This week, the world woke up to yet another demonstration of the Kremlin’s military might. It was not a new powerful bomb, nor a long-range missile, nor a new chemical weapon hidden in a garbage bin of a British suburb, nor a widespread cyber attack disabling the e-government of Estonia.
It was a whale.
A beluga whale approached fishermen boats off the far north coast of Norway, damaged their nets, but eventually turned out to be a friendly animal used to human presence, following the boats and even allowing people to touch it, like a pet. Aside from its unusual behavior for a wild animal, the sea giant had a harness which read “Made in Saint-Petersburg” and included a camera holder. This led Norwegian scientists to believe that the whale was employed by the Russian military.
The strategic importance of Norway
The part of Norway visited by the whale shares a 120 km border with Russia in the Barents Sea and the Arctic – a highly strategic location for NATO security, where Norway and the US are patrolling Russia’s activities. On the Russian side of the border is Murmansk region, home to Russia’s northern fleet, which includes one of the two Russian military centers for training of sea mammals, including beluga whales. More importantly, the northern fleet houses some of the quietest and most difficult to detect Russian nuclear submarines, equipped with long-range cruise missiles.
The strategic location of the Norwegian border is part of the reason why Norway was chosen as a training ground of the latest NATO military exercise in the fall of 2018. The Barents Sea is a gateway for Russia to the Atlantic Ocean, through the bottom of which run optic fiber cables carrying over 99% of data between the US and the EU: a mark of technological progress from a liberalist political theory perspective – a strategic vulnerability for a realist, as the infrastructure can be targeted by Russian submarines. NATO has reported a spike in Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic since 2010 and especially since 2014, with the Alliance members responding with fresh investment in their submarine warfare arsenal.
Russian north fleet is also one of the two major military fleets in the Arctic, together with the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky fleet in the East and a number of smaller military positions. The Arctic Ocean is home to 13% of the world’s conventional oil, 30% of conventional natural gas reserves. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the US have all laid claims to the Arctic, seeking an exclusive access to the resources. With global warming, the Arctic presents an additional opportunity to potential new trading routes connecting North America and Europe to Asia.
Moscow plans for the Arctic
In recent years, the Arctic has become a focus of Moscow’s resurgence rhetoric. In April 2014, the Russian government published a State Program on the Social-Economic Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation, followed by investment in upgrading ports and military bases. At the plenary session of the 5th International Arctic Forum, entitled “The Arctic: Ocean of Opportunity”, Putin announced plans to increase the cargo shipping through the Arctic four-fold by 2025 using the expanding fleet of Russian nuclear ice-breakers and invited FDI into the Russian ports of Murmansk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
More importantly, the Arctic is becoming a focus-point of geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West, as the US and Russia are growing military presence in the region. In his speech, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov addressed Moscow’s military investment in the Arctic as necessary to protect the national interest, noting that NATO military exercises in Norway in the fall of 2018 were targeted against Russia.
What are the odds of a Russia-NATO confrontation?
Although a military attack looks unlikely given the high cost of war in the modern world, a growing military presence is increasing the chances of an accidental clash, which may trigger escalation. So much so that Russian military experts are speculating about a possibility of such an accident in August-September 2019. History holds tragic examples of “accidental” war triggers, including that of the Vietnam War, which, according to the archival evidence released years later, had started with a misinterpretation of a signal by border patrolling boats.
However, the modern history of Russian military aggression and the NATO-Russia relations gives reasons for optimism. In the recent display of Russian muscle-flexing – be it the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the ongoing Russian military intervention in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, Russian attack on Ukrainian vessels in the Black Sea in November 2018, or Russian military operation in Syria since 2015 – every time Moscow emerges victorious in an unequal fight with a much inferior opponent. Even then, the going did not get always easy. The Russian army had to pay a price for a 5-days confrontation with Georgia, where Russia witnessed its technological inferiority in military drones for example, something it has worked successfully to repair since. Similarly, in Ukraine, Russian army suffered important military losses at the high point of escalation in the summer 2014. In Syria, Russia has had to maintain military presence despite of the “mission accomplished” announcement of Vladimir Putin back in 2017. Russian presence scale-down in Ukraine, as it heightened its involvement in Syria, indicating the limits of the Russian professional military human resources, did not go unnoticed by the NATO observers.
The only time Russia faced a military clash with a NATO member was at the Syrian-Turkish border in 2015, which ended with the Turkish army downing a Russian military plane. Despite a vibrant anti-NATO rhetoric, the Kremlin responded with economic sanctions instead of military escalation. This sent a signal that when push comes to shove, facing a NATO army is not something Moscow is ready or willing to endeavor.