During his election campaign, Donald Trump made it clear he was in favor of improving relations with Russia. He suggested that the United States should treat Russia as an ally with Syria, which would mean abandoning the long-held goal of deposing President Bashar al-Assad and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which would mean selling Ukraine down the river.
These policies could be set in motion with Mr. Trump’s inauguration next month. A deal on Syria would at minimum create a common front against Daesh and could possibly initiate a broader strategic rebalancing in the Middle East. Including Crimea (and thus Ukraine) in such a package deal would go a long way toward defusing East-West tensions. Yet another region – important for commercial as well as security reasons – is seldom considered as part of an emerging geopolitical reset between Moscow and Washington. This region is the Arctic.
Until very recently, the prevailing view of Arctic developments was marked by a belief in peaceful cooperation. Although Russia’s commitment to rebuild its military presence there did convince the other four Arctic littoral states (Norway, Denmark, Canada and the U.S.) to consider strengthening their own capabilities, few saw any immediate threat of confrontation. The outlook was dominated instead by shared interests in energy exploration and in developing the Northern Sea Route from Europe to the Pacific for commercial shipping.
The rationale for this positive approach was undermined when oil prices collapsed, making offshore exploration less interesting, and it took an even bigger hit when the crisis in Ukraine led to sanctions on Russia, barring Western firms from cooperating with Russian oil companies. With the commercial interest thus diminished, if not removed, the military buildup assumed center stage.
A potential confrontation between Russia and NATO in the Arctic could be far more dangerous than other potential flashpoints. Military posturing in the Baltic region, Ukraine and Syria are all about shoring up Russian influence along its periphery. The Kola region, by contrast, is of existential importance to Russia’s homeland security and nuclear deterrent. An accelerated arms race in that region must be viewed as extremely dangerous. This makes it imperative to consider what impact the election of Donald Trump may have on this strategic theater. Three very different scenarios are possible.
Let’s make a deal
The most challenging scenario envisions that a grand bargain can be struck. Although seasoned Russian experts remain deeply skeptical, expressions of cautious optimism can be heard on both sides. In the words of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov: “Now we know that our bilateral relations are at the bottom so it’s hard to make them worse, but we certainly hope for resuming a dialogue and we’ll start a difficult and slow process of bringing the relations back to a constructive course.”
The centerpiece of a possible reset would be a U.S. decision to recognize the annexation of Crimea, and to define the conflict in Donbas as a bilateral or even a domestic Ukrainian issue. This would make it possible to scale back or completely remove U.S. economic sanctions. The commercial implications of such a decision could be quite interesting, especially in the Arctic.
While Washington has remained adamant about maintaining sanctions, several European Union member states have become increasingly vociferous in demanding they be lifted. In attendance at the most recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June 2016 were some 300 senior foreign executives. Of particular embarrassment to the U.S. State Department, chief executive officers from the American energy majors took part, despite government sanctions against the Russian oil industry. Among them was Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, now the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state.
There is pent-up demand for a resumption of business contacts. An end to the sanctions regime would allow Russian companies to reestablish their relations with international credit markets, which in turn would provide a boost to international trade and investment. The main thrust, however, would be a return to energy cooperation.
The most immediate impact would be to let service providers like Schlumberger and Halliburton resume valuable technical assistance contracts to extract the remaining resources from dying Russian brownfields. But there would also be an impact on Arctic exploration. Even if prices are low at the moment, these are long-term resources of serious magnitude. If they are to be developed, new life must be breathed into existing Russian partnerships with Western companies, and new alliances will need to be formed. A reset of Russian-U.S. relations would make all this possible.
Making the Arctic an arena for lucrative commercial cooperation would automatically reduce tensions in the military field. NATO member Norway, for example, could return to its previous cooperation with Russia on energy exploration, and resume conducting joint drills with the Russian navy on search and rescue operations.
Trump gets tough
In the opposite scenario, President Trump makes overtures but soon realizes that Russia is not ready to offer much in return. The new administration would then switch to a hard line, accelerating the buildup of U.S. forces in areas of conflict and ratcheting up the pressure on the Kremlin to back off in Syria and Ukraine. The chief danger of this more aggressive posture is that it makes military escalation more likely, especially if one factors in Russian disappointment or even anger at not getting the reset it had expected.
The strategic standoff between Russia and NATO is informed by a shared understanding that Russia could only lose a full-scale conventional war. For this reason, the nuclear component of Russia’s force structure assumes a pivotal role, reflecting a Russian belief in the policy of “escalating to de-escalate.” According to this nuclear doctrine, launching one or two limited strikes would suffice to force NATO back to the negotiating table.
The credibility of this strategy hinges on preserving the integrity of Russia’s nuclear forces. Here the unique importance of the Kola peninsula emerges, since it features the full “triad” of Russian nuclear deterrence. The region will be home to six of the new series of 12 Borei-class nuclear powered submarines, equipped with Bulava sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Local air bases are being upgraded to accommodate Tu-95 MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers, while the adjacent Barents Sea is the only place from which U.S. submarines can launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against Russia’s strategic missile complexes in Orenburg, Krasnoyarsk and the Urals.
That makes securing the Kola region an existential task, and Russia’s military is rapidly accumulating the assets to do so. The Northern Fleet is to receive six nuclear powered Yasen-class cruise missile attack submarines, along with six Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates equipped with Oniks anti-ship missiles and Kalibr cruise missiles. In June 2016, Russia also launched its first new military icebreaker in half a century, the Ilya Muromets. Plans are underway to build other surface combatants with icebreaking capability. The ground component is provided by four newly formed Arctic brigades, which have already conducted several large-scale “snap drills” together with elite airborne troops.
American forces are responding. In March 2016, the U.S. Navy staged ICEX-2016, a five-week training mission to assess the operational readiness of its submarine fleet. Meanwhile, two squadrons of F-35 joint strike fighters were earmarked for Eielson Air Force Base just north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Once delivered, in 2020, these assets will ensure U.S. air superiority in the north polar regions. NATO’s July 2016 summit at Warsaw also marked the first time that the alliance’s role in the Arctic was mentioned in the final communique.
An accelerated buildup of military resources in the Arctic will raise the stakes in the Nordic region as well, with NATO membership for Sweden and Finland becoming an ever-hotter issue. In May 2015, NATO joined with neutrals Switzerland, Sweden and Finland in a very large-scale air superiority drill called Arctic Challenge 2015, and in March 2016, 14 NATO member states held the annual Cold Response military exercise, led by Norway, featuring a provocative suggestion from one U.S. commander that drills should include moving missile systems to neutral Sweden. Most recently, the deployment of 330 U.S. Marines to Norway in October 2016 led Russia to issue a threat that the Nordic country would now be “placed on the list of targets for our strategic weapons.”
Any acceleration of this already worrisome escalation would be quite alarming. The possibilities include Russian missile launches and drills near the Norwegian border, coupled with increasingly frequent close encounters between Russian and NATO aircraft, surface vessels and submarines. In the absence of shared rules of engagement or even codes of conduct, these incidents could easily spin out of control.
The preceding two scenarios show what is at stake if the Trump administration veers off course, toward appeasement or direct confrontation. While both are definite possibilities, the most probable outcome – following some initial confusion – is that President Trump will stick to the current script of gradually increasing tensions, and correspondingly diminishing prospects for rapprochement. This follows a trajectory common to American presidencies, including the abortive “reset” at the outset of the Obama administration.
While this scenario may seem preferable to the other two, it does not represent any form of solution. The Kremlin would still have the upper hand. It has seized the initiative in setting the agenda, and it has proven to be far more determined in pursuing its goals. With respect to the Arctic, this has two sets of implications.
The first concerns security. In the absence of a deal to settle the standoff over Ukraine and Syria, logic dictates that the Kremlin will continue to test its security perimeter, betting that at some point NATO will blink and back off. Having already made its plays in the Baltic, Crimea and Syria, the next move would be to raise the stakes in the Arctic. The military buildup will proceed to ensure that the Kola peninsula is integrated into the array of protective “bubbles,” formed by advanced air defense and anti-ship missile systems, that stretches from Kaliningrad and Crimea down to Syria.
Russia will also tighten its grip over the Northern Sea Route, where it already operates some 40 icebreakers, six of which are nuclear-powered. The recently launched Arktika is the first in a new class of three nuclear icebreakers, displacing more than 33,000 tons, that will be capable of breaking through floating ice almost three meters thick. The ongoing revitalization of military installations in Russia’s Far North would also allow them to serve as support points for commercial navigation and maritime search and rescue.
The U.S. has very little to counter this maritime capability. The Coast Guard currently operates just two icebreakers, both conventionally powered and much smaller than their Russian counterparts. The delivery of a third vessel has been moved up, from 2022 to 2020, but American officials are already worrying about an “icebreaker gap.”
As long as oil stays cheap and U.S. sanctions remain in place, there are few restraints to a more aggressive game for control of the Arctic. As in other areas of confrontation, the sheer weakness of NATO’s forces in place invites tit-for-tat escalation. While both sides will be wary of things going wrong, Russia can be expected to take a much tougher stance than elsewhere, given the Kolar region’s strategic importance. That raises the price of any policy mistakes.
While this middle of the road scenario is probably policymakers’ favored option, it merely buys time. Sooner or later, the Trump administration will have to choose between striking a deal with Russia, or launching an extensive buildup of the forces deployed to contain it.
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