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While the Baltic Sea is becoming a “NATO lake” with Finland’s entry into NATO and Sweden’s upcoming integration, the Alliance seeks to increase its involvement in its Arctic flank. The Arctic region lies at the northern end of the fault line that separates Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community, from the North Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. Although there currently isn’t a NATO strategy for the Arctic, integrating those two new Nordic members should nevertheless bring greater coherence and enhanced flexibility to NATO’s posture on its northern flank. In the new reality of the confrontation below the threshold of conflict between Russia and Western powers, the Arctic region now serves as a secondary theater where extra-regional tensions from the Black Sea and Ukraine are projected. The western outlet of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) could, however, regain its role as a containment and control line for Russian naval activity, structured by NATO around the imaginary maritime line connecting Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom (GIUK), much like during the Cold War.
With the most extensive Arctic coastline stretching over 14,000 kilometres from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait, Russia will now face a “NATO” Arctic Council. The principal naval force in the Arctic, the Russian Northern Fleet – boasting around 25 submarines and approximately twenty surface vessels (aircraft carrier, cruisers, frigates and amphibious ships) – has its headquarters in Severomorsk (within the Murmansk region). Before the conflict, it had undergone a modernization program devised in the late 2000s and implemented since the early 2010s as part of the 2011-2020 armament plan aimed at revamping its surface and submarine capabilities. What is the current status of the situation? Given the altered geopolitical landscape post-February 24, 2022, and the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine, how does the Russian Navy now position itself in the Arctic region? What interests is it supposed to promote and protect in this region? What stance does it adopt amid this context of tensions, and to what extent might the conflict in Ukraine thwart or modify the plans for modernizing the Northern Fleet that Moscow embarked upon nearly a decade ago?
An Arctic Fleet, For What Purpose? Stakes and Perceptions From Moscow’s Viewpoint
The Northern Fleet is one of the five components that constitute the Russian Navy, along with the Baltic, Black Sea and Pacific fleets and the Caspian Flotilla. Together with the Pacific Fleet, it constitutes one of the two strategic naval components responsible for implementing the strategic nuclear deterrence posture. They accomplish this posture through their continuous operational presence at sea, facilitated by their nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). Furthermore, since January 1st, 2021, the Northern Fleet’s organizational status has been organically elevated as it has become a full-fledged military district, and it is on its basis that the Northern Fleet’s Joint Strategic Command has been formed. This regional strategic command is thus added to the existing Western, Southern, Central and Eastern Strategic Commands. However, it is difficult to assess the consequences of the war in Ukraine on this new military district at this time. Last spring, some reports indicated the possibility of placing all Russian naval formations back under the direct command of the Navy General Staff, as was the case until the early 2010s. The integrated commands of the military districts would then lose “control” over the fleet, raising questions about the coordination of ground and air assets for the implementation of the Northern strategic “bastion,” which safeguards the Russian maritime approaches in the Barents Sea. Nevertheless, this development reflects a Russian awareness, prior to the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, of the centrality of the maritime factor in the context of renewed geopolitical competition and conflict that was already taking shape in the region. It is worth recalling that the Arctic was a theater of competition and silent confrontation during the Cold War between American and Soviet nuclear submarines.
The Russian doctrinal corpus on the Arctic has expanded in recent years with the publication of several official documents: the “Strategy of Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation for the period to 2035” (October 2020) and, more recently, the Russian “Maritime Doctrine” (July 31st, 2022) and the new “Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation” (March 31st, 2023). In addition to these documents, there is the older version of Russia’s “Foreign Policy Concept” dating back to 2016, the comparison of which with the recent March 2023 update reveals an elevation in the Arctic’s status among the regional priorities of Russian foreign policy. Finally, let us mention the 2014 “Military Doctrine,” which will likely undergo an update in the near future. Other strategic master plans accompany these documents and focus on key industrial sectors (such as shipbuilding or the energy sector), crucial for developing Russia’s Arctic regions.
Reading these texts highlights a series of challenges Russian authorities identified on the country’s northern flank. One of these challenges involves ensuring free access to what is referred to in Russia as the “world ocean.” This term, with its Anglo-Saxon connotation, refers to bodies of water beyond “near maritime zones” (inland and territorial waters, the exclusive economic zone) and “distant maritime areas” (such as the Mediterranean Sea, for example). This first concern echoes a geopolitical perception prevalent among political and security elites in a landlocked Russian territory. Through its network of bases and naval deployments, NATO would exert pressure on the western outlet of the NSR, which Russian military and merchant vessels inevitably pass through to reach the North Atlantic. In this regard, the geopolitical theory of the “heartland” developed by British geographer Halford John Mackinder in the early 20th century seems to resonate particularly in Moscow. Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, quoted it in an interview on Izvestia in early May 2023 to describe what he believes are Western plans and ambitions concerning Russian territory and its resources.
This brings us to the second challenge identified in these official documents: the assertion of Russian sovereignty over the Arctic region. The Russian “sovereignty complex” is manifested in the Arctic, notably with tensions regarding the modalities of circulation for foreign vessels along the NSR. This posture of Russian sovereignty was reaffirmed during the strategic exercise “Umka-2021” conducted in March 2021, during which three nuclear submarines surfaced on the ice near the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, Russia’s northernmost territory, to the east of the Norwegian Svalbard. Challenges related to the development of Russian Arctic coastal zones are also clearly identified, for instance, in the “Strategy of development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation for the period to 2035”. Apart from the military and energy sector companies, few actors can attract investment and contribute to job creation in these remote and harsh climate areas. The development of the NSR, facilitated by underlying infrastructure projects, is also seen as a means to counteract the depopulation of the Russian Arctic. For example, territories like Primorye in the Russian Far East have lost nearly 16.8% of their population between 1991 and the late 2010s. Finally, the militarization of the Arctic and the importation of extra-regional conflict are regarded as significant security challenges. From Moscow’s perspective, their relevance has been amplified by the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, especially with the entry of new Nordic members into NATO.
Ranked third among regional priorities in the 2016 “Foreign Policy Concept,” the Arctic now takes the second position in the new version of this text published in 2023, just after Russia’s “near abroad.” It is a region where Moscow envisions interests considered vital and where, especially given the substantial energy investments made there and the projects related to the development of the NSR, it adopts a geopolitical posture characterized mainly by maintaining the status quo. This preference for geopolitical conservatism in the Arctic translates into a defensive military posture involving offensive actions, even extending beyond the Arctic region.
The Northern Fleet Before the War: a Compelled Yet Determined and Persistent Modernization Effort
The Northern Fleet has an extensive area of responsibility that encompasses not only Arctic waters but also the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Its units are also occasionally deployed in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, as was the case in 2023 for the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, which visited Cape Town, South Africa (in February), and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (in April). The renewal of its capabilities began with the 2011-2020 armament program, which revitalized the submarine component (with the new Project 955 SSBNs and the new Project 885 cruise missile submarines – or SSGN), while the Project 22350 frigates are expected to form the new backbone of surface capabilities. To this date, the Northern Fleet has received:
- Two new SSBNs from Project 955 and derivative, out of the six admitted to active service since 2013;
- Two SSGNs from Project 885, out of the three admitted to active service since 2014;
- Two frigates from Project 22350.
Simultaneously, the ex-Soviet offshore platforms – the cruiser Admiral Ustinov from Project 1164, the large anti-submarine warfare vessels from Project 1155, the SSGNs from Project 949, the SSNs from Project 971 – are undergoing a rather sluggish modernization program, intended to equip some of them with cruise missile capabilities. Additionally, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is also supposed to undergo a minimal modernization that has, however, turned into quite an ordeal. Its return to active commissioning is still scheduled for 2024. Project 885’s new frigates and SSGNs are equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, and the Admiral Gorshkov frigate even served as a test platform for the hypersonic Tsirkhon missile, which underwent intensive testing during multiple firing campaigns in 2020-2021. This proliferation of cruise missiles – referred to as the “Khalibrization” of the fleet – is one of the structural directions of the new 2018-2027 armaments program, which continues a trend already observed with the implementation of the 2011-2020 plan that prioritized disruptive technologies, especially for the Navy.
Indeed, in addition to the nuclear strategic deterrence carried out by the Delta IV-class SSBNs with their Sineva missiles and the next-generation Borei-class submarines with the intercontinental Bulava ballistic missiles, the Northern Fleet vessels also play a role in the non-nuclear strategic deterrence posture. This role is achieved by the aforementioned platforms carrying long-range cruise missiles (Kalibr, Tsirkon). The growing significance of these munitions deployed on new Russian surface and submarine platforms throughout the 2010s is particularly evident in their involvement during strategic exercises. Thus, during the annual “Grom” strategic exercises, where the nuclear triad is tested, the Russian Navy also conducts cruise missile launches in addition to intercontinental ballistic missile launches. In the 2019 edition of these exercises, the K-560 Severodvinsk (the lead vessel from Project 885) launched a Kalibr cruise missile while submerged. This launch marked the first use of this ammunition in this type of maneuver. This combination illustrates the pre-strategic use of these cruise missiles, which are intended to equip an increasing number of Russian naval platforms. The reduced geographic reach of surface vessels, which is a consequence of challenges encountered in Russian shipyards when producing high tonnage surface vessels, is partially compensated by the extended range of these cruise missiles (up to 2,500 km for the Kalibr). These munitions and their carrying ships also contribute to Russia’s anti-access and area denial strategy in the western outlet of the NSR, where the Northern Fleet is fully integrated.
The War in Ukraine: What Consequences for the Russian Naval System in the Arctic?
Considering the turn of events in Ukraine since February 24th, 2022, the Northern Fleet could face a series of structural challenges. As the war in Ukraine primarily remains a land-focused issue, the Navy should continue to bear the brunt of unfavourable financial trade-offs, which was already the case with the 2018-2027 armament plan. Additionally, Euro-Atlantic sanctions will directly or indirectly impact the defence industrial and technological base, potentially causing delays in program implementation. However, the monopolization and attrition of conventional forces in Ukraine could prompt the Kremlin to rely more on nuclear capabilities in the balance of power with NATO. If this choice were to materialize, it should– at least politically – benefit the Northern Fleet and result in the maintenance of expenditures for its reinforcement.
As the war in Ukraine is, in the opinion of Russian officials themselves, expected to continue, the Northern Fleet is likely to witness an expansion of its mission scope. Thus, on the political level, it appears more crucial for Moscow than ever to “show the flag” on the “world ocean,” particularly among the so-called “Global South.” This mission naturally falls to the Northern Fleet, equipped with high-sea capabilities (former Soviet vessels, Project 22350 frigates such as the lead ship Admiral Gorshkov), enabling it to project its presence as far as Africa and the Middle East, where Moscow’s partners are located (Sudan, Syria, Algeria, etc.) Its role in this mission becomes even more critical due to the confinement of the Black Sea Fleet within the Pontic Basin since the closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits to military navigation by Ankara on February 28th, 2022 (Turkey invoked Articles 19 and 21 of the Montreux Convention on that dates, allowing it to close the Straits to military navigation in times of conflict). Usually, however, the Black Sea Fleet also contributes to Russian naval diplomacy. The frigate Admiral Gorshkov, for example, took part in the trilateral maritime exercise “Mosi” organized by South Africa with the Chinese Navy in February 2023. Furthermore, due to the closure of the Turkish Straits, the Northern Fleet will be more heavily relied upon to maintain the operational Russian naval detachment in the Eastern Mediterranean (typically consisting of about a dozen ships of various types). This detachment usually relies heavily on units from the Black Sea Fleet, which no longer have the capacity to take turns in the Eastern Mediterranean. The involvement of the Northern Fleet appears to be even more crucial, considering that the Baltic Fleet – whose units are also traditionally associated with the Russian Mediterranean squadron’s order of battle – has a low availability rate. Finally, the Northern Fleet ships will likely be tasked with accompanying, or even escorting, several tankers from what the press has dubbed the Russian “ghost fleet.” The vessels in this fleet transport Russian crude oil under Western sanctions and could, if necessary, be subject to interception attempts or, at the very least, intimidation maneuvers by allied navies. In any case, this is a scenario that the Russian Navy could certainly prepare for.
This broadening of the mission spectrum, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and capabilities that are evolving qualitatively, but not necessarily quantitatively, is expected to impact the duration and extension of deployments, which will be required to increase. For example, the frigate Admiral Kassatonov, the second unit of Project 22350, returned to its homeport on March 25th after having been deployed for 422 days. Alongside these challenges related to tensions over the availability of vessels, several persistent technological and capability barriers could qualitatively hinder the missions of the Northern Fleet. The Russian industry continues to work on developing an extender to increase underwater endurance capability for its conventional submarines (the Project 677 submarines are expected to be equipped with such an extender in the future). However, the recent announcement of the order for a new flotilla of 6 Project 0636.3 conventional submarines for the Northern Fleet tends to confirm that the availability of this type of extender is sufficiently doubtful in the medium term. Therefore, the Russian Navy likely feels the need to “bridge the gap” by ordering this type of platform, certainly proven – the Black Sea and Pacific fleets each received a similar batch over the past ten years – but technologically quite dated compared to its potential competitors in the area (the future Norwegian submarines derived from the German Type 212, expected to be operational in the middle of this decade, are of a more recent generation). Furthermore, there are still shortcomings in anti-submarine warfare (ASM), with ex-Soviet platforms undergoing modernization – the Il-38N “Novella” aircraft, equipped with upgraded onboard electronics, and the Ka-27M helicopter. The future of new programs – such as the Ka-65 Minoga helicopter – remains uncertain. In addition, the proposed directions considered for the new airborne platform, based on the Tu-142 equipped with the “Novella” suite, do not appear realistic before the end of the decade.
In short, the Northern Fleet will have to do more with the same resources: safeguard the northern approaches to Russian territory, stand up to NATO in the Arctic, secure navigation along the NSR, and project itself towards the “world ocean” to fulfill an even more demanding range of missions. In other words, its ubiquity will be further called upon, putting the ships and their crews to the test. Such a challenge could lead Russia to consider with greater interest the necessity of having naval footholds – or alternatively, having access facilities to ports for light operations (crew rest, minor maintenance, refilling of fresh water tanks, refuelling, etc.) – in areas it deems of interest (Red Sea, Indian Ocean) to support its fleet’s activities there.