Today Russia is wrapping up a massive military exercise in the Arctic. The five-day excursion involved some 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. While the scale and scope of the exercise are clearly impressive, what is less clear is the objective.
Military exercises are generally straightforward affairs with a very direct purpose: Practicing mobilization for war, or creating an excuse to move large forces around without drawing undue attention, or reminding the neighbors that you've got a big stockpile of whoop-ass on their border. One thing military exercises usually aren't is multifaceted. There's not a lot of orders you can issue to a force with 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines that will reliably capture nuance and convey info with a high degree of refinement.
Which is why this particular round of activity is puzzling. When compared to the amount of military force that the rest of the world has deployed in the Arctic, the size of the Russian force is like a 12-gauge, pump-action, sawed-off shotgun at a pool party water-gun fight. The Russians could kick Santa's ass with a force one-tenth the size.
In addition, if you want to use an exercise to rattle sabers at someone, it helps if there's someone there to rattle sabers at. This exercise was mostly confined to areas that Russia owns, far away from any meaningfully contested Arctic territorial claims (those are all underwater, anyway). It's kind of like America calling up all military units east of the Mississippi for a drill simulating the defense against and ultimate repulsion of a massive amphibious invasion of the Florida panhandle.
That said, this is more than just a matter of a game of Kremlin truth-or-dare gone wrong. For starters, there's a whole mess of potential wealth in the Arctic.
"This is where future Russian oil and gas resources are located," Malte Humpert, executive director of the Arctic Institute, said of the region. "Most other areas are peaking and running out. So for Russia it will be important to develop more unconventional sources…. Russia will need to invest $100 billion per year in their oil and gas sector just to maintain their current levels."
Given that the Russian Arctic is roughly five times the size of Alaska with a population of just 2.5 million, the recent string of military bases Russia has stood up there may be less about projecting power and more about establishing control within their own borders. "These are not huge military installations," Humpert said. "They're mostly search-and-rescue Coast Guard installations to show more presence and have domain awareness. To make a statement saying, 'We are aware of our northern areas.'"
Russian military bases in and around the Arctic. Alaska is about 1/5th the size of the continental United States.
In fact, Russia just created a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command on December 1, giving it the same legal status as Russia's other four Military Districts. Thus, this exercise could be seen as a way to stress test not just the command and control capabilities of the new command, but the logistical capabilities of the new network of bases in the North. This, in turn, might not only provide proof of better infrastructure for the oil and gas industry, but could breathe new life into the Arctic shipping route (sometimes called the Sevmorput) which is expected to bring increasing trade and revenue as Arctic ice melts.
Then again, even if there's good reason for Russian investment in its Arctic, activities like this could be counterproductive.
"The new bases may serve as demonstration of Russia's readiness to exercise its sovereignty in the Arctic, but such feats of arms as the air drop of a company of paratroopers near the North Pole hardly make the right impression on potential investors," said Pavel Baev, a security expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Also potentially scaring off the many potential foreign investors needed to sustain $100 billion of investment per year is the new normal of low oil prices, which make Arctic oil and gas exploration harder to justify. Add to that the push toward harsher sanctions by the West, and these military exercises may be economically counterproductive in the extreme.
Failing a clear economic motive, perhaps the objective is political, even if the exercise hasn't been clearly directed against a specific opponent or threat. The High North is a region that is also of great interest to the other seven members of the Arctic Council — America, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway — who all happen to have pushed for sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and Crimea.
This could also be Putin channeling some sort of military-political ancestral memory. He has made a lot of noise about rebuilding Moscow's might; the reasoning may be as simple as the idea that since the Soviet Union deployed significant military force in the Arctic, then Russia should too.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, the Kremlin is saying that this is just a simple internal check to make sure the country's ongoing rearmament program is producing results. But there are easier ways to accomplish that, ways that don't involve 80,000 people freezing their asses off. And besides, that reasoning feels a lot like saying, "I'm not pointing this loaded gun at you — I'm just checking to make sure that I can point it at someone, should that person need to be blown away."
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