts said, Russia is going into the Arctic now because it can. With the other Arctic powers -- which also includes Canada, Sweden and Norway -- largely absent, Russia can punch above its weight and later might already be too late, when the costs of competing could grow prohibitively high.

“Point is that the Arctic is probably the one region where Russia feels strong compared with the global powers,” professor Baev said. ”And feeling strong is a feel-good thing."