The new Russian Unified Strategic Command (Obedinonnye Strategicheskoe Komandovanie—OSK) “Sever” was deemed operational on December 1, 2014. It has been created to strengthen the vast border’s security and protect the growing Russian interests in the Arctic. But the question is if the creation of OSK Sever could jeopardize allied security in the Arctic?
In October 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to never surrender Russia’s hold on the Arctic. The Russian Defense Ministry then started working on a plan to protect Russia’s interests in this vast region.
The first major move towards creating the new Russian Arctic command was the transfer of the Northern Fleet from OSK West to OSK Sever in September 2014. Russia’s Defense Ministry has announced that the Northern Fleet and two Arctic-warfare brigades—approximately 9,000 soldiers—would form the newly established Unified Strategic Command North. In addition to those two elements, air force and air-defense units are to be included by the end of 2017.
The fact that it was called a unified strategic command instead of a military district really raises questions. It is believed that the Russian presence in the Arctic and the reason its military is being deployed to Cold War-era military bases is solely to protect the extensive natural resources in the region.
But the establishment of a wartime strategic command casts doubts on the true nature of the permanent military presence in far-flung regions of Russia. Russia is also planning the construction of new military installations—even in environmentally protected areas—many of which will be operational in 2015. It was likely done this way to justify a larger budget and to give OSK Sever priority over other military commands that are still working within a peacetime framework.
The Northern Fleet Headquarter will be kept in Severomorsk and will also include the 200th Independent Motor Rifle Brigade, based at Pechenga in the Murmansk Oblast.
Russia has already planned to build 13 new airdromes and 10 radar sites in the Arctic. Such a move demonstrates the willingness to keep Russia’s borders tight and almost hermetic. These 13 airdromes could also be strategic launching sites for Russian incursions in countries such as Canada and the United States. The radar sites could be used to eavesdrop and gain valuable data on the adjacent country’s military maneuvers and border security. The new military installations are believed to be in, but are not limited to the following areas.
|Cape Schmidt||Far Eastern Chukokta region|
|Kotelny Island||Off the coast of Yakutia|
|Alakurtti village||Near the Finnish border|
|Soutern island||Novaya Zemlya Archipelago|
|Tiksi||Yakutia’s northernmost locality, inside the Arctic Circle|
|Anadyr||Administrative center of Chukokta|
|Novosibirsk Islands||Sakha Republic|
There are five main factors to consider when analyzing the current Arctic militarization. The risk of future conflicts differs for each of them.
|Oil||High due to the high prices|
|Natural Gas||High due to European energy needs|
|Rare Metals||Moderate due to worldwide exploitation|
|Potable Water||Moderate but could because high in the next 30-40 years|
|Waterways||Low due to economic and trade benefits|
Could the militarization of the Arctic by the Russians start a new arms race? We can assume that a slow but steady buildup of a permanent military presence in the Arctic will occur in the next five to ten years. It will be mostly based on the necessity of defending each country’s interest in the Arctic, as well as providing security to their naval and civilian vessels. With this, we’ll hopefully see elements of search-and-rescue teams getting some much-needed installations so they can quickly respond to emergencies in their area of responsibility, especially with the opening of the northern sea routes where we will see a growing number of commercial ships passing through.
Although there could be a possible new arms race, it is very unlikely another nuclear buildup will occur. There is no point in dropping a nuclear bomb in a vast plain of frozen snow. However, we will see an augmentation of nuclear-powered ships in the Arctic. The Russian Northern Fleet has the largest amount of nuclear-powered ships in the Russian Navy, including many submarines designed to surface through thick ice.
OSK Sever is fast becoming the strongest and largest military command in the Arctic region. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu confirmed that the Russian military will be ready to meet any unwanted guests from the north and the east.
Because of that, we can assume that the other four countries of the “Arctic Five” will strengthen the forces positioned on the common borders with Russia and work on new Arctic policies, including a stronger military presence in the region. It is very likely they will work on better cooperation through military exchanges and multinational training.
The increased Russian military presence in the Arctic does not pose a threat to the Arctic Council’s cooperation. Recent claims made by Canada, Denmark, and the Russian Federation to the United Nations clearly present signs of future dispute, but will be dealt with outside of the intergovernmental forum. The United States is taking the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2015 until 2017. However, with the United States taking the chairmanship, there is a possibility that a minor disagreement will be brought to the table due to the new Russian military bases in environmentally protected areas.
The Russians will start exploiting their vast resources in the near future, as they believe a strong military presence will dissuade possible attempts to claim part of their land.
Future conflicts will be fought over oil, water, and natural resources. The “Arctic Five” will have no choice but to follow Russia’s initiative in militarizing the Arctic. Russia is putting a lot of effort into establishing a strong footprint in the Arctic and will continue to do so for a long period of time.