The Cold War got a little colder this week when more than 50 Russian warships, dozens of aircraft and submarines conducted major war games on Alaska’s doorstep — a troubling development, as such drills have not occurred in the region since Soviet times.
Russia’s navy chief, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, said that elements of the nation’s Pacific Fleet were taking part in the exercise in the Bering Sea, which involved multiple practice missile launches, the Associated Press reported.
“We are holding such massive drills there for the first time ever,” Yevmenov said in a statement released by the Russian Defense Ministry.
He emphasized that the war games are part of Russia’s efforts to boost its presence in the Arctic region and protect its resources, AP reported.
“We are building up our forces to ensure the economic development of the region,” he said. “We are getting used to the Arctic spaces.”
The Russian military has rebuilt and expanded numerous facilities across the polar region in recent years, revamping runways and deploying additional air defense assets, AP reported.
Russia has prioritized boosting its military presence in the Arctic region, which is believed to hold up to one-quarter of the Earth’s undiscovered oil and gas.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited estimates that put the value of Arctic mineral riches at US$30 trillion, AP reported.
Russia’s Pacific Fleet said the Omsk nuclear submarine and the Varyag missile cruiser launched cruise missiles at a practice target in the Bering Sea as part of the exercise.
The maneuvers also saw Onyx cruise missiles being fired at a practice target in the Gulf of Anadyr from the coast of the Chukchi Peninsula, it added.
As the exercise was ongoing, US military spotted a Russian submarine surfacing near Alaska on Thursday, AP reported.
US Northern Command spokesman Bill Lewis said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command were closely monitoring the submarine.
He added that the Russian military exercise is taking place in international waters, well outside US territory, AP reported.
Russian state RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russia’s Pacific Fleet sources as saying that the surfacing of the Omsk nuclear submarine was routine.
It also cited former Russian navy’s chief of staff, retired Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, as saying that by having the submarine surface in the area, the Russian navy may have wanted to send a deliberate signal.
“It’s a signal that we aren’t asleep and we are wherever we want,” RIA Novosti quoted Kravchenko as saying.
Putin’s Arctic priority was exemplified by a daring paratroop drop over the High Arctic in April, CBC News reported.
At a high altitude, Russian paratroopers tumbled from the belly of a giant transport plane into a sky of cotton clouds and then proceeded to fight a three-day mock battle in a winter wasteland.
The exercise on Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago of largely uninhabited islands in the High Arctic, set the defence and diplomatic communities abuzz, particularly in Canada.
The paratroopers jumped from an Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft from a height of 10,000 metres (30,000 feet) and were, according to the Russian Defence Ministry and media, testing new equipment developed for extreme cold weather operations.
“It’s the highest altitude drop we’ve seen,” said Andrea Charron, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
“Once they landed, they completed a three-day combat training exercise, and that is just an incredible feat of human endurance whether you look at it from a military perspective, or any perspective. That is just an incredible display of logistics, courage and ingenuity.”
The Russian military has expanded the number and the scope of its war games in recent years as Russia-West relations have sunk to their lowest level since the Cold War after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, and other crises.