Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Russia in Review: March 15 - 26, 2019

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Reporting Period: March 15 - 26, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

AuthorsNataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio

Key Takeaway: Russia is expanding its economic and military hold over the Arctic in order to preposition for its long-term bid to secure resources, expand its defense posture, and gain strategic advantage over the U.S. and China. The Kremlin is establishing its control in the Northern Sea Route, following its success in claiming sovereignty over the Kerch Strait in the Black Sea in November 2018.

Russia is intensifying its efforts to expand its economic control over the Arctic. Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the development of the major Kharasaveyskoye Gas Field on the Yamal Peninsula in Northern Russia on March 20.[1] The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources submitted a comprehensive plan regarding the Arctic on March 13.[2] The plan included over one hundred projects intended to develop mineral resources in the region as the polar icecaps continue to shrink. Putin is increasingly prioritizing investment in the Arctic as a source of potential future economic growth for Russia.[3] The Arctic currently accounts for 12-15% of Russia’s GDP.[4] Putin signed a decree granting additional authorities over socioeconomic development in the Arctic to the Russian Ministry of Far East Development in February 2019.[5]

The Kremlin is also continuing its military buildup in the Far North. Russian Northern Fleet Commander Adm. Nikolay Yevmenov stated that the Russian Armed Forces would soon finish a new air defense base in the village of Tiksi above the Arctic Circle.[6] Russia has been expanding its military presence in the region in recent years with new military installations, additions to its already-dominant icebreaker fleet, and deployments of area defense systems including the S-400 and Tor-M2DT Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) and Bastion Anti-Ship Missiles.[7] The Kremlin aims to solidify Russia’s position as a dominant power in the Arctic primarily to secure uncontested access to economic resources in the Arctic Circle as well as the Northern Sea Route. Russia will likely expedite this effort in tandem with the release of a new U.S. Arctic Strategy currently set to be presented to the U.S. Congress by June 2019.[8]

Russia is asserting its control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to secure access to future maritime trade and gain strategic advantage over the U.S. and China. Pro-Kremlin Izvestia reported on March 6 that new regulations would oblige foreign military vessels to notify Russia at least forty-five days in advance of their plans for transiting the Northern Sea Route and accept onboard pilots from Russia.[9] The Kremlin has not yet confirmed these claims. Russian officials did previously announce work on legislation to restrict foreign naval access to the Arctic in November 2018, shortly after Russia attacked the Ukrainian Navy in the Kerch Strait connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea.[10] The Russian Parliament also granted Rosatom - the state-owned nuclear energy corporation - vast new authorities to manage and develop infrastructure, security, and trade along the Northern Sea Route in December 2018.[11] Putin has ambitiously ordered his government to achieve an eight-fold increase in annual cargo traffic through the Northern Sea Route by 2024.[12] The route is likely to become increasingly viable for commercial use given the melting polar icecaps, presenting new economic opportunities in global trade to Russia. The Kremlin intends to leverage its control over this emerging route to maximize its future economic benefit and gain strategic advantage over rivals in the Arctic such as the U.S. and China. The Kremlin likely views this effort as part of its larger campaign to expand its influence over major maritime shipping routes around the globe. The Kremlin was emboldened by the lack of response to its violent assertion of sovereignty over the Kerch Strait and will likely continue to contest international waters in the absence of pushback from the U.S. and NATO.

Russia could pursue joint operations with China to achieve its goals in the Arctic. Russia lacks the financial resources to develop the Arctic. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources’ development plan for the region called for investments of 10.5 trillion rubles (roughly $163 billion) drawn from private investment rather than the federal budget. Russia may attempt to secure part of this investment from China. China is a strategic competitor to Russia in the Arctic. It declared itself a ‘Near Arctic Power’ in its 2018 Arctic Policy and identified the ‘Polar Silk Road’ as an extension of its Belt and Road Initiative.[13] China is keen to gain access to the Northern Sea Route to expedite its own shipments to Europe. The Kremlin’s short-term need for investment nonetheless might push it to cooperate (rather than compete) with China in the Arctic. China is a part owner of Russia’s large-scale liquid natural gas facility on the Yamal Peninsula and continues to invest in similar projects in the Far North. Chinese and Russian scientists agreed to cooperate on joint scientific exploration in the Arctic during a symposium in Beijing on March 25.[14] Putin may secure further cooperation during upcoming meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and June 2019.[15] China and Russia’s deepening cooperation could limit the freedom of movement of the U.S. in the Arctic. The U.S. should consider the potential implications of this cooperation as well as the precedent set by the Kremlin’s continued violations of international norms on maritime passage as the Pentagon prepares its updated Arctic Strategy.

[1] "Launch of Kharasaveyskoye Gas and Condensate Field," Kremlin, March 20, 2019, en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60113; “Gazprom Starts Kharasaveyskoye Development,” Oil and Gas Journal, March 21, 2019,
[2] [“Comprehensive Plan - ‘Implementation of the Mineral and Logistical Potential of the Arctic’ - Developed by the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia, Sent to the Government of the Russian Federation,”] Russian Ministry of Natural Resources, March 13, 2019,
[3] Lincoln Edson Flake, “Russia’s Security Intentions in a Melting Arctic,” INSS Military and Strategic Affairs Vol. 6, No. 1 (March 2014),; [“Putin: Russian Priorities in the Arctic Are Unlikely to Change,”] TASS, March 30, 2017, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/4139391; Aleksandr Pilyasov, [“Russian Arctic: State and Perspectives,”] Russian North, March 25, 2019, http://www.rosnord(.)ru/%0Bstrategy/standpoint/65-arktika-rossii-sostoyanie-i-perspektivy.
[4] Pilyasov, [“Russian Arctic: State and Perspectives,”] Russian North, http://www.rosnord(.)ru/%0Bstrategy/standpoint/65-arktika-rossii-sostoyanie-i-perspektivy.
[5] [“Putin Created the ‘Ministry of the Arctic’,”] Vzglyad, February 26, 2019, https://vz(.)ru/news/2019/2/26/966119.html.
[6] [“Military Camp for the Air Defense Forces of the Northern Fleet in Tiksi Is Ready for Occupation,”] TASS, March 13, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/6211255.
[7] Bogdan Stepovoy and Aleksey Ramm, [“Triumph of the Arctic: The S-400 Is Prepared for the Polar Cold Weather,”] Izvestia, January 10, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/822659/bogdan-stepovoi-aleksei-ramm/triumf-arktiki-s-400-gotoviat-k-poliarnym-kholodam; [“The Russian Army in the Arctic Received the S-400 ‘Triumph’ and Pantsir-S Complexes,”] Interfax, December 30, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/644649; “Russia Will Deploy New Missiles to Defend Arctic, Admiral Says,” Moscow Times, March 13, 2019,; [“Security in the Arctic - Our Priority Task,”] Red Star, March 13, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/bezopasnost-v-arktike-nasha-prioritetnaya-zadacha; Sergey Sukhankin, "The Arctic ‘Trilistnik’: Russia’s Bid for Regional Military Superiority," Jamestown Foundation, September 12, 2018,; Atle Staalesen, “Big Upgrade for Russian Northernmost Airstrip,” Barents Observer, September 26, 2018,; Mark Episkopos, “How Russia is Getting Ready for War in the Arctic,” National Interest, December 1, 2018,
[8] Dan Lamothe, “Trump Administration’s New Arctic Defense Strategy Expected to Zero In on Concerns About China,” Washington Post, March 15, 2019,
[9] Aleksey Kozachenko, Bogdan Stepovoy, and Elnar Bainazarov, [“Cold War: Foreigners Are Given Northern Sea Route Passage Rules,”] Izvestia, March 6, 2019, https://iz(.)ru/852943/aleksei-kozachenko-bogdan-stepovoi-elnar-bainazarov/kholodnaia-volna-inostrantcam-sozdali-pravila-prokhoda-sevmorputi.
[10] “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Says,” Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,
[11] “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” Russian State Duma, December 28 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/59539.
[12] [“On the National Goals of the Strategic Objectives of the Development of the Russian Federation for the Period Up to 2024,”] March 16, 2019," Kremlin, March 16, 2019, http://static.kremlin(.)ru/media/acts/files/0001201805070038.pdf.
[13] “China’s Arctic Policy,” Chinese State Council, January 2018,
[14] [“Russian and Chinese Scientists Will Jointly Study the Ocean, the Arctic, and Antarctica,”] TASS, March 24, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/nauka/6252825.
[15] "Xi Jinping Accepts Putin's Invitation to Attend St. Petersburg Economic Forum Next Year," TASS, December 1, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/1033748; "Putin to Visit Beijing on April 26 - 27 for One Belt, One Road Summit," TASS, February 14, 2019, http://tass(.)com/economy/1044615.