A Russian soldier patrols the military base on Kotelny island in April 2019 MAXIME POPOV/AFP via Getty Images
In 2007 Russia re-prioritized the Arctic in keeping with Vladimir Putin's vision of restoring Russia's status as a great power. Now more than a decade later, Russia's military returns to the Arctic with strategic implications for the United States.
Efforts to harness the Arctic’s geostrategic potential have long been the ambition of Soviet and Russian leaders. Drawing upon early Russian exploration and Stalin’s “Red Arctic” propaganda, Russian President Vladimir Putin personally identifies with Russia’s Arctic ambitions and seeks to exploit the Arctic narrative of man conquering nature as a distinctive feature of modern Russian nationalism. The Arctic is a pillar of Russia’s return to great power status.
Russia’s military presence in the Arctic seeks to achieve three objectives:
- Enhance homeland defense, specifically a forward line of defense against foreign incursion as the Arctic attracts increased international investment;
- Secure Russia’s economic future; and
- Create a staging ground to project power, primarily in the North Atlantic.
The region is essential to Russia’s future economic and military vitality. As a result, substantial budgetary increases have boosted Russian military and economic activity in the Arctic over the course of the past decade. Major projects and infrastructure focus on natural resource development and the protection of its maritime passage, the Northern Sea Route (NSR).
The NSR extends from the Bering Strait in the east to the Kara Gate in the west, covering approximately 3,500 miles (5,600 kilometers). In recent months, Russia has made several important changes related to the use of the NSR. These include giving Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear agency, bureaucratic control over the route and limiting traffic from foreign warships without a 45-day notification and permission from the Russian government.
Russia views the NSR as an internal waterway, whereas the majority of the international community views it as an international passage. The recent escalation in Russia’s level of control over the NSR is indicative of its ambitions in the Arctic and a warning sign of Russia’s desire to monitor and control economic developments in the region.
Russia’s “Two Arctics”
Russia’s military capabilities are regionalized between the eastern and western halves of its Arctic territory. In Russia’s eastern Arctic, international vessels travel from the Asia-Pacific region through the narrow Bering Straits to enter the NSR. Russia has refurbished airfields, invested in search and rescue, and built radar stations to improve awareness in the air and maritime domains. The deployment of Sopka-2 radar systems on Wrangel Island (300 miles from Alaska) and Cape Schmidt has been essential to improving operational awareness.
Systems in the eastern Arctic create a “protective dome,” securing Russia’s vast Arctic coastline and improving its overall ability to detect and track vessels and aircraft. Sopka-2 radars also control civilian air traffic and provide meteorological data to better inform mariners traversing the NSR. These systems fulfill President Putin’s ambition of significantly enhancing maritime traffic along the NSR while also enhancing Russia’s military presence in the region.
Russia’s military footprint transforms as one moves into the central Arctic region. There, Russia has deployed more sophisticated equipment to defend its air and maritime domains. For example, Kotelny Island and Novaya Zemlya are equipped with air defense systems, such as the Bastion-P and Pantsir-S1 systems. These systems create a complex, layered coastal defense arrangement that secures territory deeper into the central Arctic. Such capabilities bolster Russia’s ability to deny aerial, maritime, or land access to NATO or U.S. forces.
Russia’s western Arctic houses its most advanced defensive capabilities as well as potential offensive capabilities. Remote locations like Alexandra Land are equipped with air, sea, and land capabilities that reinforce Russia’s multilayered maritime and air denial power. The focus of these defenses is to safeguard Russia’s nuclear arsenal and second-strike capabilities commanded by the powerful Northern Fleet.
The Northern Fleet is based in Severomorsk on the Kola Peninsula in the western Arctic. From there, it has jurisdiction over the northwest region of the country as well as the Arctic Ocean and is tasked with securing Russia’s northern coastline. The fleet boasts Russia’s most advanced Arctic land, air, and naval assets.
Russia’s Arctic Military Posture
Russia’s military posture in the Arctic emphasizes air and maritime early warning and defense, highlighted by the reopening of 50 previously closed Soviet-era military posts. This includes the refurbishment of 13 air bases, 10 radar stations, 20 border outposts, and 10 integrated emergency rescue stations. Russian special forces units are also part of an Arctic Brigade and have deployed to the region for exercises and training.
Most worrisome, Russia has tested new Arctic-based military capabilities such as hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered undersea drones. Senior U.S. military leaders have expressed growing concern about the prevalence of these Russian cruise missiles in the Arctic and their “avenue of approach” to the United States.
Maritime forces play a significant role in securing Russia’s Arctic domain and protecting vital economic ventures. The guarantor of Russia’s Arctic security is the Northern Fleet. Established in 2014 as an Arctic Strategic Command, the Northern Fleet’s surface and sub-surface assets ensure a robust presence in its western Arctic, securing Russia’s northern coastline and projecting power beyond the Kola Peninsula. In 2017, Russia updated its naval strategy, expressing clear Arctic ambitions and signaling the importance of the Northern Fleet.
The Northern Fleet protects Russian military assets on the Kola Peninsula. By doing so, Russia can more freely conduct strategic operations and secure its sea-based nuclear forces. The Kola Peninsula boasts capabilities that can defend Arctic territory and project power to the strategic GIUK-N (Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom-Norway) Gap, allowing Russia to severely disrupt NATO’s vital sea lines of communication between North America and Europe. The Northern Fleet not only ensures Russian access to the Arctic Ocean, the North Atlantic, and the GIUK-N Gap but also monitors activity along the NSR.
The Northern Fleet is composed of nuclear-powered missile and torpedo submarines; missile-carrying and anti-submarine aircraft; surface ships with missiles, aircraft-carrying, and anti-submarine capabilities; coastal troops; combined independent force; the Russian Air Force and Air Defense Force; and the army corps of the Ground Forces.
Complementing the Northern Fleet is the world’s largest nuclear and non-nuclear icebreaker fleet, numbering more than 40 ships. Icebreakers play a crucial role in not only securing Russia’s coastline but also promoting and observing maritime commerce through the NSR. The development of Russia’s icebreaker fleet, whose size is far greater than other Arctic states, including the United States (two), is essential for both Russia’s military posture and economic development plan. The icebreaker fleet epitomizes the duality of Russia’s military presence, clearing passage for military and commercial vessels and serving as a mobile scientific platform when necessary. Some Russian icebreakers are also armed with Kalibr cruise missiles and electronic warfare systems.
Air forces are equally important to securing Russia’s control over its Arctic domain. In recent years, Russia has refurbished Soviet-era air bases and constructed new bases along the NSR. Examples include Rogachevo air base on Novaya Zemlya, Nagurskoye air base on Alexandra Land, and Temp air base on Kotelny Island. Air defense forces and anti-aircraft defense systems are prioritized among new military infrastructure in the Russian Arctic, both onshore and in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF). This includes investments in multilayered air and coastal defense systems, electronic warfare capabilities, and radar systems.
Russia is also returning to Cold War tactics, notably the concept of bastion defense, in which Russia secures strategic territory to ensure its freedom of operation. As Russia exercises its bastion defense, it increasingly expands its range, seeking to establish deep-water control between Svalbard and Norway and secure maritime space toward the GIUK-N gap. It does this through the deployment of highly capable submarines, including the Sierra II class—one of Russia’s most capable fast-attack submarines.
The increased operational tempo, scale, and testing of nuclear weapons have been distinct characteristics of Russian military exercises in the Arctic over the past four years. Emphasis is placed on short warning time and strategic and tactical mobility. Russia most recently exercised its bastion defense capabilities during its August 2019 Ocean Shield Exercise. While exercising in the Baltic Sea, the Northern Fleet entered the Northern Sea and engaged in live-fire demonstrations in the Norwegian Sea. These efforts demonstrate a clear forward line of defense to secure the GIUK-N gap and block the English Channel. The purpose of these exercises is to display Russia’s ability to project power beyond its Arctic waters and assert maritime control.
It is important to note that a similar pattern of Russian tactics occurred nearly 10 months prior when Russia seized the Kerch Strait, a narrow artery linking the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, which has effectively closed the Sea of Azov.
The Northern Fleet’s August 2019 Ocean Shield Exercise took place before or concurrent to the Vostok-18, Tsentr-19, and Grom-19 exercises elsewhere in the Arctic. The Vostok-18 exercise was conducted in September 2018 in eastern Russia and partially in the Bering Sea. It involved a total of 300,000 troops and was the largest military exercise conducted by Russia since 1981, during the Cold War.
Tsentr-19 occurred in central Russia in September 2019. The Northern Fleet conducted several exercises in the Arctic which incorporated newly designed Arctic military equipment. Significant military drills also took place between the Arctic archipelagos of Novaya Zemlya and the New Siberian Islands.
Grom-19 was a significant exercise in October 2019 which engaged Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. It included 10 Russian submarines—8 of which were nuclear powered—patrolling the GIUK gap. Grom involved all four of Russia’s naval fleets, 12,000 troops, and the launch of two nuclear warheads in the Barents Sea and several other ballistic missiles.
Pulling Back the Ice Curtain
With the aid of satellite imagery, CSIS highlighted Russia’s two Arctics, traveling east to west, with six specific sites. Analysis of each site helps illuminate Russia’s military posture. By determining the location, purpose, and nature of the equipment and forces Russia has placed in the Arctic, the United States and NATO can improve their combined response and deterrence capabilities to Russia’s increased military posture across the region.
The satellite imagery also allows for comparison between what the Russian government has announced (base refurbishment, new construction, and equipment upgrades) and what has actually been completed. In some instances, imagery confirms the announcements made by the Russian government, but often the images tell a different story—one of Russia struggling to actualize its Arctic ambitions.
Wrangel Island is nearly 300 miles from the Alaskan coast and houses a Sopka-2 radar. This is the most easterly placed radar installation in the “protective dome,” a network of state-of-the-art radars covering Russia’s northern coastline that defends Russia’s Arctic domain. However, the early warning and cueing radar system has limited strategic value as a stand-alone piece of equipment.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity on Wrangel Island here.
Kotelny Island, one of the largest New Siberian Islands, situated off the northern Siberian coast, is home to Temp air base. This base is equipped with a state-of-the-art Trefoil military compound; communications and Sopka-2 radar facilities; and pads for radar, command and control, and missile launch vehicles.
Bastion-P and Pantsir-S1 coastal defense systems create a complex, layered coastal defense arrangement on Kotelny. These systems allow Russia to better defend its territory and to deny aerial, maritime, or land access to NATO or U.S. forces. Along with active Russian sub-surface vessels, new anti-air and anti-ship capabilities on Kotelny are core components of an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble in the Russian Arctic.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity on Kotelny Island here.
The Russian government has repeatedly announced ambitious plans to expand Tiksi air base in central-eastern Russia. This expansion is meant to include a dormitory and administrative buildings, a diesel-run power station, and water and fuel reservoirs—11 new structures in total. The base was designed to receive and operate a regiment of sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missiles to enhance air defense, which would later be supplemented by radiotechnical regiments that monitor the defended airspace. Tiksi’s completion would represent a fusing of Russia’s military needs and its ambitious economic plans. Dual-use features combine Russian military presence for territorial defense and power projection with capabilities to also address civilian security needs such as search-and-rescue. However, recent satellite imagery does not show evidence of the S-400 systems or the considerable expansion. Russia appears to be significantly behind in its plans for Tiksi or unable to send permanent equipment because other Arctic bases are of higher priority.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity in Tiksi here.
In April 2017, Russia unveiled an Arctic Trefoil military base on Alexandra Land Island in the northeast Barents Sea. It is Russia’s northernmost military outpost and the second of its kind, following the completed Northern Clover on Kotelny. Alexandra Land is also home to the upgraded Nagurskoye air base. Alexandra Land provides air-sea-land capabilities that reinforce Russia’s multilayered maritime and air denial power, safeguard the Kola Peninsula and Northern Fleet headquarters, and assert Russia’s control over the NSR. Alexandra Land’s proximity to the Greenland-Iceland-Norway (GIN) and GIUK gaps could disrupt NATO’s vital sea lines of communication (SLOC) between North America and Europe, hindering U.S. military reinforcement to Europe.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity in Alexandra Land here.
Novaya Zemlya is home to Russia’s Rogachevo air base. Upgrades occurred during the 2018-2019 timeframe and included the deployment of additional radar, electronic warfare, and signals intelligence forces and related equipment. Most notably, during the July-August 2019 timeframe, the S-400 system was deployed to Rogachevo.
The S-400 provides more advanced radar and electronic warfare systems capabilities, which expand the range of Novaya Zemlya’s air defenses. Russia’s deployment of the S-400 system on Rogachevo air base signals the Kremlin’s intent to secure its northwest Arctic territory through bastion defense, protect its most vital military assets on the Kola Peninsula, and plug potential gaps between Nagurskoye air base on Alexandra Land and radar stations on the Kola Peninsula. The S-400 poses a challenge to NATO in the region, potentially complicating freedom of operation in the North Atlantic and Norwegian and Barents Seas by expanding Russia’s defensive capabilities.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity in Rogachevo air base here.
As Russia’s Arctic crown jewel, the Kola Peninsula is the epicenter of Russia’s western Arctic capabilities. It is characterized by a high concentration of defensive and potentially offensive assets. The Kola Peninsula has received notable infrastructure updates over the last several years, including the expansion of the Gadzhiyevo submarine base, new large weapons bunkers at Okolnaya Bay, construction at Bolshoye, and updates to Severomorsk-1 air base.
These facilities expand and add depth to Russia’s defense of its most strategic Arctic territory while also securing Russia’s freedom of movement in the maritime and air domains. Neighboring sites, such as the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, which was the site of recent testing of the RS-24 Yars ICBM, add an additional element to Russia’s Arctic military capabilities. The Kola Peninsula and surrounding area are typically at the center of frequent large-scale military exercises practicing bastion defense as well as the testing of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which sometimes occurs without prior warning.
Download a complete analysis of Russia's activity in the Kola Peninsula here.
Russia’s renewed military presence in the Arctic at sites like these secures its territory and guarantees its freedom of operation. This increase in investment and capacity also restricts the movement and access of NATO and potentially China through interdiction capabilities in both the maritime and air domains. Most critically, Russia is signaling the military capability to potentially project power over the Arctic “avenues of approach” to the United States and shape the future of this increasingly vital and contentious region.
Watch CSIS expert Heather Conley go deeper into this issue:
About the Authors
Associate Fellow, Europe Program
Matthew Melino is a former associate fellow with the CSIS Europe Program, where he provided research and program support on a range of issues, including developments in the Arctic, security and defense trends in northern Europe, and the evolution of NATO and transatlantic relations.
Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS as a senior fellow and director for Europe in 2009, Conley served four years as executive director of the Office of the Chairman of the Board at the American National Red Cross. From 2001 to 2005, she was deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs with responsibilities for U.S. bilateral relations with the countries of Northern and Central Europe. From 1994 to 2001, she was a senior associate with an international consulting firm led by former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage. Ms. Conley began her career in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. She was selected to serve as special assistant to the coordinator of U.S. assistance to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, and she has received two State Department Meritorious Honor Awards. Ms. Conley is frequently featured as a foreign policy analyst and Europe expert on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, NPR, and PBS, among other prominent media outlets. She received her B.A. in international studies from West Virginia Wesleyan College and her M.A. in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Special thanks to:
- National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
- Sarah Grace, Producer & Multimedia Content Lead, iDeas Lab, CSIS
- Jeeah Lee, Senior Publications Manager, External Relations, CSIS
- Emily Tiemeyer, Designer & Graphics Lead, iDeas Lab, CSIS
- Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Senior Fellow for Imagery Analysis (Non-resident), iDeas Lab
- Bonny Lee, Satellite Imagery Analysis Assistant, iDeas Lab