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Mother Russia's Backyard - The Arctic Circle

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Image credits: Sunidhi Illustrations (Team Geostrata)


The question of nature and nurture is a popular point of debate in the socio-political realm. Proponents on either side have presented insurmountable evidence for why one prevails over the other in affecting the behaviour of humans. Perhaps, both of them play a role, often intermingled, varying from case to case.

One of the dominant factors from the playbook of nature, in terms of foreign policy in particular but politics in general, is Geography. It acts as one of the foundational bases on which politics is allowed to operate. Technology has helped in mending geography, however for better or worse. It still has profound implications over how things play out. In this piece, the Geostrata attempts to analyse the relationship between the Russian Military and the Arctic.

The Arctic region is rapidly emerging as a new arena, where nations blessed by geography are vying for influence and geo-political benefits-strategic and economical in particular.

For much of human history, the Arctic region, the northernmost part of the globe, has been relatively free from human influence. However, as climate change accelerates, the permafrost ice-cover has been melting away at an alarming speed, thus opening up the region and making it more susceptible to geopolitical forces. By the grace of geography, the area holds extreme strategic and economic relevance.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the area north of the Arctic Circle potentially possesses 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, mostly offshore under less than 500 meters of water. This leaves a much wider space for contests over precious hidden resources. To claim territories that lie beyond one’s EEZ, the nations having access to the Arctic can submit their reports to a UN Committee, deciding the legitimate ones. So far, only Norway and Iceland are the only two countries whose claims have been submitted and accepted by the UN committee.


The Military has always been a decisive factor behind the Russian foreign policy, even during the Soviet Era. As their economy declined, the dependence of the Soviets upon the military increased further, so is the case with the modern federation state of Russia.

Over the recent years, the Russian military has been increasing its presence, building new and refurbishing old bases along its Arctic shoreline. The massive military buildup in the region has raised concerns in the western quarters as Russia seeks to overpower others, mainly the USA and its NATO allies, in dominating the Arctic circle.

The relevance of the Arctic in the eyes of the Russians can be stated from the fact that in January 2021, Russia upgraded the status of its Northern Fleet based in the military city of Severomorsk to a military district, which among other things, is also in charge of the Arctic. The thrust behind such moves makes sense when we look closely and realise that the Russian economy has primarily become a resource-based economy. It depends upon its resources to leverage its position in world affairs. It has found a massive buyer for its resources in China that helps it survive under the American sanctions’ intense weight.

The Russian military has been using the Arctic for testing its next-gen and high tech military superweapons-namely POSEIDON 2M39 torpedo and TSIRKON. Poseidon is an autonomous nuclear-powered unmanned underwater vehicle that has the capabilities to bypass most of the western shore-based defences. Christopher Ford, then assistant secretary of state for International Security and Non-Proliferation, said that the superweapon is designed to “inundate US coastal cities with radio-active tsunamis”. Poseidon is one of the first among the superweapons Russia announced in 2018.

Russia is also bringing its MiG 31 BMs and its S400s along its vast shorelines to counter any air traffic in its region. Satellite images have confirmed the aircraft being halted at its Nagurskoye base close to the US’ northernmost airbase at Thule, Greenland. The Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker-Arktika, for now, the only one in the world, has sparked off an intense arms race for the same among nations like the US, China and Canada. President Trump in 2019 announced his plans for the US to build up its fleet of icebreakers, possibly nuclear powered, by 2029. China, which has defined itself as a “near-Arctic nation”, has its plans lined up.

GIF credits: FT

The region is also being amassed with nuclear-powered submarines, with the Russian military deploying its first YASEN M-CLASS nuclear-powered submarine called the KAZAN. Not only that, the Northern Fleet is being equipped with a hypersonic missile called Kn-47 M2 Kinzhal, also popularly known as the Dagger, capable of changing its trajectory and vastly overwhelming the defence systems.

So far, the Russian strategy seems to be using both offensive and defensive measures to outnumber Western powers. Both of these serve another crucial purpose. As the frosted ice melts, the Arctic is being opened up for a critical route, which Russia calls the Northern Sea route, which helps in decreasing the distance between Asia & Europe by half. This could potentially lift off pressures from the already overburdened Suez Canal, and it is this very same route that Russia seeks to dominate.

Beyond what seems like a fight or contest for the natural resources, the Arctic is also serving as a potential battleground between Russia and its Western counterparts, one where Russia possesses the means and the might to dominate.




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