The Russian Arctic Threat: Consequences of the Ukraine War

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The Issue 

The impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine has been felt in the Arctic. The region’s primary diplomatic venue is paused, and military tensions are increasing. When Sweden and Finland join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), every Arctic country save Russia will be a member of the U.S.-led alliance. The war has not diminished Russia’s core economic and security interests in the region, but it has had some impact on its military readiness there in the short term, especially in terms of ground capabilities, if not at sea or in the air. In addition, there are some preliminary indications that sanctions and export controls may diminish Russia’s ability to deploy precision munitions to the Arctic to a degree. At the same time, Russia’s use of hybrid tactics in the region seems to be increasing in both frequency and severity. The United States and NATO will need to take stock of these developments in a region they have not historically prioritized as they begin to implement their new, respective strategies.


Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 disrupted the European security architecture and altered the risk calculus underpinning the foreign and security policies of its neighbors. This shift was also stark in the Arctic, which had for a long time been hailed by many as a highly cooperative and unusually peaceful part of international affairs.[1] First, the Arctic Council ceased to function when its seven members other than Russia suspended participation in official meetings.[2] This left the region without its main intergovernmental venue for cooperation. Next, in search of security, Finland and Sweden requested to join NATO.[3] Furthermore, Russian “hybrid tactics”—to now possibly also include the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines, as well as that of undersea cables in the Arctic and near-Arctic,[4] among other activities—have raised the level of alarm in NATO members like Norway and nearby states.[5] Finally, the increased security concerns are also seen in newly released policy documents, such as the U.S. Arctic Strategy.[6] The first U.S. government-wide Arctic strategy since 2013, it states that Russia’s war in Ukraine has “raised geopolitical tensions in the Arctic” and created “new risks of unintended conflict,” a point that is also emphasized in the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS).[7] However, the Arctic has not been a top security priority for the United States or NATO in recent years, and there are weighty arguments that this might be a problem that needs addressing as tensions rise.[8] Russia’s military interests in the Arctic are ostensibly defensive: to defend its second-strike, sea-based nuclear deterrent capability operating out of the Kola Peninsula; to defend the homeland; and to protect its regional economic endeavors, especially oil and gas megaprojects like the Yamal LNG and Vostok Oil ventures, and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which Russia views ambitiously as a future global trade thoroughfare. [9] Russia also has offensive goals.[10] First, it seeks to use the Arctic as a staging ground for power projection, especially into the North Atlantic Ocean via the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) Gap.[11] Second, it may consider hybrid activities to intimidate or coerce European Arctic countries. Finally, in an unlikely—but not unthinkable—wider NATO-Russia conflict, having escalated to a war, one can imagine Moscow risking a limited incursion into Norway or Finland in a bid to protect its critical nuclear assets in the Kola Peninsula by creating greater defensive depth through, for example, the establishment of more western anti-access/area denial system systems at relatively easily defended sites west of its border. This scenario resembles Cold War-era fears. 

A perhaps more likely modern conflict scenario could involve long-range precision strikes of high-value assets like the Norwegian or future Finnish F-35s and the infrastructure needed to keep them flying.[12] In addition, in accordance with basic military-strategic theory, one can also assume that command and control sites, radars, and important bases supporting key naval capabilities or anti-submarine warfare planes such as P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft would be attractive targets. The war in Ukraine has not materially changed these Russian core interests. The need to protect the nuclear second-strike capability based out of the Kola Peninsula will be undiminished, and even heightened, in the likely event that Finland joins NATO. If and when this scenario plays out, critical military installations such as the Northern Fleet’s strategic submarine base at Gadzhiyevo will be less than 200 kilometers away from the border of a new NATO country.[13] As a response, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu, after meeting with President Putin, stated in December that new military bases would be established: “Given NATO’s desire to build up military potential near the Russian borders, as well as to expand the North Atlantic Alliance at the expense of Finland and Sweden, retaliatory measures are required to create an appropriate grouping of troops in Northwest Russia.”[14] Furthermore, despite the diminishing European market for Russian Arctic fossil fuels—and the evaporation of foreign investment in such projects from sanctioning countries[15]—there is little evidence Putin intends to reduce his economic ambitions in the region: an NSR development plan including roughly 1.8 trillion rubles in funding was approved in August 2022,[16] and work continues on oil megaprojects.[17] It is reasonable to assume Russia will maintain its regional military posture commensurately. This paper first reviews Russia’s prewar Arctic military assets before investigating which of these assets have been used and potentially lost in the invasion of Ukraine. Taking stock of these potential war damages, as well as the impact of sanctions on Russia’s defense industry, the third section assesses the relative attractiveness of hybrid tactics for Russia to assert itself in the Arctic. The fourth section analyzes some implications of these findings for NATO and the United States. Image Source