Russian military moves in the Arctic worry the U.S. and NATO

In late May, Russian ambassador at large Nikolai Korchunov informed state media that the situation in the Arctic was becoming perilous. He wasn’t referring to melting polar ice due to climate change. Instead, he warned of “a very disturbing trend that is turning the Arctic into an international arena of military operations,” and blamed NATO for expanding its footprint in the region.

“That’s a typical Russian play,” retired Finnish Maj. Gen. Pekka Toveri told Yahoo News. “Western activities in the Arctic have been very mild.” In March, however, NATO held “Exercise Cold Response” in Norway. With 35,000 fighters from 28 countries, it was NATO’s biggest Arctic exercise in 30 years. Yet the alliance, unlike Russia, has no new plans for permanent forces or military bases in the region, Toveri said, while acknowledging that “more patrolling and more exercises have given Russia reason to point the finger and claim the West is the problem.”

Western experts say that Russia, the largest of the seven countries surrounding the Arctic, is behind the militarization in the mineral-rich region, which supplies 20% of Russia’s GDP. For the past decade, the Kremlin has been revamping shuttered Soviet bases, forming a necklace of dozens of defensive outposts (by some counts upwards of 50) from the Barents Sea to territories near Alaska, and building new facilities like the ultra-modern Trefoil, its northernmost base that became fully operational last year. The U.S. and NATO have looked on in consternation as Russia has established a new “Arctic command” and four new Arctic brigades, refurbished airfields and deep-water ports, and keeps launching mock military attacks on Nordic countries in between jamming GPS and radar during NATO exercises. It has also, according to the U.S. State Department, been trying out “novel weapon systems” in the Arctic.

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“We’ve seen increased Russian military activity in the Arctic for some time,” a senior State Department official told Yahoo News. However, the situation is ratcheting up, and not just because Russia keeps testing new hypersonic weapons in the Arctic, launching a hypersonic missile there just days after Korchunov made his remarks. Before the year’s end, the State Department official added, Russia plans to launch 19 more tests, including of new weapons. “Seeing Russia’s aggressive and unpredictable behavior, particularly since the Ukraine invasion, has really heightened concerns about Russian activity” in the high north, the official said.

With relations between Moscow and Western governments the iciest in decades due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, analysts wonder if the Arctic will become the next powder keg. Russia’s expansion of bases, weapons testing and boosted manpower in the Arctic comes as Finland and Sweden have applied for NATO membership. If accepted, that would further isolate Russia in the Arctic, making it the only non-NATO country in the region, further boosting the chances of unintended incidents, analysts say.

Author of the recently released report “The Militarization of Russian Polar Politics,” Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, told Yahoo News that his biggest fear is a nuclear mishap in the region.

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