With all that naval power, the quickest way for Russia to surprise the United States would be to steam from the Arctic to the North Atlantic, said Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s really becoming a much more dynamic area,” Ms. Conley said. “It does feel like we’re updating ‘The Hunt for Red October.’”
There is also an eye toward economic benefit, Ms. Conley said: Russia has made no secret of its desire to control a northern shipping lane through the Arctic as ice recedes because of climate change and to expand its oil and gas production.
Over the last five years, 14 airfields have been opened or rebuilt along the Northern Sea Route; three fully autonomous bases have opened on Arctic archipelagoes. Billions of dollars have been spent on fields for gas production on the Yamal Peninsula, where total volumes are estimated at almost 17 trillion cubic meters. The natural gas from the Yamal will ultimately feed the pipeline now being built through the Baltic Sea to supply Western Europe.
Still, with the extreme difficulty of recovering oil and gas north of the Yamal, and the unknowns of tourism and foreign shipping, the economics may not add up for another half-century — if then, said Andreas Osthagen, a senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, near Oslo, and author of “Coast Guards and Ocean Politics in the Arctic.”
Beyond Russia’s need to protect the nuclear deterrent itself, the key to understanding Russian’s keen interest in the Arctic, Professor Zysk said, is to bear in mind what Moscow does not want to do: become directly involved in any extended conflict with NATO. Russia knows it does not have the resources to win that kind of conflict, Professor Zysk said.
For that reason, no matter where a conflict begins, she said, “Russia would do anything to maintain the strategic initiative.” She said, “The information superiority comes here.”