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Arctic Wars, - Dmytro Levus



In its competition for the shelf in the Arctic, the Russian Federation relies on the military component and aggressive presence. Dmytro Levus, an expert at the United Ukraine Analytical Center, writes about this in his article for The Gaze. The text of the article can be found below.


Moscow resumes testing a nuclear-powered Burevestnik missile at a test site in northern Russia. The full name of the missile class, namely "intercontinental global-range missile," is indicative of the Kremlin's expectations for the new weapon. It perceives it as a "Wunderwaffe," a miracle weapon.


It is noted that "the nuclear propulsion system allows it to fly for a long period of time, travel at supersonic speeds and have an unlimited range." The story of this missile started many years ago. According to reports, thirteen rounds of tests were unsuccessful, and one of them ended in the deaths of seven people at a test site in the North.


It is unlikely that this development, extracted from the Soviet archives, will become a production weapon. Hence, it is clear why Moscow has again spread the story of the tests. This is an element of Russia's extensive nuclear blackmail of the world, having no other levers left. At the same time, by conducting tests in the North, Moscow is increasing tensions in a very peculiar region. A region with ambiguous borders, for which Moscow has great appetites.


"Russia's Arctic Possessions"

This border is different than in Europe, but it is also terribly mythologized. There is the myth of development in the North and the exclusive merit of the Russians in opening the Arctic to the world. In the Arctic, expansion is still a guiding principle for the Kremlin. In the Arctic's harsh conditions lies something the Russian government and its tame oligarchs love so much. They do not know how to create added value and are used to getting rich by plundering the subsoil, and the Arctic has mineral deposits.


The Russian Federation is purposefully promoting the idea that its "Arctic possessions" reach all the way to the North Pole and occupy a large part of the Arctic Ocean. By doing so, Russia continues the policy of the Soviet-era communists. On globes and maps published in the Soviet Union, the border was marked through the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole.


The marking looked somewhat different from the actual border and was called "the borders of the polar possessions of the USSR." The USSR was tough in the Arctic almost from the moment the Bolsheviks became convinced that their power was not threatened, that there would be no invasion by a "coalition of capitalists." Since the second half of the 1920s, there have been disputes over borders and possession of islands with Norway.


There was a so-called Seal War between the USSR and Norway over the possibility of commercial seal hunting in the White and Barents Seas. The Russians managed to secure Franz Josef Land for themselves. A special place is occupied by the Svalbard archipelago, which belongs to Norway but has a legal status defined by the treaty of 1920 that allows its participants to use the natural resources of the archipelago's islands.


At the same time, Norway undertakes not to use Svalbard for military purposes. Apart from Norway, Russia is essentially the only party to the agreement that is also physically present in the area. Given the economic problems, this presence is being curtailed, there are fewer Russians there, and the coal produced by Russian mines is too expensive. However, the issue is fundamental for Russia.


Despite the fact that Svalbard belongs to Norway, the Russians would be happy to add it to their territorial possessions, and they will find a "historical justification" for it. Most importantly, this place is convenient for Russia's hybrid pressure on NATO, of which Norway is a member. In 2015, Dmitry Rogozin, then deputy prime minister of the Russian government and one of the hawks, visited Svalbard. At the same time, Rogozin had already been subject to Norwegian sanctions for his complicity in the seizure of Crimea. The Russians argue that since they do not need a visa to visit Svalbard, Rogozin had the right to visit as well. As a result, a scandal arose.


What Is the "Russian Arctic"?

Russia has introduced the concept of the Russian Arctic zone, constituting 9 million square kilometers. Only 2.5 million people live there, making it less than two percent of Russian citizens. Moreover, the three largest cities (Murmansk, Norilsk, and Vorkuta) are home to more than half a million people.


Given the harsh Arctic climate, the entire territory is an icy, virtually uninhabited desert. Yet, according to various estimates, 11% to 15% of Russia's GDP and 22% of its exports are generated there. There is a disproportion between the region's economic importance and its population. The economy of the so-called Arctic zone is based on the extraction and processing of minerals, and the vast majority of goods and food are imported.


Russia's military presence in the Arctic is ahead of other countries in the region. It is significant that Russia began reformatting its military component in the Arctic in 2014, the year of Russia's seizure of Crimea. It became clear then that the principles of inviolability of borders enshrined in the UN Charter did not play any role for Russia.


What can we say about the Arctic, where international law leaves gaps that are convenient for the aggressor to exploit? At that time, the Joint Strategic Command Northern Fleet was created "to protect Russia's interests in the Arctic." Preparations began earlier. Military builders were restoring abandoned airfields and military camps.


The Northern Fleet became the basis for the Joint Strategic Command (it was removed from the Western Military District), and military units from the Eastern and Central Districts were added. The euphoria after the seizure of Crimea and the weak sanctions for such a clear violation of the law made Russian dictator Vladimir Putin dizzy. They were clearly going to build on their success.


The Russians were systematically pumping up their military muscle in the Arctic. A special center for training troops and their combat use in the Arctic was created, and special equipment and weapons were developed. The ground component of the troops was being strengthened. In Alakurta (Murmansk Oblast), Russia formed the 80th Separate Motorized Rifle Brigade with appropriate weapons and vehicles, specifically for the Arctic. The aviation of the former Northern Fleet was reinforced by MiG-31 fighters. The Northern Fleet itself has always been viewed as a great danger to the West, even during the Cold War. It consists of nuclear submarines that are part of the nuclear triad and can strike using missiles with nuclear warheads. It also includes a nuclear missile cruiser and the Kuznetsov aircraft carrier with an air group.


That is, in the event of a conflict over Arctic possessions or the shelf, Russia's "Arctic forces" will have a "nuclear club" behind them. There was a lot to worry about. But Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine changed everything. It had to throw units of the "Arctic infantry" into the fire of war. The losses of the aforementioned 80th Brigade were so great that they were regularly mentioned in the media on both sides of the front line. Among the mass of Russian equipment destroyed by the Ukrainian Defense Forces are quite exotic DT-30 all-terrain vehicles designed specifically for the transportation of heavy loads in the North, the photos of the burnt remains of which surprised experts.


The aircraft carrier Kuznetsov demonstrated poor quality during its combat campaign in Syria, and upon its return it was put under repair and suffered a series of fires and disasters. Now it is difficult to perceive it as a real combat unit. That is, the military component of the Russian Federation in the Arctic no longer seems so insurmountable.


A Tempting Shelf

Russia has been waging a systematic and methodical struggle for the Arctic shelf for decades. They defined the principles of this struggle back during Soviet times, based on the presence of polar stations and scientific research on the Arctic Ocean floor. Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1997.


The Russians accompany the struggle for the shelf with appropriate symbolic actions. Usually, they are negatively perceived by other Arctic countries as a demonstration of aggression. This was the case with the installation of the Russian flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole in 2007.


The Russian Federation bases its claims on the results of ocean floor research. They are legalized by filing an application for a specific sector of the shelf with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. This mechanism is provided for by UNCLOS.


It should be noted that the Commission does not define the boundaries but simply assesses the scientific validity of the claims. In the Russian appeal, it is more than a million square kilometers. The Russians argue, citing scientific studies, that the crustal structure of the Lomonosov submarine ridge corresponds to the world's analogues of continental crust, and therefore is part of the adjacent continental shelf of the Russian Federation.


It is significant that the Commission considered this issue after the Russian Federation had seized Crimea and denied its aggression in eastern Ukraine. In its spirit, in 2021, Russia expanded its demands. Canada, Denmark, and the United States have their own interpretations. Denmark believes that the Lomonosov submarine ridge is not a continuation of Eurasia but of the island of Greenland, which belongs to the kingdom. Canada also has evidence that this ridge proves its right to own the shelf. The United States has not ratified the Convention at all.


As the ice cover decreases, oil and gas production in the Arctic may become easier. Just as it may become easier to navigate the Arctic Ocean, tempting Russia with new profits. In its competition for the Arctic shelf, the Russian Federation does not rely solely on law and science. It relies only on the military component and aggressive presence, which are ahead of the competition. Russians consider these to be the components of success in the North. However, Russia's military power is now in question.


Source: "The Gaze"



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