Russia builds new military bases in oil-rich Arctic

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SET on restoring the once-formidable Soviet military presence in the highly contested and resource-rich Arctic, the Russian military has begun building new military bases in the region, a Defence Ministry spokesperson said on Monday.

‘On Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt, block-modules have been unloaded for the construction of military camps. The complex is being erected in the form of a star,’ said Colonel Alexander Gordeyev, a spokesperson for the Eastern Military District.

Russia has been talking about militarising the Arctic for years as part of its greater strategy to explore and industrialise the pristine region, which is wealthy in oil and gas and offers a strategic trade route capable of rerouting the global trade flows.

The locations named by Gordeyev are deep into the Arctic circle in the Chukchi Sea, close to Alaska.

President Vladimir Putin in April stepped up his commitment to the region, calling for the creation of a unified command structure to coordinate military operations in the Arctic and create a new government entity to execute Russia’s policy in the region.

Putin sees control of the Arctic as a matter of serious strategic concern for Moscow. Below the Arctic lies vast stockpiles of largely untapped natural resource reserves; estimates vary, but the more optimistic ones put the undiscovered reserves of oil and gas in the Arctic at 13 and 30 per cent of the world’s total, respectively.

Russia has the leading claim for control of the region’s oil, gas and rare metals with its rivals being other ‘polar nations’ – Canada, Denmark, Norway and the US – leading many observers to point at the region as potentially one of the world’s most volatile flashpoints.

The construction of the new Arctic bases, which will be the first new facilities established in the area since the Soviet Union abandoned its Arctic positions in the waning years of the Cold War, marks a milestone in Russia’s development of the region.

Wrangel Island is classified by the Russian government as a nature reserve and was never used by the Soviets as a military base. In late August, the Russian navy carried out an expedition to the island and planted a flag, which Pacific Fleet spokesperson Captain First Rank Roman Martov said ‘heralded the station of the first ever naval base on Wrangel Island.’

Cape Schmidt, on the other hand, saw use during the Cold War as a base for long-range strategic bombers. The Soviet government established airbases throughout the Arctic for its bomber fleet, as this was the closest geographic point to the United States.

The two sets of 34 prefabricated modules being installed on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt will contribute to Putin’s aspirations by giving Russia’s Arctic forces a comfortable home in an unforgiving environment. The base will consist of residential, commercial, administrative and recreational units.

Roman Filimonov, director of the Defence Ministry’s department for state procurement of capital construction said in July that it intends to establish six such compounds in the Arctic ‘to further develop the stationing of ground forces in the Arctic . . . They will be contemporary military communities. We will call them “The North Star” since the shape of the community resembles a star.’

Meanwhile, Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is based out of Murmansk, in the western part of Russia’s vast Arctic territory, is being reinforced with Russia’s newest nuclear attack submarines – the Yasen-class.

The first Yasen, called the Severodvinsk, joined the Northern Fleet in June. With three additional vessels slated to follow her, the Yasen-type submarines will phase out the older Soviet-era Akula and Alfa-class attack submarines.

This will leave Russia with a formidable underwater force to complement the already hard-hitting capabilities of the Northern Fleet. In late August, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird raised the alarm on Russia’s military buildup in the region, vowing that it would not hesitate to defend Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

By the end of 2014, Russia will have moved military units to Kotelny Island, located north of the Sakha Republic in eastern Siberia, and a motorised rifle brigade to Alakurtii, a village in Murmansk oblast, to coincide with deployments to the Franz Josef Archipelago and Novaya Zemlya.

By 2015, Russia hopes to restore the entirety of its former-Soviet defence infrastructure in the region.

Russian state companies Gazprom and Rosneft, which have a monopoly on Arctic oil and gas exploration, have worked since 2011 to begin production in the region.

Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya offshore platform in the northern Pechora Sea shipped the first tanker with 70,000 tons of Arctic-grade oil in April.

But further exploration has come into question due to US and EU sanctions that have curbed sales of equipment for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic to Russia as part of penalties imposed over Moscow’s alleged meddling in war-torn Ukraine.

Gazprom and Rosneft lack the technologies for offshore drilling in freezing seas, which led the former to partner with Royal Dutch Shell and the latter with ExxonMobil and Statoil on their Arctic projects.

Arctic oil exploration is vehemently contested by environmentalists, who say it is unprofitable – with production costs estimated at from $115 up to $700 per barrel – and hazardous for the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem, given the absence of technologies to efficiently clean oil in freezing seas.

Meanwhile enterprises of the Russian defence-industrial complex can create an analogue of the Prompt Global Strike system being developed in the USA, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yuriy Borisov told journalists on Wednesday 10 September.

‘We will have to do it, if it becomes a real threat. But, in the first place, we will develop systems to counter these new types of weapons, because, after all, the main doctrine of our country is defence.

Moscow will analyse in detail the decision taken at the NATO summit to set up a high readiness special-purpose detachment and move infrastructure east and will take relevant measures for the purposes of its own security, the Russian Foreign Ministry has said.

‘Naturally, we cannot remain indifferent to the stepping up of military activity near our borders and will take all the necessary measures to reliably ensure our security,’ Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Aleksey Meshkov said.

‘As regards decisions taken at the NATO summit, including the ones about the setting up of a high readiness special-purpose detachment and the advancement of the alliance’s infrastructure east, we shall analyse them in detail, including in the context of their compliance with the provisions of the Founding Russia-NATO Act of 1997 and of other fundamental treaties and agreements in the sphere of European security,’ the senior diplomat said.

‘We are aware of reports in the media citing statements by the Ukrainian leadership about agreements reached during the NATO summit in Wales on 4-5 September of this year on direct delivery by individual NATO member-states of modern arms to Ukrainian power-wielding bodies,’ said Meshkov.

‘We think that all the questions on this subject, including ones to do with the responsibility for the consequences of such a step for peace in Ukraine, should be put to the source of this information,’ he added.