“The Northern Fleet can only effectively counter American nuclear submarines in close proximity to its bases on the Kola Peninsula, and further to the East the adversary can operate more or less freely.”
A recent article in the pro-Kremlin news outlet Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer sees the possibility of a military conflict breaking out in the Barents Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. The author envisions a scenario emanating from a U.S. Navy freedom of navigation test of the Northern Sea Route (See: “Freedom of the Seas to Be Tested in Arctic?” OE Watch, April 2019). Well-known Russian political scientist Aleksandr Khramchikhin, Deputy Director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, is the article’s author. He has long argued that China is Russia’s primary security threat and that the United States is looking to the Global Strike Command to defeat Russia’s nuclear capability with non-nuclear strikes. Khramchikhin lacks a military background, but his reasoning and commentary are respected. Khramchikhin’s description of the Arctic operational environment includes scenarios of engagements that are narrow in their potential locations and application of forces. Paratroop drops, submarine missile launches, fighter aircraft engagements, and ground force incursions with limited objectives seem to capture the nature of conflict, according the author. He admits that “imagining a battle in this region is very difficult indeed.”
Aleksandr Khramchikhin, “Очень холодное поле боя: Война за акватории высоких широт может начаться с провокации на Северном морском пути (A very cold battlefield: A war for the high-latitude waters could begin with a provocation on the Northern Sea Route),” Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer (pro-government weekly focused on Russian military and military-industrial complex), 22 November 2021. https://vpk-news.ru/articles/64758
Competition for the Arctic, possibly spilling into war over the region, is a subject at least two decades old. As the Arctic ice melts, interest is growing fast in a region where near-free navigation, unfettered access to offshore hydrocarbons, and military operations are becoming possible.
Nobody is planning to share out the Arctic lands, since they were claimed long ago. This is about sharing the waters, where the picture is not quite so clear and the number of potential competitors is limited. The air forces of Finland…and Sweden…have some potential but these countries do not directly border onto the Arctic Ocean so there is nothing for them to fight over. Iceland does not have an air force so it has nothing to fight with, even if it wanted to.
Canada’s forces…are generally somewhat feebler than Finland’s and Sweden’s, and are either stationed in the south of the country (on a similar latitude to Moscow) or are busy in various American wars in the Middle and Near East. Canadian forces in the Arctic are purely symbolic, without even a proper northern regiment in total and armed with only light weapons.
The Danish Air Force is weaker even than the Canadian and is practically all stationed in Denmark itself, that is, on the Jutland peninsula and adjacent islands. In Greenland there is only the Sirius ski patrol — 30 men, that is, a single platoon, and also armed with only light weapons. One or two patrol boats are also based there.
So any involvement by Denmark and Canada in a fight for the Arctic is purely theoretical (regarding the military component of the fight). Deployment of Canadian and Danish forces to the Arctic is in practice unrealistic — they are too few and anyway do not train for war on ice. The most that Ottawa and Copenhagen could do is send to the Arctic a few warships (one or two submarines, three or four frigates from Canada and two or three frigates from Denmark) and to airfields in the Arctic — up to 10 or so warplanes (Canadian F-18A/Bs, Danish F-16A/Bs). You cannot do much fighting with those.
Fairly large groups of US air and ground forces are stationed in Alaska. They could capture Chukotka, where there are no Russian forces, with ease. And the USAF could safely block the deployment to there of Russian contingents from Kamchatka, not to mention from the Vladivostok region. Strange as it may seem, it would be easier for Russia to send Airborne Troops units to Chukotka from the European part of the country. The Americans could in theory even land forces in Yakutiya (in the Tiksi area, for example). True, Russian paratroopers could just as successfully turn up on the islands of Canada’s Arctic archipelago, which also have nothing and nobody to defend themselves with. However, the point is that all these reciprocal assault landings are completely senseless and would create more problems for the protagonists than for the other side. This is simply because an American expeditionary force in Chukotka and Yakutiya and a Russian one in northern Canada would be at a hopeless dead end with no chance of developing an offensive to the south, and with desperate supply issues.
The only place where potential “fighters for the Arctic” might come into direct contact is northern Europe. The greater part of Norway’s air force…is stationed in the north of the country and in close proximity to the group of forces of Russia’s Northern Joint Strategic Command on the Kola Peninsula. The Russian presence is of course more powerful, especially in terms of the two countries’ ability to grow their forces. Imagining a battle in this region is very difficult indeed. Between 1941 and 1943 on the entire gigantic Soviet-German front, the Arctic was the sole sector in which the Germans captured nothing, other than a few hundred square kilometers of lifeless tundra. Imagining that the Norwegians will be more effective and successful than the Germans is, to put it mildly, hard. It is even harder to imagine how the Norwegians’ NATO allies would come to their aid in the ice and snow. On the other hand, in the fall of 1944 the Soviet army liberated only the Norwegian border county of Finnmark, and went no further. The Supreme Command could not see any point in fighting for frozen mountains crisscrossed by fjords. Modern-day Russia needs them even less.
It is practically impossible to conceive of an armed conflict in the Arctic over a disputed oil or gas field. Hydrocarbons extraction in the region is a highly complex and expensive business, so no oil or gas company will start work on a deposit unless the legal status and national affiliation are settled.
Much more realistic is an incursion into Russia’s Arctic waters by American nuclear submarines, which from there could in theory fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at numerous military and economic targets in the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East. The Northern Fleet can only effectively counter American nuclear submarines in close proximity to its bases on the Kola Peninsula, and further to the East the adversary can operate more or less freely. In that case, the hopes lie with air rather than submarine defenses, that is, with eliminating the Tomahawks rather than their carriers. But this kind of scenario could materialize only if matters get to the stage of full-scale war between Russia and the United States.
However, a dispute over “freedom of navigation” in peacetime cannot be discounted. Washington believes that both Russia’s Northern Sea Route and Canada’s Northwest Passage are international waters in which civilian and military ships of any country may sail freely without the need to notify anybody. A direct conflict between the United States and Canada, close allies, over the Northwest Passage is unlikely, and anyway, it is not greatly needed as a transport route (easier to take the Panama Canal). The Northern Sea Route, which greatly shortens the time from Europe to Asia and back, is much more in demand.
On more than one occasion, American warships have sailed across the South China Sea, which Beijing regards as its own. Matters have not yet reached the stage of direct confrontation with ships of the PLA, but it cannot be ruled out. Similarly, nothing is stopping the Americans from just turning up and sending one or a number of warships through the Northern Sea Route without officially notifying Russia first. Will Moscow be as restrained as Beijing? Or will it require the Americans to scrupulously comply with Russian law and in the event of a refusal do what is necessary to head them off, including forcibly? In that case, how far might the dispute go? It is possible that Washington will allow us to find out, and very soon: It badly wants to prove to the whole world and to itself as well that America can still do anything, including what others cannot.