Russia’s 70-warship Ocean Shield exercise in the Baltic Sea last year has signaled Moscow’s intention to posture as an hegemonic force in the Arctic both militarily and economically, two international security experts said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) online forum on June 30.
“The complexity of exercises has expanded significantly over the last twelve years” as Moscow has pushed conventional and nuclear military modernization programs forward to assert its dominance regionally, Katarzyna Zysk, head of the Centre for Security Policy at Norway’s Institute of Defence Studies, said.
The exercises often involve joint land, air, and naval forces in combined operations, “making it less predictable” to NATO strategists in forecasting the short and long-term goals of the Russian military.
“Russian military force in the Arctic is not necessarily going to stay in the Arctic,” she added.
Heather Conley, director of CSIS’ Europe program, outlined his pessimistic outlook saying that the US and NATO “just can’t seem to get it right” when it comes to Arctic security.
“We have to make those investments,” (referring to in ice-hardened warships and icebreakers) so the US can demonstrate its credible presence in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, Conley said.
“We have to have access” to what some call the “Fifth Ocean,” she added.
For the Russians, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) through Arctic water is considered to be a potential economic lifeline in its exporting of energy to major consumers like China.
Experts believe that the NSR is one of the main reason why Moscow is building airfields and other key military facilities from the Pacific back toward the Kola Peninsula.
The NSR also can provide to the Russian Navy advantages in moving its naval forces from one ocean to another as the situation demands.
That flexibility overcomes shortcomings in its shipbuilding and its modernization of its blue-water fleet. Indeed, in the west on the Kola Peninsula, the Russian Navy reportedly house its Northern Fleet protected by S-400 multipurpose air defense batteries, attack submarines, and surface vessels.
She estimated that about 60 percent of Russian naval assets based in the Kola Peninsula, “are doing territorial defense” through anti-access/area denial missions.
But, as Zysk added, the Kremlin also “has successfully modernized its submarine ballistic fleet” to assert its offensive reach from the Kola Peninsula. In fact, she said that the Kremlin’s top military priority when it upped its defence spending back in 201 was to maintain “nuclear deterrence and second-strike capability.”
Despite Russia’s shipbuilding industry has sputtered in delivering large ships such as aircraft carriers (mostly due to the deterioration of its foreign relations with Ukraine – a key country for Russia’s shipbuilding ambitions) and in overhauling aging Cold War-era cruiser vessels, Zysk saw its naval defense industrial base “pushing harder and harder” in developing precision weapons, hypersonic cruise missiles, robotic mines, and nuclear-capable drones.
In light of these issues, it is considered highly likely that the Russian navy will move toward a more agile system that would most likely see a combination of high-speed frigates, submarines, and hypersonic missile arsenals to contrast its enemies larger conventional navies. For example, Poseidon torpedos could potentially be used to target enemy aircraft carriers posing a significant threat to any country’s conventional navy.
CSIS believes that Russian capabilities in the NSR can be effective both as offensive threats and deterrents.
Zysk said Russia has simulated attacks on potential major targets and used electromagnetic jamming to cripple GPS in Norway. “There’s great uncertainty [in Norway over] these kinds of activity,” she said.
CSIS concluded by saying that the bottom line is that NATO “need maritime and air awareness” in the Arctic to effectively deter an assertive Russia as arms control agreements lapse.