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14 June, 2019  ▪  Марк Войджер

Russia’s hybrid expansionism in the Arctic

How are the Arctic Ocean, the Black and the Azov Seas interrelated in Russia’s strategic military thinking?

When in September 2014 the Russian authorities detained the Lithuanian fishing vessel “Juras Vilkas” (Sea Wolf) and its crew in the Barents Sea and towed the vessel to the Russian port of Murmansk, the European Union protested over this forced apprehension and stated that the ship had been sailing “on the high seas”, that is, in international waters, when it was seized. The Russian Foreign Ministry promptly published a statement claiming that the Russian border guards had detained the ship because it was fishing in Russia's exclusive economic waters. At that time, Russia’s relations with the EU and NATO were already quite strained as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its hybrid invasion of the Donbass. The Baltic States had been among the most vociferous critics of the Kremlin’s actions (as they are to this day), so the logical assumption in the West was that Russia was trying to harass and punish one those states, Lithuania.

Territorial disputes between Russia and the West in the High North had existed for almost a century, in particular over the Norwegian island of Svalbard, denoted on the Russian maps as Spitzbergen, as the tensions there have always carried a certain potential risk of conflict between Russia and NATO even in the pre-Crimea period. In April 2015, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin, who was by then under EU sanctions, landed on Svalbard on his way to a Russian ice base near the North Pole, followed exactly a year later by Chechen special forces instructors, which was in a direct violation of the Svalbard Treaty prohibiting to use the island for military purposes. 

Regardless of that long history of maritime competition in the area, most observers likely viewed the capture of the Lithuanian ship as an isolated incident. Five years later, following a growing number of ever more aggressive such incidents it has become obvious that the evens of September 2014 were merely the first exploratory “shot” in a long-term global maritime conflict that is meant to test the resilience of Russia’s neighbors against Russian hybrid attacks in the sea, as well as the resolve of the West to protect the freedom of navigation in the World Ocean. 

The next phase of Russia’s maritime onslaught was launched in November 2018, when the Russian navy openly attacked Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait, in an aggressive, premeditated and coordinated fashion, and arrested their crew of 26 sailors, as they are now imprisoned in Moscow and facing an unfair politically motivated trial. Coupled with the building by Russia of a bridge across the Kerch Strait that effectively prevents the larger commercial ships from sailing in and out of the Azov Sea, these Russian actions have effectively put a stranglehold on the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk, with the clear goal of not only stifling a large portion of Ukraine’s industrial output, but of turning the Azov Sea itself into a “Russian lake”. Although strongly critical of Russia’s actions, the initial statements and actions of the Western leadership indicated that this attack was also largely viewed as a geographically isolated case, an element of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine, albeit this time using mostly overt conventional, rather than covert tools.

The global aggressive outreach of Russia’s hybrid maritime strategy was finally revealed for the whole world to see, on 06 March 2019, when the Russian government announced that it had developed new rules to control the Northern Sea Route, which passes along the country’s northern coast in the Arctic under Article 234 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In an article titled “The Cold Wave”, the Russian newspaper Izvestiya stated that “Russia is taking the Northern Sea Route under its protection.”

According to Vladimir Shamanov, Chairman of the State Duma’s Defense Committee, who spoke on 11 March 2019 before the foreign military attaches “the situation in the world nowadays is comparable to 1935 when after the coming to power of Hitler conditions for large-scale aggression were created, followed by the start of WWII in 1939.” 

In the mirror-imaging fashion typical of the Russian political and military leadership, he laid the blame for Russia’s increased military build-up on NATO’s intensified activities along its northern “flank”, including by launching large-scale exercises, such as “Trident Juncture 2018”, the rotational presence of some 700 US marines in Norway, and the combat patrols of US nuclear submarines in the Barents and Norwegian Seas. He also explained Russia’s “right to defend its interests in the region” by quoting unattributed comments by unspecified Western politicians who, according to him, had supposedly complained that Russia possesses “unjustifiably” large territory and the vastest natural resources, viewed as a “historical injustice”. 

Shamanov also commented on the Russian government’s decision to introduce new rules for the transit of military ships and vessels along the Northern Sear Route by saying that “the incident in the Kerch strait last year has taught us a lot. We do not intend to continue being passive observers of the naval activity of foreign states within Russian territorial waters, and near them”. He also indicated that the Duma Defense Committee is ready to propose stricter measures by imposing limitations on the displacement of foreign navy ships sailing along the Northern Route, their armaments, etc.

RELATED ARTICLE: Will the Russian sea swallow Ukraine?

These latest developments and official Russian comments should make it crystal clear already to even the most naïve observer, that Russia views all those maritime areas as interconnected, as part of its global strategy to exert control over the international shipping that passes through all seas bordering Russia - from those in the High North and the Far East, to the Black and the Azov Seas in the South. Russia’s ultimate strategic goal is to asserts its sovereign rights over those maritime areas where it enjoys naval dominance (the Arctic and the Black Sea), or where a vacuum of international power exists due to specific legal agreements or of NATO and the US being “out of area” (the Azov Sea).

The existence of such a global strategy is revealed in a 2016 Russian Defense Ministry report discussing Russia’s 2015 national security strategy. In its assessment of the status of global maritime activities, Russia expressed its strong displeasure with Norway due to its continued attempts to assert its national sovereignty over Svalbard and the 200-nautical mile maritime boundary around it. Svalbard is listed as one of the areas that may spark potential military conflict with NATO, based on Norway’s declared intent to revise the agreement with Russia unilaterally. The other two areas of potential maritime conflict identified by the report were the Kuril Islands, and the Azov and Black Seas. The fact that the report was written almost three years before the seething tensions between Russia and Ukraine exploded into an open Russian aggression should serve as direct evidence that Russia has been anticipating those conflict scenarios for years, and has taken special efforts to prepare to win them across all hybrid warfare domains, military and non-military alike.

For example, in all three cases, Russia has tried to assert the legality of its actions by employing the hybrid warfare domain of lawfare that aggressively twists and bends international maritime law, by claiming that: the apprehended vessels had been illegally into Russia’s exclusive economic zone in the Barents Sea; that they had violated Russia’s territorial waters in the Azov Sea, or in the latest Russian move in the Arctic - that their course would go through Russian territorial waters, thus proclaiming Russia’s sovereign right to dictate the terms of their free passage.

According to the Russian military, the leading role in defending the Russian Arctic zone will be played by the RF Aerospace Forces. The national interests of the Russian Federation in the region are identified as four groups of factors – historical-geographical, economic, natural-environmental, political, and legal-normative. These directly correspond to the main domains of Russian hybrid warfare, clearly indicating that Russia uses its all-of-government multi-domain strategy better known as “hybrid warfare” to defend its interests and expand its influence in the Arctic, as another region of hybrid expansionism and confrontation with the West.


How do Russia and China view the new economic importance of the Arctic?

According to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, the Arctic holds up to one fourth of the untapped world oil and gas reserves, amounting to 15.5 billion tons of oil and 84.5 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Russia is also perfectly aware that due to the receding ice cap the Norther Sea Route is becoming ever more attractive for commercial shipping due to the much shorter (up to 30 percent) distance between Europe and Japan from across the Arctic (9,300 nautical miles), compared with 12,500 nautical miles through the Suez and the Indian Ocean, thus cutting transit time by 10-15 days. In the summer of 2018, the Danish shipping giant Maersk became the first company to send a commercial container ship (the Venta Maersk, holding 3,600 containers) from the Pacific to the North Atlantic through Russia's Northern Sea Route, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg. 

Although China is not a littoral Arctic state, it has also shown strong interest in participating in the exploration and development of the region by the direct involvement of Chinese companies in various projects in the region, including the Yamal Liquified Natural Gas project. What is more, China and Russia have agreed to jointly build an ‘Ice Silk Road’ along the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic, after China formally included the Arctic Sea in its Belt and Road initiative, the giant trans-national Chinese governmental project that seeks to boost trade between East Asia and Europe.

Russian Military Developments in the Arctic since 2014

While the Russian government outwardly claims that it welcomes peaceful international cooperation in the Arctic, its official documents and the ongoing build-up of its military capabilities in the region, including nuclear forces, demonstrate exactly the opposite actual attitude. It clearly shows that Russia perceives the Arctic as an area of growing international competition, even conflict, and it is doing everything possible to defend aggressively and proactively what it views as its legitimate interests there. Russia's Naval Doctrine of 2015 clearly identified the Arctic Ocean as an area of primary strategic and military importance for Russia, the protection of which is the direct responsibility of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Russian national interests, goals, tasks and measures are defined in a strategic document titled “Foundations of the State Policies of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period until 2020 and beyond”. It clearly states that one of the primary national interests of Russia in the Arctic region seas is “preventing the domination of individual states or military-political alliances [meaning NATO], in the regions of importance for the RF.

The Russian military considers possible the following scenarios for the breakout of a military conflict in the Arctic:

  1. The transformation of a private economic contradiction into a local armed conflict without a follow-up escalation.
  2. The transformation of an economic contradiction into a local armed conflict followed by an escalation leading to a large-scale war.
  3. Sudden large-scale aggression by using conventional weapons.
  4. Sudden large-scale aggression by using nuclear weapons.

Therefore, the list of tasks performed by the Russian forces grouping “North” is long and diverse, to include: monitoring of the situation in the Arctic; anti-aircraft combat duty and air traffic control; preventing violations and provocations in the air space; early warning of the RF political and military leadership of a sudden aerospace attack against Russia; the repelling of a sudden aerospace attack launched against the Russian Federation from the North; providing cover for the naval, ground-based and airborne strategic nuclear forces; interception of cruise missiles; protection of the federal, economic and military sites; tracking by the air-defense of sea vessels and convoys along the Northern Sea Route; providing cover against the air strikes of the enemy for the Russian forces and assets in the High North; targeting the seaborne, underwater and ground-based forces of the enemy by the Russian Air Force strike aviation; search and rescue operations in peace and wartime. 

Driven by those multiple strategic considerations, Russia has sped up its military build-up in the Arctic since 2014 by creating new capabilities and improving existing ones, among which the creation of the Arctic Command in December 2014, the deployment of troops near the Finnish border, the overall modernization of the already existing forces, including by developing military hardware designed to operate in the harsh Arctic climatic conditions. These include a range of naval and ground-based assets, from an entire fleet of Russian icebreakers (nuclear and non-nuclear ones), compared with only one non-nuclear one operated by the US Navy to refurbished T-80 tanks with gas turbine engines that are able to start in extremely low temperatures. Arctic motorized rifle units are being actively created within Russia’s Ground Forces, especially the 80thArctic Brigade based in Alakurtti near the border with Finland. The plans include also the forming of an entire coastal defense division in Chukotka, while the Far Eastern Combined Arms Command School in Usuriysk is already preparing lieutenants to staff the increased numbers of future Arctic units.

Another important element of Russia’s Arctic equation is the intensified construction of Arctic bases. The so-called “Arctic Trefoil” base has been built on Aleksander’s Land island as an integrated complex with a fully closed cycle system to accommodate the service members in charge of the air defense rocket artillery systems “Panzir-S”, the anti-ship systems “Bal”, and the radiolocation stations – all of those stationed there for power-projection along Russia’s Arctic coast.

In order to re-supply all those distant bases, even in the harshest winter conditions when planes and helicopters cannot reach them, the Russian military is developing military vehicles with thinner armor that are able to drive over the ice of the Laptev Sea. In that case, the emphasis is on speed rather protection or heavy weapons. On this account, the Russian calculations, although based on an exaggerated perception of the Western threat, are correct – there are no NATO heavy armored vehicles competing for those Arctic islands, while speed of movement and the ability to capture key terrain and hold ground following the rapid deployment of Russian troops across the entire region is the number one factor that can guarantee Russian control of the Arctic by denying those strategic areas to NATO and the US in a pre-emptive fashion.


Therefore, Russian military is expanding its capabilities in the Arctic not only in numerical terms, but qualitatively, by seeking creative solutions to the difficulties inherent in the harsh Arctic terrain and climate. In early 2017, the Russian military conducted a test march under the extreme conditions of the Laptev Sea, with experimental designs of Russian wheeled and tracked armored vehicles that were intended to cover 2,000 kilometers in the complex conditions of the Arctic.The route stretched from Tiksi in Yakutia to the Russian military base on Kotelny island, as it involved moving not only across the tundra, but also over the ice of the Laptev Sea. The declared intent of the Russian military is to turn such Arctic convoys into a routine business in order to re-establish and asserts its presence across the entire region. The march involved not only tracked and wheeled all-terrain vehicles, but also special containerized housing units, mobile repair workshops and inflatable rapid expanding tents that were tested in real conditions. 


According to the March 2019 report by the RF Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to the State Duma Defense Committee, “the building of military infrastructure takes place across the entire territory of the country, including the Arctic regions … Altogether, over the last six year, 475 infrastructures sites have been built on the islands of Kotelny, Alexander’s Land, Vrangel and Cape Schmidt. They are hosting service members, special weapons systems and military hardware.”

The current Russian military build-up in the Arctic demonstrates that Russia is determined to reclaim any ground lost in the post-Soviet era, stay there and asserts its control over as much of the region, as possible, in a comprehensive and preemptive manner. This includes not only troop deployments, but also developing the entire infrastructure needed to support them. In that regard, the operational and tactical advantages of the Russian military units in the Arctic seeks to secure strategic gains for Russia in the global competition for control over resources and trading routes.

Russia’s Grand Strategy in the Arctic: Matching Lethal with Legal

Russia has also been able to couple its increased lethal capabilities in the region by adding "lawfare" as the legal component of hybrid warfare, that is, matching "legal" with "lethal". Since 2005, the Russian state has launched a coordinated international campaign to legalize the extent of its sovereignty in the Arctic by submitting a legal claim before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to extend by one third the Russian exclusive economic zone in the Arctic Ocean. This is being done by exploiting a loophole in the UNCLOS, Provision 73, which stipulates that countries that can prove that the underwater shelf of the sea bordering their territories is a geological extension of their continental landmass, can claim as exclusive economic zones not only the standard 200 nautical miles, but instead, 320 miles. In the case of Russia that would mean granting it sovereign economic rights over almost a huge area extending additional 200 km deeper into the Arctic Ocean. Pursuant to its Article 77 of UNCLOS, the coastal State exercises "sovereign" and "exclusive" rights over its continental shelf "for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.” While waiting for the legal case to be adjudicated by the UN Russia has been gradually expanding its military presence in the Arctic in a clear attempt to combine legal with lethal arguments in its ongoing quest to dominate this strategic region of the world, too. The legal and scientific debates over the geological definition and chemical composition of that shelf threaten to have huge ramifications, as if the Russian claim ultimately succeeds, it would result in the accession of an area of more than 1.2 million square km with its vast hydrocarbon deposits to Russian Arctic sovereignty.  

To support its claim, Russia has launched an enormous operation involving international law, geology, chemistry, oceanography and other scientific branches, to prove that the Lomonosov Ridge, a giant underwater mountain that stretches 1,800 nautical miles under the surface of the Arctic Ocean, and connects Eurasia with North America, is a geological extension of the Eurasian landmass controlled by Russia. The Russian legal claim, therefore, is highly complex, as it involves the collecting and presenting of rock samples from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean that seek to prove the validity of the Russian claim "scientifically". Unfortunately, this complex operation is not matched by similar comprehensive counter-claims by all other Arctic nations, at least not on this level of sophistication. As a result, the Russian state has all chances to have at least a portion of the claim approved by the UN. The fact that it is excessive in its territorial extent can only serve Russia’s purposes, as it can then pretend it is giving up part of it, in order to claim legal control over the areas that are of real importance for it. 


Russia’s New Rules of the Game in the Arctic: Will Russia Trigger the First Arctic War of the 21st century?

Russia has already made clear statements that it regards the Arctic Ocean, at least the portion of it that forms the Northern Route (the sea lane that links Europe with Asia along the coast of Siberia), as part of its sovereign territory. In March 2019, Russia stated officially that it will require that all ships sailing along that route to notify Russia 45 days in advance of their exact route, destination and cargo, and accept Russian pilots on board for the duration of their trip. Such excessive claims of sovereign directly contravene the provisions of the international law of the sea and threaten the freedom of navigation in the world oceans. Still, the combination of Russian lawfare and military deployments in the Arctic, have boosted its confidence that it has legal sovereign rights over this area, and that it is able and willing to defend them by force, if necessary.

The new rules of navigation along the Northern Route that Russia has publicly announced are bound to trigger a strong international reaction, especially from NATO and the West, as a whole, as they deal with foreign military ship, which are considered sovereign immune vessels under international law, and therefore do not fall under the provisions of Art. 234 of the Law of the Sea. Regardless of that, Russia now demands that all such vessels provide 45 days advance notice to be granted permission to sail along that route. According to Russia, the foreign military vessels must declare their purpose, route, timetable, and technical specifications, even details such as the rank and identity of their captains. In another blatant violation of international law, Russia now insists that such ships should also allow Russian pilots on board while sailing across the Arctic. Russia still reserves the right to deny access to such ships without the need to provide justification or explanation. A passage that has not received prior approval by Russia can lead to the vessel’s arrest or even destruction. 

These latest Russian claims of sovereignty over the passage of military ships similar Russian claims in the past, that the international straits that are part of the Northern Sea Route are Russian “internal waters”, and that foreign commercial vessels must be granted permission by Russia to enter its exclusive economic zone. All of the above constitute violations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the very Article 234 that Russia claims to serve as the legal basis for its new egregious demands in the Arctic. The Article states that coastal states are allowed “to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone”, as obviously, it refers to completely different situation from those that Russia is trying to create. Ultimately, it all comes down to Russia’s desire to control the passage of foreign military vessels, such as the French navy support vessel that sailed along the Northern Route in the Fall of 2018 without prior approval by Russia.

The new rules imposed by Russia directly violate UNCLOS, as well as run contrary to the entire logic of the freedom of navigation on the high seas (in the World Ocean) that has been the cornerstone of the free trade worldwide for the last 200 years. During the 19th and early 20th century Great Britain was the guarantor of this international regime, as that responsibility passed on to the United States after WWII. Historically, the high seas became completely open to international navigation only after 1816, when the British navy launched a naval campaign and bombardment of the so-called “Barbary Regencies” of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa (Algiers, Tunisia and Libya) and finally removed the threat in the Mediterranean to European and American commercial and military vessels. Prior to that, for 300 years, the Ottoman corsairs of North Africa were blocking the passage of ships from most Christian nations of the West, demanding that they pay for the right to sail along the coast of North Africa under the threat of being captured or sunk. Viewed through the prism of history, Russia’s new demands in the Arctic Ocean resemble those of the Barbary corsairs of old. Thus, they represent an attempt by Russia to push not only the Arctic region, but gradually also the entire world system of navigation and commerce into a new Dark Age.

RELATED ARTICLE: The “Kronos syndrome”, the “Trojan horse” strategy and the Russian military’s hybrid expeditionary force model

After all, Russia’s hybrid aggression against Ukraine serves to show to the West that Russia has its privileged sphere of strategic interests, a notion that brings the international system 200 years back into a 18th or 19th century “Great Powers” model. In the same fashion, the current Russian attempts to dominate the adjacent seas – from the Arctic, to the Black and Azov, if left unchallenged by the West, threaten to divide the world ocean into zones dominated by powerful coastal states (Russia and China first and foremost) that would seek to exploit, control or obstruct the navigation of naval or commercial vessels, in order to seal off entire segments of the World Ocean for their own political and economic benefit within much enlarged spheres of sovereign jurisdiction. There is little doubt that the West, in particular NATO and the United States, will not leave this challenge unanswered in the long run. As a result, Russia’s excessive demands and heavy-handed tactics might ultimately backfire by potentially triggering “The First Arctic War” of the 21st century in the coming decade.


The US and NATO Responses to Russia’s Build-up in the Arctic

According to US Senator Sullivan, the United States is “slowly but surely finally beginning to wake up to the Arctic’s growing geopolitical significance.” These statements came as a direct result of the realization on the part of the US strategists in the post-Crimea era, that the ongoing attempts by the two authoritarian powers – Russia and China – seek to exert direct control over the Arctic. 

Senator Sullivan introduced a number of provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, aimed at strengthening the US positions in the Arctic region. Among these were the authorization to build 6 heavy Polar-class Icebreakers for the Coast Guard, and a requirement for each US military service – the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps – to produce their own strategy for the Artic region. The document also calls on the US Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State to assess the implications of Russian military activity in the Arctic, and the threats that it poses to the U.S. military deployed in the region.

Similarly, in early April 2019 the Commander of the US Sixth Fleet and the NATO Joint Force Command in Naples, Admiral Foggo, made statements linking for the first time the Russian activities in the Arctic with the freedom of passage of Ukrainian ships in and out of the Azov Sea. Thus, for the first time, a high-ranking US and NATO military leader directly recognized the critical importance of both the Arctic and the Azov for deterring Russia’s attempt to interfere with the freedom of navigation in the world ocean, as a whole.

NATO’s New Plan to Uphold the Freedom of Navigation in the Black and Azov Seas

At its meeting in Washington, DC on 04 April 2019, commemorating the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the Alliance NATO announced its decision to support Ukraine and uphold the freedom of navigation in the Black and Azov Seas by sending more NATO ships, into the Black Sea on a regular basis. Coupled with improved surveillance assets and procedures, NATO is determined to protect the Ukrainian shipping in and out of the Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait. These measures will also serve to reassure the NATO member-states Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as Georgia as a future NATO member; and they send a strong signal to Russia that it will not be allowed to turn the Black and the Azov Seas into Russian "lakes". Russia views these developments as hostile and aggressive acts on the part of NATO, as it insists on strict adherence to the Montreux Convention and the Russia-Ukraine Treaty on the Azov. The first one allows for the presence of foreign naval vessels in the Black Sea for only 21 days, and the second divides the Azov Sea between Russia and Ukraine, thus removing its status as international waters. 

This is a dramatic turn of events for Russia, as it immediately accused NATO of violating the Montreux Convention, and of pushing Ukraine toward future provocations. It also vowed to respond to the increased future NATO presence in the Black Sea. This massive demonstration of support for Ukraine on the part of NATO represents a unique chance for the Alliance to show to Russia that its maritime attacks against Ukraine will not be viewed as separate bilateral incidents in a geographically isolated region of the world, and they won’t be tolerated either. Instead, NATO is sending Russia a strong signal, that its aggressive behavior on the high seas will face strong response from the most successful alliance in the history of the world, and the determination of the entire West. The battle for the freedom of navigation in the World Ocean, one of the fundamental principles of the entire modern international system has already started in the Black and Azov Seas, and Ukraine is in its forefront.

Mark Voyger, Estonian National Defence College, Tartu

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