“Whoever holds the Arctic, holds the world. I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” These solemn words were uttered in 1935 before a House of Representatives Committee by a retired American general and aviator, Billy Mitchell, who presciently foresaw the Arctic as a vital region for early detection against missile and aviation threats to prevent an attack against the United States.
But at the end of the Cold War, the Arctic ceased to be a strategically important place for either the United States or the Russian Federation. But by the 2007-2008 timeframe, Russia began to re-prioritize the Arctic both economically and militarily—in keeping with Vladimir Putin’s vision of restoring Russia’s status as a great power and harnessing the Arctic’s economic potential. Now more than a decade later, Russia has returned to the Arctic militarily with important strategic implications for the United States.
In 2007, the Russian Federation resumed regular air patrols over the Arctic Ocean and penetrated the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) 12- mile air defense identification zone around Alaska 18 times.1 Since 2007, Russia has adopted a series of policies and strategies and amended its military and maritime doctrines to include the Arctic region, emphasizing the need to protect Russia’s Arctic territory and to project influence and power beyond its Arctic coastlines.2,3
In 2012, Russia announced the creation of an Arctic brigade and announced it would establish a missile defense system and deploy fighter aircraft to Novaya Zemlya,4 its north-western archipelago, which separates the Barents and Kara Seas in 2013. By 2014, Russia announced an ambitious military force posture in the Arctic, which consisted of a new strategic command for the Arctic zone (the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command), the reopening of 50 former Soviet Arctic military bases, an increase in Russian special forces in the region by 30 percent by 2015, and a significant infrastructure program, which included 13 air defense radar stations, an aviation training ground, and 10 technical radar and air guidance stations in the Arctic region.5
As Russia enhanced its military posture and forces in the Arctic, it concentrated on exercising its new capabilities in the context of territorial defense and power projection. In 2015, the Russian military launched an unannounced large-scale military exercise that involved more than 45,000 Russian forces, 15 submarines, and 41 warships and practiced full combat readiness in the Arctic.6 Russia’s Northern Fleet, home to Russia’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, conducted 4,700 exercises in 2017.
The Zapad-2017 exercise featured missile strikes from its new base on Kotelny Island in the East Siberian Sea, where new facilities were completed along with now modernized bases in Novaya Zemlya and Franz-Josef Land, in the Barents Sea.7 In 2018, the Northern Fleet held around 3,800 test combat training exercises, with many designed to enhance both power-projection capabilities as well as protect strategic posts including the New Siberian Islands that are near potential oil and gas reserves and straddle the Northern Sea Route (NSR).9,10
Russian anti-submarine aircraft as well as attack and reconnaissance aircraft conducted over 100 Arctic Ocean patrols in 2018.11 The Russian military also announced a new series of Arctic exercises. Tsentr-2019 (August-September), which tested new Russian weapons and air defense systems. (end of excerpt)
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