Russia has been quietly investing in Arctic military and industrial infrastructure for the last decade. Russia’s expanded Arctic presence is part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to elevate Russia’s position on the world stage. The current age has seen relatively low-tension in the region, but this may be coming to an end. Russia has reopened Soviet military bases and expanded the navy’s Northern Fleet. Russia seeks to increase its military power in the Arctic to enhance homeland defense and secure Russia’s economic future by attracting international investment.
Melting sea ice intensifies competition in the Arctic. Climate change is increasing accessibility to the Northern Sea Route. Increased Arctic traffic heightens the potential for competition around physical access and resources. Moscow views securitizing the region through military activity as a prerequisite for controlling its interests in the rapidly changing Arctic. Russia has encouraged energy companies to increase exploration activities in the Arctic to reap the economic benefits of reserves being uncovered by melting Arctic ice.
Russia sees its assertive military posture as a response to NATO’s presence in the region, as several NATO members hold territory in the Arctic. Former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis acknowledges that the Arctic is a “zone of competition” that has the potential to devolve into a “zone of conflict.” Russia’s militarization of the Arctic has pushed Arctic and NATO countries to call for the preservation of the Arctic as a ‘low tension’ area. Growing tensions with the West risks miscommunication that could lead to conflict or an even more assertive Russian military posture in the Arctic.
53% of the Arctic coastline belongs to Russia. Its Arctic military bases are concentrated mostly around Murmansk Oblast, but in recent years Russia has expanded capabilities in the High North. Russia has taken full advantage of its arctic territory. Wrangel Island, Cape Schmidt, and Kotelny Island developments are right across the Bering Strait from Alaska. Visualizing Russia’s Arctic presence shows the density of Russia’s military infrastructure in the region.