Russia has raised the stakes in the international scramble for the Arctic by announcing it will boost its military presence in the region to protect its “national interests”.
The defence ministry said naval vessels would be sent to the Arctic Ocean, which is believed to be home to 25 percent of the world’s untapped energy resources, as part of a Summer training zone.
Gen Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the combat training directorate, stated that Russia had “highly trained military units” prepared for Arctic warfare.
He revealed that Russia would expand its naval presence in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as part of a strategy to flex the country’s growing military might on the world stage.
“The summer training programme envisions the increased presence of the Russian navy not only in the Atlantic but also in the Arctic and the Pacific,” Gen Shamanov said. “We are also planning to increase the operational radius of the Northern Fleet’s submarines.”
The West has become increasingly concerned by Russia’s determination to flex its military muscle in international waters and airspace.
Disquiet over the Kremlin’s intent in the Arctic is likely to grow still further after Gen Shamanov, a prominent military hawk who was accused of war crimes in Chechnya, suggested that the focus of Russia’s military strategy would shift towards “protecting national interests” in the Arctic.
Russia had the capability, he said, to defend its claim to roughly half of the Arctic Ocean – including the North Pole.
“We have a number of highly professional military units in the Leningrad, Siberian and Far Eastern military districts which are
specifically trained for combat in the Arctic regions,” he said.
Russian assertiveness in the sensitive region was again on display yesterday when Nato jets shadowed two Russian bombers, designed for anti-submarine warfare, on a reconnaissance mission close to the North Pole.
While the Kremlin attracted international criticism after a titanium Russian flag was planted on the sea bed underneath the North Pole last year, other countries with an Arctic shoreline have been accused of playing an equally aggressive role in militarizing the region.
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, last year ordered military ships to the Arctic amid growing tensions with both the United States and Russia over competing territorial claims in the region.
Russia, the United States and Canada have also announced plans to build nuclear icebreakers to defend their Arctic interests.
US naval vessels and British nuclear submarines held joint war games in the Arctic Ocean last year, a development that aroused suspicion in Moscow.
The five nations with Arctic Ocean coastlines – Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway – all have sometimes overlapping claims to Arctic territory that exceeds maritime borders fixed by international law.
A United Nations commission has been established to study the legitimacy of the claims. The issue has taken on added urgency as global warming causes the ice in the Arctic to melt, thereby raising the realistic prospect of harnessing the ocean’s energy treasure trove for the first time.
Russia, already the world’s largest energy producer, has the longest coastline of the Arctic nations and therefore has filed the biggest claim.
Despite occasional outbreaks of imperialist rhetoric, the Kremlin has consistently promised not to colonize the Arctic unilaterally and has pledged to abide by international adjudication on its territorial rights in the region.