Borei class

Militarization in the Baltic and the Arctic compared: The Arctic is the dangerous place

This is a summary of a presentation that I gave at a recent conference by the George C. Marshall Center and the Swedish Defence University. I was asked to give a Danish perspective on the question “Could Arctic Security Mechanisms provide an example of best practice for the Baltic Sea region?”

The question implies that the Arctic Region has better security mechanisms than the Baltic Sea Region. That seems like a questionable assumption. Here, I will argue that the Baltic Region is in fact more secure than the Arctic. I also suggest that very different dynamics determine the security environment in the two theaters, so it is hard to compare them. The Baltic is mostly a discussion about possible Russian revisionism, whereas the Arctic is about strategic nuclear deterrence.

The typical Danish view on the Russia challenge

But first, I will address the matter of a Danish perspective on the relationship between the Arctic and the Baltic. The typical Danish view on the Russian challenge is that the West faces Russia in three different theaters. In the South there is great power Russia which engages in foreign conflicts like Syria or Venezuela. Russia has a different agenda than the West in these conflicts, so we find ourselves in active opposition to one another. In the East there is a revanchist Russia which seeks a sphere of influence in its near abroad. This Russia needs to be deterred from military adventures in Eastern Europe. And in the North there is a friendly Russia with whom we can cooperate through organs like the Arctic Council, and which abides by international law and norms. So the traditional Danish formulation of a Russia strategy will be something like this:

  1. Cooperate in the North
  2. Deter in the East
  3. Oppose in the South

The goal is to keep these theaters separate from each other, so things don’t get confused. The optimistic assumption is that Russia has a similar interest in a separation of issues. I will not go further into a discussion about the Southern challenge, because that is beyond the topic. But in the rest of the post, I will discuss the challenges in the East and the North, i.e. in the Baltic and the Arctic regions.

Based on this traditional Danish view, the answer to the original question is that Arctic Security Mechanisms can provide an example for the Baltic Region. After all, it is much better to cooperate than to threaten nuclear destruction. If we can convince Russia to give up their confrontational posture, the Arctic model could also work in the Baltic.

But this view on the Russia challenge is wrong. The reality is that security is much more stable in the Baltic Region than in the Arctic. Conveniently, the Marshall Center has published three highly relevant papers on this topic in the last few months. Dmitry Gorenburg has written about Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis, Mark Galeotti about the role of the Baltic Region in Russian strategy, and Pavel Baev on Russian strategic guidelines for the Arctic. These papers serve as a good starting point for a discussion about the differences between the Baltic and the Arctic.

Russia in the Baltic Region

Gorenburg uses prospect theory to analyze the how Russia would act in case of a Baltic crisis. Prospect theory is the observation that people hate losing more than they like winning. Therefore, people are willing to take great risks to avoid a loss, whereas they are risk averse when they may gain some benefit.

In a crisis in the Baltic Region, Russia is not facing a loss situation. The Baltic states are already members of NATO and the EU, and Russia has absorbed the geopolitical impact long ago. Any military attack that Russia could initiate would be about gaining something that they don’t have already. Therefore, Russia will be in a domain of gains, and consequently they will be risk averse.

Map of Baltic Sea
Baltic Region

Gorenburg’s further argues that the potential gains for Russia are quite small. The Baltic States are relatively insignificant from a military perspective. It is possible that Russia could try to exploit some situation if it is possible to do so without taking much risk. But generally, Russia will prefer to minimize potential damage, and their leaders will go to great lengths to avoid adverse results. In practical terms, this means that Russia is unlikely to initiate a military confrontation in the Baltic Region and will act to deescalate if a conflict occurs.

Galeotti argues that the Baltic States are an instrument in Russia’s political war against the West. The Baltic States are targets of constant and multifaceted operations, but this is because Russia uses them to leverage pressure against other actors like the United States, NATO, and the EU. He sees no serious evidence of Russian territorial ambitions in the Baltic Region.

Also, Galeotti argues that Russia realizes how little public support there is in the Baltic States for a Russian intervention, even among the Russian speaking minorities. From a Russian perspective, an annexation of the Baltic States sounds like a major headache. The potential for a guerilla-style insurgency is large, and to that comes the obvious risk of war with NATO.

Together, Gorenburg and Galeotti paint a picture of a fairly stable Baltic Region with a low risk of Russian aggression. The most likely scenario is that Russia will continue to conduct different kinds of non-kinetic operations against the Baltic States in order to use them as instruments in a larger political war against the West. Neither Gorenburg nor Galeotti sees military confrontation in the Baltic Region as a plausible outcome.

Russia in the Arctic

Pavel Baev argues that Russia is in a unique position of strength in the Arctic. There are relatively few threats to their interests, and they have a large capacity for threatening the interests of NATO member states. If – for a moment – we apply the same prospect theory that Gorenburg used in the Baltic, we see that the situation is reversed: Any change in status quo puts Russia in a domain of loss, so they will be willing to take great risks.

Map of the Arctic
Political map of the Arctic. Image: U.S. State Department

In Baev’s argument, the Arctic is extremely important for Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent. Arguably, the most important asset for the Northern Fleet are the nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Also, the submarines of the Pacific Fleet need to transit the Northern Sea Route for maintenance in Severomorsk and Severodvinsk. In the coming years, the submarine based branch of the nuclear triad will become even more important as more of the new Borei-class submarines become operational. Russia has also increased conventional capabilities in the Arctic in recent years, but much of it is intended to protect the strategic nuclear deterrent.

Nuclear deterrence as the driver of militarization in the Arctic

In the following, I will elaborate on Baev’s point of nuclear deterrence as a major priority for Russia in the Arctic. In several ways, the situation today is different from what we saw during the Cold War. A pure numbers comparison may give the impression that military tensions are relatively low compared to earlier times, but such an approach ignore some important developments.

First, today we have arms control regimes that did not exist during the Cold War. This means that both the United States and Russia face limitations, and they mostly adhere to them. Some types of missiles are banned altogether, and the number of strategic warheads is limited. Both countries have about the maximum number of strategic warheads that is allowed in the New START treaty. The way this is achieved is partly by limiting the number of warheads in a missile, so they don’t carry a full payload. Unfortunately, the arms control treaties are under pressure. The INF-treaty is all but dead, and New START will likely expire in 2021. This means that both countries will have free hands to deploy many new missiles and warheads in the coming years. Because of the spare capacity in the strategic missiles, Russia can increase the number of deployed warheads really fast.

Another relatively new development is the American ballistic missile defense system. Because of the shape of the earth, a Russian missile will pass over the Arctic on its route to the United States. Therefore, a significant part of the American missile defense system is placed in the Arctic region, for example at the Thule Air Base in Greenland.

MiG-31 with a Kinzhal missile. Photo:

A missile defense system is inherently a disruption of the nuclear deterrent of the opponent. In order to maintain mutually assured destruction, Russia finds it necessary to have military assets that can destroy the American defense systems. Here, Russia is helped by a third new development that has changed warfare since the Cold War: The proliferation of high-precision missiles. It seems logical that the Nagurskoye Air Base on the remote Franz Josef Land was expanded to support this kind of mission. It can now operate MiG-31 aircraft with the new Kinzhal missile, which is a high-precision missile with a range up to 2000 kilometers. This seems like the kind of weapon you would use to take out the Thule radar.

As a consequence, NATO has to respond to this threat from Russian conventional weapons. What I am getting at is that militarization is already happening, and it will probably continue in the coming years. It will not be in the form of many soldiers, but it will be with sophisticated weapon technology. Just earlier this week, the Danish defense minister suggested that perhaps Denmark needs to purchase an additional four F-35 fighters so we can have a permanent presence in Greenland. Until recently, such a suggestion was unthinkable.

What should we do

The underlying driver of the militarization in the Arctic is strategic nuclear deterrence: Russian determination to maintain nuclear parity with the United States and American determination to build a missile defense system. It is hard to see how any country would compromise on this issue.

There are, however, a few things that we can do to improve the situation. First, we need to save as much as possible of the arms control regime. The INF-treaty is probably dead, but New START can still be extended or renewed.

Second, we should cooperate as much as possible on common issues. Navigational safety is an obvious area, as is search and rescue. We could probably also find common grounds on some environmental issues. Such cooperation helps prevent military conflict because it strengthens the informal bonds between governments.

And third, we should prepare for a renewed anti-nuclear protest movement. This is an issue that potentially can threaten the cohesion of NATO. If an anti-nuclear movement gains traction in Europe, it is safe to assume that it will be the topic of intense Russian misinformation campaigns.




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