This past March, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited a newly built military base known as the “Trefoil Base” or the “Northern Shamrock,” which can store warplanes and over 150 troops. The base is located on Kotelny Island in the East Siberian Sea and is one of three new bases being built in the Arctic Circle by Russia. Russia is also restoring old Soviet bases in the most significant arctic military build-up since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
One example of a refurbished base is Alakurtti, near the Finnish border. Alakurtti is 250 miles north of Murmansk, one of Russia’s northernmost cities, situated amongst forests and nearly eight feet of snow. Last April, when Putin invited several news agencies to visit the newly restored base, reporters witnessed troops training in hand-to-hand combat and skiing in white fatigues with camouflaged Kalashnikov rifles. The base has been renovated with new cladding on the outside of the building, and the interiors shown to journalists were spotlessly clean—reporters even joked that they would be tempted to stay at the base if it weren’t for the freezing temperatures.
Alakurtti is the first of two Arctic bases planned for the region. Many argue that the base could potentially be used to attack or defend against Finland. However, the facilities have a dual purpose. They support the infrastructure for a Northern Sea Route that would ease shipping between Europe and Asia. While this route does not yet exist, the shipping passage is predicted to be vital when much of the Arctic becomes ice-free in the next several decades.
The other purpose of the converted Soviet and the newly built bases is to stake a claim on the resources beneath the Arctic, which is valued at $35 trillion. A U.S. Geological survey estimates that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of the undiscovered gas is in the Arctic. Additionally, the Arctic is projected to hold even more hydrocarbon reserves than Saudi Arabia. As the polar ice cap recedes, more resources will become available for harvesting and use. In February 2016, Russia filed a claim with the United Nations asking for 460,000 square miles of the Arctic Ocean seabed, which would allow them access to these emerging resources.
In hopes of increasing U.S. activity in the Arctic, President Trump signed an executive order that rolled back offshore drilling regulations. As the Arctic emerges as a new area for geopolitical competition, other countries have declared an interest, albeit much less hastily than Russia. The U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway, and China each have tried to assert jurisdiction over parts of the Arctic, although legally it is still unclear who can stake claims in the territory.
The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft has been calling for the U.S. to begin increasing its capabilities in the Arctic, warning against leaving Russia’s expansion go unchallenged. He asked at a recent conference in Washington, D.C., “When Russia put Sputnik in outer space, did we sit with our hands in our pockets with great fascination and say, ‘Good for Mother Russia?’”
Many economists believe that the Arctic is still an unreliable investment for Russia, which calls into question the motives of the venture. They think that Russia should be investing in alternative forms of energy, which would be more applicable in 30 years. The expansion of Arctic bases is also a very costly expenditure, given the current weakness in the Russian economy. Nevertheless, the majority of economists have been complimentary of Russia’s posturing to capitalize on the eventual opening of the Northern Sea Route.
Like any expansion of Russian military might, the Arctic buildup is causing nerves in neighboring countries. In January, 300 U.S. Marines landed in Norway for a 6-month deployment. This mission marks the first time Norway has allowed foreign troops to be stationed in their country since World War II. With memories of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea still fresh, nato is watching closely. The threat of invasion is not the only fear, however, as Russian domination of the Arctic Sea could have major political and economic consequences for the next century.