It is not only in Eastern Europe that Vladimir Putin’s Russian military is flexing its muscles. This week, 38,000 servicemen, together with 50 surface ships and submarines of the Northern Fleet and 110 aircraft, are taking part in large-scale military drills in the Arctic. Whilst this may be seen as another example of Moscow sabre-rattling, the war games are likely to provide a crucial test of Russia’s military capabilities in an increasingly important region.
The Arctic is believed to be the source of abundant energy resources (including natural gas and oil), in addition to a range of valuable minerals and elements such as uranium. Difficulties surrounding resource extraction in such a harsh climate have so far restricted major attempts at exploiting the economic potential of the region. That said, overlapping territorial claims and expansion of military infrastructure in the Arctic are future causes for concern. As the capabilities and requirements for the economic exploitation of the Arctic develop, the region will gradually become more of a international security issue.
For obvious reasons, arctic warfare has not featured regularly in the annals of history. A number of pitched battles have taken place on ice lakes in Scandinavia and Russia, most notably the Battle on the Ice when the Teutonic Order was defeated by the Novgorod during the Northern Crusades of the 13th century.
During the early exchanges of WWII, the Winter War between invading Soviet troops and Finnish forces saw fighting take place north of the Arctic Circle. With great improvisation – including the deployment of soldiers on skis – the Finns inflicted huge losses on their aggressive neighbour before eventually ceding territory.
In 1941 came Operation Silver Fox, an attempt by the Germans to take the Soviet port city of Murmansk, also north of the Arctic Circle.
All of these past battles were fought by infantry and cavalry (later mechanised) units in conventional campaigns. Future Arctic engagements are likely to be somewhat different.
Russia operates an Arctic submarine fleet and the Royal Canadian Navy has similar sub-ice capabilities. Indeed, all eight members of the Arctic Council – those states with territory beyond the Arctic Circle – have invested in their naval capabilities in icy waters. Patrol boats, in particular, are proliferating.
In addition to a polar naval force, Arctic nations may soon invest in drone surveillance/strike arsenals, ballistic missile bases and stealth capabilities (both under and above water). Whilst winter infantry drills still take place within the Arctic armies, such forces are unlikely to form the basis of any future military endeavour in the region.
Beyond the Council close attention must be paid to China which, with its colossal resource demands and fearsome military expenditure, has been agitating for a place at the top table when it comes to Arctic affairs.
Putin is the leader of a country that knows the Arctic better than most, has been engaged in some of the few military battles fought in its midst, and has the inclination to upset the delicate status quo in the region. Be sure that his latest war games are far more than a mere sideshow to the main event in Ukraine.
What the future of Arctic security will look like, however, is anybody’s guess.