The message to Washington was crystal clear — but in no way surprising.
Given in typical Putin fashion — that is, as a colorful threat — the Russian president issued a stark warning to any world power that seeks to challenge Moscow’s territorial claims in the Arctic.
“Everyone wants to bite off somewhere or to bite off something from us,” Putin said.
“But they should know, those who are going to do this, that we will knock out everyone’s teeth so that they cannot bite.”
Putin punctuated his remarks with a line attributed to the 19th century Russian Czar Alexander III: “Everyone is afraid of our vastness.”
The not-so-subtle retort came after new warnings from Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Reykjavik at a meeting of the Arctic Council where Russia, also a member, assumed the rotating chairmanship of the gathering on Thursday, US News reported.
Blinken had previously questioned the legality of Moscow’s military activity in the far north, as well as new proposed maritime rules.
“The Arctic is a region for strategic competition that has seized the world’s attention,” the secretary said.
“But the Arctic is more than a strategically or economically significant region. It’s home to our people, its hallmark has been and must remain peaceful cooperation. It’s our responsibility to protect that peaceful cooperation and to build on it.”
He stressed the importance of enacting “effective governance and the rule of law” to ensure that the “Arctic remains a region free of conflict where countries act responsibly.”
It appears Russia has done everything but that, over the last few years.
Earlier this week, Russia’s armed forces granted media organizations, including CNN, rare access to its northernmost outpost on the island of Alexandra Land — perhaps as a show of force ahead of the meeting of the Arctic Council.
Once a remote and desolate home mostly for polar bears, temperatures plunge in winter to -43F and the snow only disappears from August to mid-September.
Now, Russia’s Arctic Trefoil base is bristling with missiles and radar and its 3,500-meter extended runway can handle all types of aircraft, projecting Moscow’s power and influence across the Arctic amid intensifying international competition for the region’s vast resources.
Asked whether this also meant Russia’s heavy strategic bombers, like the TU-95 “Bear,” were able to operate from here, Maj. Gen. Igor Churkin proudly confirmed they could.
“Of course they can,” he boasted, pointing to a briefing chart of the base. “Have a look. We can land all types of aircraft on this base.”
Construction on the base was completed in 2017. It lies just 160 miles (257 kilometers) east from the easternmost part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago — right in NATO territory.
The new base is built to house around 150 soldiers and is designed to ensure that Russia’s Northern Fleet can be autonomous and self-sufficient.
Using a state-of-the-art radar station, the commander said troops there frequently track US and NATO and aircraft they deem to be adversarial.
The army also paraded to journalists two powerful coastal defense rockets it has placed on Franz Josef Land, which it says can hit ships or land targets more than 200 miles offshore.
“Just yesterday, we saw a NATO reconnaissance plane. We accompanied it for four hours by transmitting all the information to the higher command centers, the positions of the plane and its trajectory, in which direction it was heading,” Churkin said. “The enemy will not go un-noticed.”
In 2007, Russian divers in a submersible planted a Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean seabed at the North Pole.
The move was criticized by then Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, who said: “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’ “
The flag-planting may have been a symbolic move, but since then Russia has been methodically strengthening its airfields and bases at multiple locations on its Arctic coast.
The main reason for the increase in tensions in the Arctic is global warming. As temperatures rise and the polar ice caps melt, more of the Arctic is becoming accessible both for military operations and economic activity.
Russia quickly realized its far north would soon become a new frontier, so has developed a major strategy to develop the area.
That rests on three main pillars: military strength, domination of the Northern Sea Route — an increasingly viable trade route as the polar ice further recedes — and the exploitation of natural resources like gas and minerals.
Putin has cited estimates that put the value of Arctic mineral riches at US$30 trillion.
Moscow has already built a liquid natural gas installation and shipping facility on the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia.
The project relies heavily on cooperation with China, which has also been eyeing up the newly accessible region. Beijing even declared itself a “near Arctic State” in 2018 much to the dismay of the United States.
Most recently, Russian submarines simultaneously broke through Arctic ice during a choreographed and much publicized military exercise in late March – a sophisticated maneuver designed to show exactly that, while the Arctic is the new frontier, the Russians are playing for keeps.
“President Putin has taken a personal interest in developing Arctic infrastructure,” says Andrew Holland, Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate and Arctic expert at the American Security Project, a Washington DC-based think tank.
As such there is an important public diplomacy and relations side to these projects. “[Russia is] demonstrating to their people and to the world that the Russian military is strong, active, and willing to act.”
A less benign reason is however often left unsaid in current reporting, according to Holland.
“The buildup pursues a classic A2/AD, Anti-Access/Area Denial, strategy. Most of the military equipment being put in these bases is not infantry (even though they’re the ones that get the press coverage), but SAM (Surface to Air) missile batteries, radars, refurbishments of runways for fighter planes, and even anti-ship surface missiles.”
In addition Holland suspects a significant increase in sonar listening devices and electronic surveillance.
Russia’s dour Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has rebuffed Western criticism of Russia’s Arctic expansion and bristled at what he described as Norway’s push for a stronger NATO presence there.
“We hear whining about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic,” Lavrov said.
“But everyone knows that it’s our territory, our land. We bear responsibility for the Arctic coast to be safe, and everything our country does there is fully legitimate.”
Sources: US News, CNN, Stars & Stripes, High North News