Russia has upped the ante in the high-stakes competition for domination of the Arctic, announcing recently that crews would soon complete construction of a new military base on an icy island near the North Pole.
"This is the only object in the world being constructed at the 80th parallel north," said the Russian Ministry of Defense in a statement on Tuesday.
The base — a permanent compound of 150,000 square feet called the "Arctic Trefoil" that can accommodate 150 troops — is the latest sign of Russia's intent to play a long game in the region.
Arctic oil and other industries already generate around 20 percent of Russian gross domestic product, according to Heather Conley, a senior fellow and director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. As formerly impassable Arctic ice melts courtesy of climate change, the expanse is likely to yield access to more oil and other resources that could someday be the root of conflicts between nations struggling to fuel their economies, making it a focus of strategic jockeying by countries like Russia and Canada.
"It's already vitally important, and they only see it getting more important in the future," Conley said.
At the same time, the new base appeals to nationalistic Russians who view the Arctic as their Wild West, a place to conquer and tame for the benefit of folks in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Expanding the Russian military presence in the vast Arctic — as well as in Syria and Ukraine, for that matter — helps President Vladimir Putin present himself as a strong leader while the average Russian's quality of life has plummeted along with the price of oil, which has squeezed the country's energy-dependent economy.
Russia's projections of power in the region convey a sense of symbolic dominion that reinforces Putin's authority at home while making his country's Arctic neighbors very nervous. The backdrop has become a setting for simulated war; Russia has routinely launched large-scale military exercises in the region throughout the year. In March, it executed a five-day operation that involved some 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. When NATO did its own Arctic maneuvers in May, a snap check ordered by Putin sent 12,000 troops and accompanying hardware back into the region for drills. By the summer it was fortifying its bases along the Arctic coast. In September, warships from Russia's Northern Fleet practiced landing marine units on Arctic islands.
The new base will help anchor Putin's steady military expansion in the region. Located on Alexandra Land Island almost 1,000 miles northeast of Scandinavia and named after a flower with three leaves, the Arctic Trefoil is plenty symbolic. The 150,000-square-foot base has three wings painted in the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag, which provides Russian media with a vivid emblem of the nation's Arctic reach while reminding anyone who happens to stroll by in subzero temperatures that they are in territory under Moscow's control.
The base has state-of-the-art energy efficient technology that would allow soldiers to spend one and a half years there without resupplying, according to the state-controlled TASS news agency. A second similar facility in the New Siberian Islands archipelago was reportedly near completion last month.
The Trefoil is the latest Russian move to flex its strategic and economic muscles along its northern rim as the United States and countries like Canada and Denmark assert their interests in the region. Russia and Canada have engaged in some territorial chest-bumping in the drive to militarize the Arctic, while Denmark became the first nation to claim ownership of the North Pole outright last December.
It's no secret why everyone is eyeing the region. The US Geological Survey estimates that the region holds around 90 billion barrels of oil, or 13 percent of the world's undiscovered crude, and around 30 percent of its untapped natural gas. Additionally, an iceless Arctic provides a quick shipping route from Asia to Europe and North America as well as room for potentially thriving fisheries, access to valuable deposits of seabed minerals, and more goodies.
Russia has held ambitious military exercises in Arctic and has filed a claim with the United Nations to extend its territory to a 460,000-square-mile section of oil-rich seabed. Those claims are still pending. In another example of the symbolism at play, a Russian submarine placed a Russian flag on the ocean floor to bolster those claims.
It might seem absurd to invest and deploy government resources into a windswept icy wasteland so that 150 soldiers can twiddle their thumbs. But Conley suggested that the Arctic Trefoil reflects the mindset of Kremlin leaders who are preparing for many years into the future, when they might need to protect state-owned drilling rigs or ward off Western naval forces.
"The only way Russia can develop is through the military-industrial complex," she said. "That historically is how it is able to modernize. It's very state-directed."