NATO strategic response to Ukraine’s annexation by the Russian Federation in March 2014 is currently focused on the forward defense of the Baltic countries, which are increasingly important in Western geostrategic planning and which control from Europe the Arctic zone, the area in which Russia can hit the US interest more easily.
Cleary the Alliance believes that the Baltic countries can be Russia’s next “enlargement”, as happened precisely with Ukraine.
More probably, however, Russia wants to weaken and, indeed, “finlandize” NATO’s Baltic region which, as is also well-known to Russia, is a key point even for the Atlantic interests.
Not to mention the North Pole’s wealth of mining and oil resources, which would really be the economic game changer for the whole Russian system.
And it would also be the Russian solution to replace the Middle East OPEC countries, all with oil wells which are depleting to a greater or lesser extent.
The Russian Arctic region is the area in which approximately 80% of the Far North’s oil is extracted, especially in the Russian autonomous region of Khanty-Mansiysk, in addition to 11 offshore extraction sites in the Barents Sea, 182 in the Kara Sea and a large number (185) in the Russian autonomous region of Nenets.
Hence the Arctic would be the area in which Russia can become the global leader of the oil and gas market.
With specific reference to minerals, in the Russian Arctic area there are large – albeit not yet accurately measured – amounts of copper, gold, nickel, uranium, iron, tungsten and diamonds.
The Russian Arctic area is by far the richest in minerals – and the same holds true for oil and gas, as we have already mentioned.
Russia is protecting its Arctic to avoid future financial dependence on the West and to diversify its economy.
If the United States hit the Russian Arctic, they will destroy the future of Russian resources.
The considerations made above lead us to think that the Russian conflict with NATO in relation to the Baltic countries is also a clash with the Western Alliance for the control, security and safety of the most rational ways of communication between Russia and its Arctic riches.
Hence the aim would be eliminating the possibility of NATO having close bases along the way between Russia and its economic potential in the North Pole.
The issue is whether Russia will be able to fully exploit its Arctic oil and gas.
Gazprom and Rosneft have not yet the technology to extract natural gas and oil, while Western sanctions do not enable Russian companies to obtain the necessary technologies in the West.
And the very limited loans that Russia can obtain in the West – again as a result of sanctions – do not certainly allow the self-funding of these advanced technologies.
According to IAEA, the US oil agency, the Russian Arctic oil will generate profit only when the barrel price reaches 120 US dollars.
However this is not the problem: Russia knows that, in the near future, the Middle East oil will start to run low and it will sell its oil and gas at the highest (fixed) price.
Hence, for the Russian Federation, the ideal solution can only be the stable relationship with China, at least to reach its first strategic goal on its oil and gas market, namely to reduce its dependence on the EU significantly.
Nevertheless there are also other countries on the waiting list.
For example, in November 2014, Russia proposed to India a joint plan for exploiting the oil and gas resources in the Arctic and Siberia, a region that Russia considers to be strategically and politically contiguous to the North Pole.
Currently the amount of natural gas extracted does not meet the expectations of President Putin, who would like to increase the market share of the Russian natural gas from 5% to at least 10%.
It is precisely for this reason that he has urged a partnership on an equal footing with India, together with China.
Hence while NATO is planning its “North’s design”, Russia is developing a Russia-China-India strategic triangle which, for the time being, is mostly economic, but will soon be turned into a political, military and strategic initiative.
For Russia, however, the Arctic is both a geoeconomic issue and a geopolitical and patriotic myth: the Russians participating in a Swedish mission to the North Pole in 2007 planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed so as to claim the area as “national territory” to all intents and purposes.
In short, on the basis of its current foreign policy doctrine, Russia wants to become a great power, as in the USSR times, but without the limitations of that system.
Hence, above all it fears the encirclement by large and small powers and, in fact, this explains much of Russia’s current postures and attitudes.
Russia’s Arctic strategy, however, is to make their very long polar coast useful also for maritime trade and – as already mentioned – use the North Pole region as the necessary plus to become an oil and economic superpower.
In principle, the Arctic line is much shorter than the one using the Suez Canal. Even China will participate in this project, with its North-Eastern ports, such as Dalian, from which in 2003 the first Chinese icebreaker heading for the Arctic, namely Yong Sheng, left on August 8, which is a lucky day in the Chinese tradition.
From Dalian to Rotterdam, via the Arctic, the Chinese vessel spared thirteen days of navigation compared to the traditional route heading for Suez.
Obviously there is an equally important consideration in Russia’s mind, whereby the Arctic line is the longest border between the Russian Federation and the United States.
This is the reason why NATO is trying to reassure the Baltic countries, which fear above all to end up like Ukraine and hence become the most comfortable passageway for Russia to reach the North Pole from the West and control it.
Russia, however, does not want to “conquer” the smallest Baltic countries – it only wants to have a right of free passage and a strategic and political insurance that attacks on Russia will not be launched from the Baltic region.
Let us revert, however, to NATO operations in
the North Sea and its shores: the naval military exercise BALTOPS, carried out by ships from 17 countries, began on June 5, 2016 and ended on June 20.
As many as 49 ships, with important exercises of submarine warfare, as well as amphibious actions in which 700 Swedish, US and Finnish soldiers participated, and finally with an air force consisting of 61 jet aircraft and the participation of Georgia and thirteen other non-NATO members.
The Atlantic Alliance’s exercises in the North Sea have always been very important: it is in the framework of this type of operations that a submarine, probably a British one, disengaged itself and later went to attack and sink the well-known Russian submarine Kursk equipped with the very advanced VA-111 Skval, a torpedo reaching a speed of 7 to 13 kilometers per second.
In addition to BALTOPS, in November 2014 the three Baltic States created an autonomous military alliance, called NORDEFCO, while Denmark and Sweden agreed on close defense cooperation in January 2016.
For the Atlantic Alliance NORDEFCO should be rapidly extended particularly to the European States such as Germany, Great Britain and Poland and to the United States, almost as an embryo of the “North’s NATO” that some people theorized at the beginning of this millennium
Nevertheless, once again the strategic assessment of the enemy is still based on the old idea – which we deem wrong – whereby Russia would simply like to recover three former Soviet territories, namely Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
We do not believe that this is the Russian strategic motivation: Russia only wants to ensure the security and safety of its sea lines and of its communication with the Arctic, as well as the equivalence of the war potential with the United States on the long Arctic border between the two great countries.
However, there are also Russian territorial claims on the Arctic, which are of considerable political significance.
In 2007, two Mir submersibles reached the maximum depth of the North Pole.
The naval means have scientifically proven that the Lomonosov and Mendeleiev submarine ridges, which reach up to Greenland, are a geological extension of Russia’s continental shelf.
This would enable Russia to claim exploration rights for additional 1.2 million kilometers in the Arctic, which would allow to autonomously exploit the large oil fields of the Chikotka-Murmansk-North Pole region.
It is an evident threat to the almost total hegemony the United States have over the Arctic polar area, which is an essential theme of the US global strategy.
The US military bases are scarce and, above all, the US strategy is based on 12 fully-operational icebreakers, in addition to two new recently-built ships.
Once again, however, the United States are lagging behind compared to Russia: the latter has 22 icebreakers and other 19 vessels suitable for the Arctic climate. The United States are better equipped in terms of submarines: they have 41 nuclear ones, while Russia has only 25 units of this type.
With specific reference to the forces on the ground, the United States have three brigades in Alaska, each consisting of three thousand soldiers.
Two new air squadrons, with stealth aircraft, are planned to be deployed in a base near Fairbanks, Alaska.
In short, the largest force in the Arctic is still the American one, while Russia is lagging behind in the construction of its Arctic forces.
And the various attempts made by NATO and the Western countries bordering on the Arctic Ocean to decide, on their own, the control areas and the respective territorial changes, in addition to the presence of US military bases on their share of the North Pole, have led Russia to militarize its Arctic region so as to defend its mining networks and avoid the United States even “listening” their signals.
Hence the current Russian defense network is organized as follows:
1) new air bases in Franz Josef Land and in Tiksi, Naryan-Mar, Alykel, as well as in four other areas;
2) naval bases in Franz Josef Land and in the New Siberia’s islands;
3) infantry bases: the imminent creation of the North Arctic Group and of two Arctic brigades, a motorized infantry one in Murmansk and the other in the Nenets district;
4) the electronic warfare regiment of the Northern Fleet deployed in Alakurtti, near Murmansk;
5) five fixed radar centers in Sredni, Alexandra Land, Wrangel Island, Juzhnii and Chukotka;
6) the air defense positions: the Pantsjr-S1 system has already been adapted to the Arctic climate and the different modes of use in extreme cold weather conditions;
7) a joint strategic command of the Northern Fleet, the Arctic brigades, the air force, the air defense and the electronic and signal intelligence centers.
The Arctic and the control over it are a sort of insurance that Russia will continue to be a global power at energy level, while strategically the North Pole is already part of the US missile defense system, which could weaken the Russian nuclear potential and hence make Russia irrelevant at geostrategic level.
Hence, according to the Russian decision-makers, the Arctic is the region where, in the future, the Atlantic Alliance’s pressure will be mostly felt. The Atlantic Alliance will not operate by making people rise up with “color revolutions”, as there is no population in the Arctic, but it will directly threaten the Russian military apparatus in the region and hence also in South-Central Russia.
Furthermore, considering the now stable tendency to ice melting, the Arctic will increasingly become a potential conventional war area.
Therefore NATO would use the Baltic region as an area to make its operations in the North Pole safe, while a remote and irrational invasion of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia is expected.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France