Last week, Russia’s Northern Fleet began conducting “all-arms force maneuverers” in the Barents Sea, which included ten warships and support vessels, as well as aerial support via helicopters and planes. Navy spokesman Captain 1st Rank Vadim Serga said that there were several objectives of the drills: defending the strike force deployment area both at sea and in the air, search and destroy enemy submarines with cooperation between seaborne and aerial submarine hunters as well as search and rescue. A wide range of ships, including submarine and surface vessels, participated in the exercises near NATO’s northern European border.
While these exercises were being conducted, the Northern Fleet has begun moving winter supplies through the Northern Sea Route to its 48 sites throughout Russia’s Arctic territory. During the summer sailing season, 44.8 thousand tons of supplies will be delivered to the various bases, most of which are in the Kola Peninsula and on the White Sea, though newly reopened bases in Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, the New Siberian Islands and Severnaya Zemlya will also be resupplied by sea. Both naval vessels and chartered civilian vessels from the Murmansk and Northern Shipping Companies will be used to make the deliveries. Ostrovnoy (a city on the Kola Peninsula) will be the first to receive supplies from the transport vessel Pechora.
Coupled with the deliveries, the Northern Fleet is also constructing major logistics centres on several islands in the Arctic. These compounds are currently being constructed on Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Islands Archipelago, on Alexandra Land in Franz Josef Land, as well as Rogachyovo Island in the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago. Another logistics centre is being planned on an island in the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago. When completed, these centres will be the hubs for providing soldiers serving in the Far North with more comfortable conditions, which will allow for longer tours in the Arctic, reaffirming Moscow’s commitment to a permanent presence in the Far North.
As Moscow continues to push for increased Arctic capabilities, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Chirkov has said this week that “principally new ships” will be designed and built in the medium term for the Northern Fleet to allow for operations in Arctic conditions. He went on to say that fleet development is being given special attention, with the maintenance of a “qualitatively high level” of nuclear submarines and the rearmament of the fleet as well as under-ice navigation capabilities being prioritized. With the Northern Fleet having the easiest access to the Atlantic Ocean amongst Russia’s western naval forces, improving its capabilities provide Russia with an increasingly powerful force to deploy in the Atlantic while simultaneously demonstrating its commitment to being a major player in the Arctic.
The Northern Fleet continues to plan exercises in the Far North, with upcoming land-based drills as well as additional exercises along the Northern Sea Route. On land, the 200 Independent Rifle Brigade based in Pechenga as well as the 80 Independent Rifle Brigade at the newly reopened Alakurtti base will work with airborne and special forces. Northern Fleet spokesman Vladimir Korolyov declined to provide further information on this series of exercises during the press release. The sea-based drills will be conducted as vessels sail to the New Siberian Islands Archipelago, practicing search and rescue as well as responding to various crisis situations in the region.
All of this is the result of one thing; Russia’s commitment to increasing its control over its Arctic territories, including sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route which Moscow believes to be internal waters. Given the breadth of the Russian Arctic, the development of the region in both civilian and military capacities can only be expected and can serve as an example to other Arctic nations, particularly Canada. The creation, maintenance and supply of the Russian Arctic has been essential to Moscow’s Arctic policy, with President Vladimir Putin telling the top military officials in late 2013 “[w]e are returning to the Arctic and must possess all instruments of power for the protection of our national security interests.”
Canada has been slowly working towards this, but at nowhere near the pace of Russia, which will likely present a problem for Ottawa. While Canada will, like the other four coastal nations, eventually get its share of Arctic territory following the decision of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) at the UN, the status of the Northwest Passage will likely remain contested. This is not to say that the Northern Sea Route going through Russia’s Arctic will be given to Moscow, but they have more in place to make a claim for it than Canada, though the status of both routes remains debated. Moscow established the Northern Sea Route Administration which issues permits and helps with the logistics of traversing Russia’s Arctic waters, while ensuring ships meet their environmental standards, have sufficient insurance in the event of accidents and have ice breaker support. Meanwhile, Canada only has the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA), ineffective in comparison, though in fairness the Northwest Passage sees much less traffic than the Northern Sea Route.
The few sovereignty exercises the Canadian Armed Forces hold every year in the Canadian Arctic (especially when compared to the number of drills conducted by their Russian counterparts) coupled with low population and lacking a significant permanent military presence puts Ottawa significantly behind other Arctic nations. Given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has repeatedly stated that Canadian Arctic sovereignty is not up for debate, little has been done to advance this claim given the size of the nation’s Arctic territory. When it comes to the Arctic, maybe following Russia’s example is not such a bad thing.