Getting Sporty in Russia’s Arctic

HighNorth

The U.S. Navy and its NATO allies may be gearing up to challenge Russia’s excessive legal claims to the Northern Sea route by conducting a freedom of navigation operation. Multinational naval exercises have been taking place in the Barents Sea, and at some point they might include a freedom of navigation operation. The stakes are high, given the tensions following Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine in 2022. The Russian government’s warnings about naval operations in the area have become more bellicose and the political leadership appears more willing to take risks. As a result, the fallout from any freedom of navigation operation could rapidly escalate. 

The Northern Sea route passes through some of Russia’s most militarily sensitive areas. The Arctic region hosts the largest number of Russian ballistic missile submarines, provides a test bed for new weapons, hosts important air bases for strategic bombers, and holds other important military and intelligence infrastructure. 

Russia defines the Northern Sea Route as a national unified transport route running from the Kara Gates in the west to Deznev Cape in the eastern Arctic. The Northern Sea Route consists of multiple lanes, but the most commonly used route passes through four straits: the Vilkitskii, Shokalskii, Dmitri Laptev, and Sannikov Straits. Russian law defines these straits as internal waters, while the United States and others key actors beg to disagree and define them as international straits, thus subject to the right of transit passage. The difference in interpretation is longstanding: The United States and the Soviet Union first exchanged a series of diplomatic notes arguing over the status of these straits in the 1960s.

 

 

Since then, however, the salience of the legal dispute has grown, together with the continued opening of the Arctic Ocean, drawing international interest and facilitating foreign access. Consequently, Moscow has been increasingly concerned about foreign military presence in the Arctic. The growing conventional capability gap between Russia and NATO may also increase President Vladimir Putin’s sense of vulnerability in the Arctic. At least 80 percent of Russian ground forces were withdrawn from this area to support the war in Ukraine. Consequently, preventing the erosion of Russian control has been high on the Russian government’s agenda. Since 2022, Russia has taken political, legal, and military steps to further restrict access for foreign warships and deter a potential freedom of navigation operation in the region. Should that not work, the Northern Fleet has been rehearsing “repelling unauthorized passage of foreign ships and vessels” that could challenge Russia’s sovereignty in Arctic waters.

Eyes North

All eyes should be on the High North, where a multinational NATO flotilla recently steamed into northern waters to send a strong signal of deterrence to Russia. Warships from the United Kingdom, Norway, Germany, Belgium, and France, with aircraft from the United States, Finland, and Sweden, trained together in the region. At the center of the exercise is HMS Queen Elizabeth, a British aircraft carrier. This large naval exercise comes as NATO is strengthening its defense and deterrence close to Russia’s northern waters. 

While a freedom of navigation operation has been under discussion for years, there may be more appetite now than ever before. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some NATO nations may have a greater desire to apply pressure to Russia, particularly to a sensitive region like the Arctic. NATO is keen to deter Russia and may see an Arctic freedom of navigation operation as a good opportunity to demonstrate NATO’s ability to operate jointly in a remote region that Russia considers its backyard. While the Northern Sea Route itself does not hold great importance to NATO naval operations, the Barents Sea is Russia’s pathway to the North Atlantic, and is critical in undersea and transatlantic strategy. 

Naval exercises in the High North were ticking upwards in scale and frequency before Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. For example, in 2020, a U.S. and U.K. surface action group conducted exercises in the Barents and Norwegian seas, rehearsing anti-submarine warfare with a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine and marine patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. In 2019, a U.S. surface action group also operated north of the Arctic Circle. In 2018, elements of the Harry S. Truman Strike Group participated in NATO exercise Trident Juncture in the region, for the first time since the end of the Cold War. This was yet another sign of a more assertive U.S. stance in the region demonstrated by periodically deploying strategic capabilities. Recently departed U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday spoke out in support of a regular massive naval exercise in the Arctic, using RIMPAC — the world’s largest international maritime exercise — as an example and calling for its equivalent in the Arctic. 

The increase in scope and quantity of U.S. surface naval operations in the High North send a clear signal of renewed U.S. interest in the region, and commitment to restoring presence and familiarity. More is yet to come: in April 2023, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro noted that the U.S. Navy is increasing its operations in the Arctic in partnership with allies, and called for “a lot more work and a lot more commitment” to operations in the region. 

Why Is the Northern Sea Route a Problem?

Russia has accused the Western states of attempts to “internationalize” the Northern Sea Route by changing its legal status. The fear materialized in 2018, when a French naval logistics ship conducted what was a de facto freedom of navigation exercise through the Northern Sea Route. The “Rhone” transit, which was intended to contest Russian territorial claims, was conducted without making a formal request for permission. France employed a logistics vessel rather than a warship, though, possibly to send a less threatening message and lower risks.

In the following years, Russia has taken further steps to strengthen its jurisdiction over the Northern Sea Route, and possibly deter NATO countries from venturing into these waters. Among recent examples, the Russian Ministry of Defence proposed to adjust the 1998 law on Internal Sea Waters, Territorial Sea and Adjacent Zone of the Russian Federation. The objective has been to tighten the rules for access of foreign warships and other non-commercial government vessels to Russian territorial waters, internal waters, naval bases, and seaports, including along the Northern Sea Route.

The new regulations, signed by Putin in December 2022, require an application for permission to enter 90 days before the intended passage. What is novel in the updated regulations is a restriction to no more than “one foreign warship” in these waters at a time. The new regulations are intended as an additional security measure to prevent NATO and other countries from posing a threat to Russia. The requirements apply only to the Northern Sea Route’s internal waters, which constitute a relatively small portion of the maritime channel. Importantly, however, it covers all four of the disputed straits. 

As Russo-Western relations have deteriorated, the Russian military has been badly attrited, increasing the disparity in conventional forces with NATO. The sanctions have also undermined the Russian economy and may make rebuilding the military more difficult. This partly explains why, despite the disastrous war in Ukraine, Russia has continued to devote a significant attention to the Arctic. The region continues to support the core of Russian military strategy, such as maintaining nuclear deterrence and second-strike capability concentrated in the Kola Peninsula. Russia has also systematically used forces deployed in the region in direct assaults on Ukraine, including ground, naval, and air assets. Since the start of the reinvasion, the Russian authorities have highlighted the importance of the Arctic as a “vital” region in strategic policy documents, high-level statements, and military activity. An Arctic freedom of navigation operation led by the United States or another key NATO country could be seen by Russia as an attempt to test Moscow’s resolve and capabilities, as well as establishing a precedent for others to follow. It would likely be a high-level test for both sides. 

How Would a Freedom of Navigation Operation Be Conducted?

Given all these factors, what might a freedom of navigation operation along the Northern Sea Route look like? The new Russian legislation opens additional opportunities. A pair of warships could challenge Russia’s claims, by entering the Kara Gate without requesting permission. The most likely opportunity for conducting such an operation would be in September, when the annual sea ice in the area is at its minimum. 

The U.S. Navy has frequently operated in the High North with allies and it is likely that a freedom of navigation operation along the Northern Sea Route would be a multilateral operation. Such an approach would also strengthen the message of NATO unity. Given the United Kingdom’s interest and increased activity in the High North, it appears a likely partner. Norway’s extensive knowledge of the area and the Russian military would be an important asset, though it is less likely that the Norwegian government would directly join the operation, given differences in naval potential and ambition.

Geographically, the transit passage could run in close proximity to critical Russian military infrastructure in the region. Although not formally part of the Northern Sea Route, the passage of ships in this area would likely bring them close to the Kola Peninsula, which hosts bases for Russian nuclear-armed submarines. Importantly, some parts of the Northern Sea Route are significantly more sensitive than others. The passage through the Kara Gate south of Novaya Zemlya is one example. Novaya Zemlya is Russia’s nuclear weapons test area and now is a test bed for new weapon systems. It is also the location of an air base at Rogachevo. Likewise, Moscow would likely be concerned about what foreign sensors may catch at the bottom of the sea. 

What’s at Stake?

A freedom of navigation operation in the region carries inherent risks. The Kremlin has cultivated the image of Russia as the leading Arctic power and this is a potent domestic symbol of national strength and pride. Under current domestic conditions, Russia’s political response is difficult to predict. It remains equally uncertain how such an operation would be handled by the Russian commander once ships meet, especially if the commander is under pressure: What would be his reading of the situation, of NATO’s intentions, and of Moscow’s wishes? The potential for misunderstanding cannot be excluded. As recent Russian exercises have attempted to demonstrate, the Northern Fleet, possibly supported by the border guard of the Federal Security Service, could attempt to block passage. We could see Russian commanders operating in unsafe proximity to U.S. and NATO platforms, as often demonstrated in the Black Sea region. 

Furthermore, there are operational risks involved in high-latitude operations. The Russian Arctic, especially the eastern parts of the Northern Sea Route, is a harsh and unforgiving operational environment, remote and with scarce infrastructure. Naval exercises at lower latitudes — notably Trident Juncture — faced hardships operating in the Arctic environment. The conditions are rapidly evolving and there is a possibility of drifting ice even in summer months, so the ships making the passage should be therefore ice-strengthened or have icebreaker escort. This would require assistance from the U.S. Coast Guard or an icebreaker from a NATO ally. Contingencies should be made for other unforeseen emergencies, too, including an accident during the passage, either as a result of fire, technical malfunction, or natural disaster. 

These physical challenges would likely be paired with a Russian diplomatic and information offensive to pressure political leaders in Washington and elsewhere. Russia could seek to exploit any freedom of navigation operation by claiming it as a provocation and violation of international and Russian law and sovereignty.

Hence, how, when, and with what capabilities to conduct a freedom of navigation operation would need to be carefully calibrated and coordinated with other allies in the region to manage risks. 

Proponents of a freedom of navigation operation along the Northern Sea Route could argue that it would build on the recent U.S. diplomatic challenge to excessive Russian legal claims. Arguably, the longer a country waits to act, the bigger challenge a freedom of navigation operation in the region poses. The risk, of course, is that by not conducting a freedom of navigation operation, NATO risks sending a signal to Moscow that it de facto accepts its territorial claims. Russia’s weaknesses and struggles in Ukraine could mean that it has limited capabilities and may choose to avoid a direct confrontation with NATO. 

Conclusion

Freedom of navigation operations as a tool of foreign policy have been criticized for risking U.S. lives and national assets “in a game of brinkmanship that promises little meaningful benefit,” in one characterization. Indeed, the stakes of conducting a freedom of navigation operation in Russia’s Arctic have arguably never been higher. The dynamics of such an exercise could fan the flames of tensions and spiral in an unanticipated direction. NATO members may intend to send an important message of deterrence. However, it is important to remember that the sender of a message does not control how it is received. As a review of declassified U.S. and Warsaw Pact sources on nuclear-related exercises have shown, they were “fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity, deception, and bluff.” The intended message was rarely received, and unintended messages abounded, marred in cognitive dissonance. 

Still, the short- and long-term cost of passively accepting Russia dictating the rules of the game in the region should also be apprised, carefully balancing the risks and the benefits. 

 

 

Dr Katarzyna Zysk is a professor of international relations and contemporary history at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies at the Norwegian Defence University College in Oslo 

Dr. Rebecca Pincus is director of the Polar Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

Image: Photo courtesy of Norwegian Coast Guard

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