Russian national security

Invaded three times by Western powers in the space of less than 150 years, with many millions of its citizens dead as a result, Russia is arguably one of the most peace-loving nations in the world. But it is also one of the most fearful, harbouring immense mistrust of any foreign power that might potentially pose a threat to its national security.

Fear of naval attack

In the eyes of Russian strategists, the retreat of the Arctic's ice potentially offers a would-be aggressor a gateway through which to attack. American or Chinese warships could hypothetically launch an assault in the east, through the Bering Strait, or from the west, using bases in Greenland, Iceland and Norway to sail towards the Russian mainland through seas that have historically always been thick with pack ice. A worst-case scenario would be a multiple simultaneous attack from several directions, something that the Russians have feared for centuries. These assaults could come from the west, in the same spirit as Napoleon, Tsar William and Hitler; from the east, following the same path that the Mongol-ruled Tatar cavalry hordes had taken around the year 1240, devastating the country and subjecting it to their overlordship until roughly 1480; and through central Asia in the south, where the forces of the once mighty Ottoman Empire had for centuries posed a dire threat.26

The strength of these fears emerged during the Cold War. Soviet military experts were convinced that the Bering Strait was vitally important because 'strategists from the Pentagon have always considered Alaska, which lies in the Soviet Union's immediate vicinity, to be an important staging area for launching aggression in this region . . . [it is] the Gibraltar, the eyes and the ears of the Arctic'.27 Other analysts warned that 'the control of straits and strait zones enables naval forces to manoeuvre rapidly between theatres, and to interdict the movement of [enemy] . . . ships to other areas of sea or ocean'. Their warnings prompted the Kremlin to draw up contingency plans to mine the Bering Strait and the Canadian archipelago in the event of any war with NATO.28

There have also been a few occasions when the worst fears of Russian strategists even seemed to be realized. During the political turbulence that followed the revolution of 1917, for example, a number of foreign countries undertook expeditions through the Bering Strait as if to take advantage of the ensuing chaos. In 1924, a team from the United States travelled to the Chukchi Peninsula and put up a sign that seemed to claim part of the region as sovereign American soil.29 Since then there have also been disputes between Russia and the United States over some of the islands that lie further along the Russian coast. While the British and Canadian governments both dropped their territorial claims over Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea long ago, in recent years some American press commentators, and even some politicians, have openly urged the United States government to reactivate old claims not only to this but also to a number of other islands along the shores of northern Russia, including Herald, Jeannette and Bennett Islands. All of these were discovered and formally taken into possession by the United States, which did not formally surrender its right to them - even if that right was never pressed - until a maritime boundary agreement was struck with Russia in 1990.30 The mere possibility that the United States had any legal right to press over islands in these seas can only have inflamed Russia's historic fears of foreign attack.

The Kremlin was equally concerned about the possibility of a NATO assault from the west. During the Second World War the Germans had tried and very nearly succeeded in cutting off the Baltic sea lanes and Allied shipping that sustained the Russian war effort: in 1942, despite the immense difficulty of sailing into ice-laden seas, the German ship, Admiral Scheer, even managed to sail into the Kara Sea and succeeded in sinking the Russian icebreaker, Sibiryakov. Moscow was later convinced that its Cold War enemies would prioritize the elimination of its fleet and attack its northern coasts. Russian planners always responded quickly to match NATO's efforts to build up its naval presence in the northern Atlantic and the Norwegian seas, and in the event of war would probably have tried their utmost to seize the Svalbard islands on the pretext that the United States had already broken the ninth article of the Spitsbergen Treaty, which guarantees the demilitarization of the archipelago.31 Svalbard would be particularly important to the Kremlin's defensive strategy because its possession would allow the Russians to attack any regional enemy from behind.

One place that both Russian and American strategists are likely to emphasize in the coming years is Greenland. The east coast of this vast land mass would make a very convenient staging post both for any would-be attacker against the Russian mainland and also for a Russian navy seeking to dominate the northern Atlantic. During the Cold War Soviet commanders wanted to set up military installations at the Station Nord runway on the east coast of Greenland in order to establish an extended protective zone over the Kola Peninsula, where many important military installations are still based. Its importance can also be measured by an offer that the Kremlin made to NATO in 1987: we'll discontinue work on a major radar system in central Asia, said the Russians, if you agree not to modernize the ballistic early warning system that is based at the vast American air station at Thule.32

Much closer to home is another area that will be a source of particular concern for Russian strategists in the coming years. These are the waters that stretch along its northern shores, through which international shipping may have a right to cross unimpeded. During the Cold War, American submarines sometimes moved into these waters illicitly, carrying out daring intelligence missions during which they penetrated the Sea of Okhotsk and even entered the harbour at Vladivostok. But it is possible that as the ice continues to retreat, maritime traffic will have a right to cross the entire Northern Sea Route. Moscow has always regarded this as a national transport route running, in part, through 'internal waters' that are fully under Russian control and jurisdiction. But other countries could still claim that, like the Northwest Passage, it is really 'an international strait' through which they therefore have a right of 'transit passage', even though this would barely be plausible for the obvious reason that the route has hardly even been previously 'used'.33 More importantly, they could argue that they have a right of 'innocent passage' through Russia's economic zone as well as freedom of navigation over the high seas that lie beyond. During the Cold War, Moscow implicitly recognized the high seas status of the Kara, Laptev, East Siberian and Chukchi Seas and could not stop foreign ships from moving freely though their waters.

But besides opening up a path towards Russia that a future aggressor can follow, the melting of the Arctic's ice will also offer Moscow some strategic benefits.


On 11 October 1904, a ragbag fleet of 42 ships set sail from the port at Reval in the Baltic Sea. Led by Rear Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvensky, the 12,000 crew members knew how arduous the forthcoming few months would prove to be as they made their way halfway around the world to engage an enemy whose audacity, speed and fighting skills had taken their fellow Russians in the Far East by complete surprise.

Almost exactly as Rozhdestvensky had planned, it was not until the following summer, after more than 7 months of constant sailing in often atrocious conditions, that he and his men finally caught sight of the Japanese fleet, which launched a devastating onslaught against them on 27 May. The scale of the Russian defeat was perhaps hardly surprising given the distances they had sailed, for they had completed a gruelling 21,000-mile journey that had taken them around the east coast of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean and then the South China Sea. Another, smaller force led by Admiral Felkerzam had taken a shorter route through the Suez Canal, but even that journey was still lengthy and arduous, exhausting the crew while giving Admiral Togo's fleet ample time to prepare for battle.34

It is easy to see why successive rulers of Russia have long been haunted by nightmares about their national security. Most obviously, the country is such a vast landmass that moving men and materials in time of war presents a virtually insurmountable logistical challenge: the distance from St Petersburg to the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok is 6,500 miles, one that covers 11 time zones. But what makes the challenge of defending Russia's Far Eastern territories so much more daunting is not just the distance involved but their accessibility. True, the Russian government had constructed a trans-Siberian railway in the mid-nineteenth century along which a steady stream of soldiers and supplies could flow. But these supplies did not help reinforce the Pacific fleet if it was outnumbered, outgunned or, as in the case of the Russo-Japanese war, completely annihilated. In this scenario, a relief column like the one led by Admiral Rozhdestvensky in 1904-05, would have to undertake, and survive, a long and arduous trek that took them halfway round the world. This was for the simple reason that a much shorter and more direct journey, along the Northern Sea Route, through the Barents Strait and Sea and then southwards into the Sea of Japan, was blocked by ice for most of the year.

In an age of long-range missiles and warplanes, it is of course questionable that moving a fleet from one part of the world to another is of more than peripheral importance. But in the light of such bitter tragedies and national traumas, such as the annihilation of Rozhdestvensky's Baltic Fleet, it is easy to understand why Russian strategists might assign so much importance to the melting of the Arctic's ice. For the opening up of a sea route along its northern coasts and through the Bering Strait makes their Far Eastern territories much easier to defend, just as one of the first goals of a national enemy, in the event of any future war, would be to try and close it off. After the war, in 1905, the Russians started to explore the possibility of establishing a maritime route along their northern coasts and sent out more scientific expeditions to determine the viability: in 1914-15 the explorer Vilkitsky crossed the entire Northeast Passage for the first time, making important hydrographical findings, while at the same time the Russian government built a number of radio-telegraph stations along the way.35 This was also why, during the Cold War, Soviet naval strategists emphasized that 'since warfare of the future . . . may take on a global scope, various types of naval forces will need to manoeuvre between ocean theatres of military action. The role of straits such as the Bering Sea, the Drake Passage, the straits of the Canadian archipelago and others which have almost never before been utilized in maritime warfare will then be considerably enhanced'.36

The true importance of the Arctic Bridge to Russian strategists becomes fully clear in the light of such historic fears. By contrast, relying on the Suez Canal is much more risky. It is not only longer but also highly vulnerable to disruption: the closure of the canal after the Six-Day War in 1967, for example, forced Soviet supplies to North Vietnam to take the long route around Africa. The alternative journey along its northern coasts must now seem all the more important to Moscow at a time when China's economic and political strength has grown so dramatically and its government has started to assert itself on the world stage so emphatically.

These historic fears explain why the Russians are now not only closely monitoring ice levels in the region, gauging how navigable these routes are, but also sending signals to other powers, most obviously the United States, to respect their national interests there. So one of the places that Russian planes fly provocatively close to, 'buzzing' local air defences, is the Bering Strait.37 The significance of this area emerged in August 2007, when President Putin proclaimed that this old Cold War practice was resuming and the Kremlin announced that 12 strategic bombers, all giant Tupolev 95 aircraft, would practise firing cruise missiles during a show-of-strength exercise over the Arctic. Revealingly, some of the bombers took off in the vicinity of the Bering Strait and then encircled the region, as if warning Washington and Ottawa to respect Russia's interest in the region rather than building up their military presence close to hand.

Russia's traditional fears of foreign attack help to explain not only its interest in developing a Northern Sea Route, while proclaiming it to be 'situated within its inland seas, territorial sea or exclusive economic zone', and warning other powers to keep their distance, but also in carving out new territories in the Arctic region.38 If Moscow can prove that its continental shelf extends beyond the 200-mile limit of its existing economic zone, then it can stake its claim over an area that, at some future point, another country, perhaps hostile to Russia, might be able to illicitly seize for itself. This would realize the worst fears of Kremlin strategists, who in this situation would have yet another frontline - a northern naval front - with which to contend.

The depth of these strategic concerns became clear from an editorial that was written in Pravda in 2005:

It has recently transpired that the US administration plans to launch an extensive invasion in the Arctic region . . . the USA particularly plans to build airbases in Alaska while US oil giants intend to develop the Arctic shelf. To mask the intrusion and make it look like a peaceful initiative, the USA would be ready to render humanitarian assistance to Russia to improve the living standard of "the impoverished northern nations of Russia" . . . it is obvious that the development of the USA's new objective in the Arctic region will be conducted within the scope of the nation's ambition to dominate the world. This intention is officially registered in the US National Security Strategy. The document entitles Washington to possess all necessary resources to influence the situation in all key regions of the globe. The Arctic has become one of such regions.39

And when in January 2009, NATO released a short report on the Arctic, the Russian newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta claimed that the region was all set to become the setting for Western military adventurism. 'It is clear that without the military component, the foreign policy strategy of the alliance will not succeed', as journalist Yevgeney Shestakov wrote. 'If it does not happen now, it will definitely happen in the near future.'40

A danger of conflict

Serious diplomatic tensions could arise if foreign ships try to exercise their 'right of innocent passage' by moving unescorted and without Moscow's permission through seas that Russia has long regarded as its own 'internal waters'. Given their strategic importance to Moscow, the melting of the Arctic's waters could create a danger of conflict if vessels also sail through areas of high seas, or Russia's territorial sea and exclusive economic zones, at a time or in a way that fuels mistrust between capitals, convincing the Kremlin that it faces an imminent assault and prompting it to launch a pre-emptive attack.41

If NATO warships had made their way through Russia's territorial sea and along the Northern Sea Route during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, then the Kremlin could easily have assumed the worst. Perhaps the most extreme Cold War example of the consequences of such mistrust is the nuclear catastrophe that nearly took place in November 1983, when Soviet chiefs became convinced that NATO

was about to launch an attack on the Warsaw Pact and stood on the very verge of pressing the button.

There are at least two different interpretations of the 1982 Convention that might come into conflict. The Russians could argue that if any ship moves through the 'territorial seas' that surround its coastline then they are entitled to have prior notice. This was one argument pitched by Moscow in 1965, when the American ship, Northwind, tried to make its way through the Vilkitsy Strait, which is less than 24 miles across at its narrowest point and therefore forces a ship to pass within 'territorial sea', which extends up to 12 miles from the coast.42 Under Article 234 of the 1982 Convention, which currently gives all of the 'Arctic Five' stronger powers over any ships passing 'within the limits of the exclusive economic zone', this would be a very valid claim. But if the ice continues to retreat along the Northern Sea Route, then it would not be covered by this article, which only applies to 'ice-covered areas'.43 But the Russians could also claim that the Northern Sea Route sometimes traverses its 'internal waters' and they are therefore entitled to bar foreign ships from passing altogether if they so wish.

If Moscow does win its legal battle to declare some of these seas as its own 'internal waters', then Washington might try to counter argue that they were previously 'used for international navigation', as the 1982 Convention demands, and are therefore a 'strait' through which foreign ships have a right of 'transit passage'.44 This would really have a very dubious, probably non-existent, legal basis, but it is possible to imagine a United States administration with unilateralist leanings taking its own independent view. In such a hypothetical scenario, Washington lawyers could perhaps point to a number of missions that American submarines made to the region during the Cold War. Some of these journeys were made secretly while others were quite open. The USS Queenfish, for example, was sent to the Siberian continental shelf in 1970 to test satellite navigation in shallow waters, while other scientific experiments were conducted under the ice of the Chuckchi Sea in 1958.45 Since starting a special research programme in 1951, the United States also despatched manned drifting stations to 'navigate' the Arctic.46

Other risks could include American attempts to use submarines to test Russian defences, or to gather other intelligence. It is possible that, during the Cold War, both the USS Skate and Nautilus made their way through Soviet waters en route to and from the North Pole to undertake missions like these. (Details of their precise paths have never been released.) Decades on, the Russians certainly remain highly sensitive about the security of some of their northern shipyards, and sometimes still accuse foreign intelligence services of trying to infiltrate them.47

There could also be strong disagreements, or misunderstandings, between Russia and other countries over what constitutes a 'warship', whose innocent passage through areas of Russia's territorial sea has long been disputed by Moscow. The passage of the Edisto, Eastwind and Northwind along the Northern Sea Route was made all the more controversial because, under Soviet domestic law, icebreakers were classified as warships.48 In the same way, the heightened presence of Russian ships traversing the Bering Strait and making their way through the Canadian archipelago to guard their borders in the Far East could seriously alarm the Americans, convincing Washington that Russia has some agenda to dominate this strategically vital and resource-rich area.

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