Emerging Threat: As the Arctic Melts, Russian Plans to Militarize Could Create a Nuclear Hotspot

By Jasmine Owens

New opportunities are arising for various countries as climate change devastates the Arctic. However, Russia has already begun to stake its claim by increasing its military presence in the region.

The Arctic is experiencing momentous transformations as climate change wreaks havoc in the region. It is warming at twice the rate than the rest of the world. This is creating a positive feedback loop: as the temperatures rise in the Arctic, the sea ice that used to reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere is melting more, which causes the darker ocean water or land to absorb more light and thus increases the temperatures in the region. Due to the rising temperatures, the Arctic is predicted to be completely ice-free during the summer by 2050, even if significant international action is taken now to reduce carbon emissions. There is also a major concern that over time, the Arctic will lose all ability to produce ice, leaving it ice-free year-round.

Russia & Climate Change

However, the effects of climate change in the region are not limited to the Arctic. Russia has been warming at a rate of 2.5 times faster than the entire planet since the mid-1970’s. Large parts of Russia are- and will continue to be- greatly impacted by climate change.

On 4 June 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in northern Siberia after more than 20,000 tons of diesel leaked into the Ambarnaya River nearby Norilsk city. The oil spill occurred after the collapse of a fuel tank at the Norilsk Nickel site due to melting permafrost. This oil spill is one of the largest spills in Russian history. It is expected to take at least 10 years for the local ecosystem to recover.

Recently, intense wildfires have been ravaging Siberia, burning through an area larger than the size of Greece. The wildfires are expected to exacerbate the effects of climate change in the area.

A special report released by the National Intelligence Council concluded that although Russia has already begun feeling the effects of climate change, by 2030, the effects will be magnified. The study outlined the various ways that climate change will impact Russia’s energy, water and agricultural resources, as well as the consequences for migration and the intensification of existing socioeconomic and sociopolitical issues.

The responses to the ever-increasing consequences of climate change by Russian leaders have been mixed. The Russian government  released a low carbon development plan in March that made promises to cut some emissions, but not enough under the Paris Agreement.

Yet top Russian leaders, including President Putin, have expressed that these effects brought about by climate change can actually be good for Russia. Already, the Russian government is planning to “use the advantages of climate change” to take advantage of polar hydrocarbon reserves that have been made available due to melting sea ice.

An extensive report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies detailed how Russia plans to utilize the melting of the Arctic to further its own national security interests. According to the report, there are three overarching goals of Russia’s military presence in the Arctic: to boost defense along its northern border, especially as interest in the Arctic begins to rise due to ice melt and potential new passageways; to protect its economic future; and, to establish a stage upon which it can project power.

Arctic Territory & Russia’s Nuclear Posture

The main issue lies with the fact that Russia views the Northern Sea Route (NSR), its maritime passage, as a domestic passageway, while other countries see it as an international passageway. As Russia increases its control over the area, tensions will surely rise as other countries seek to use the passageway as well. China has already expressed interest, creating plans for a “Polar Silk Road” once the Arctic becomes ice free.

Tensions may also escalate due to the NSR’s proximity to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Parts of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and second-strike capabilities are stationed in the Arctic. These are under control of the Northern Fleet, which provides protection for Russia’s nuclear and non-nuclear military assets in the Arctic.

Russia is already increasing its presence in the region in accordance with the assertion that the NSR is Russian territory. It has conducted tests for new Arctic-based hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered underwater drones. This has been a cause for concern, especially for the United States, which worries about the presence of these new technologies in the region given the cold relationship between the United States and Russia. 

Russia also possesses almost 40 icebreakers with more on the way, making it the largest fleet of icebreakers in the world. These fleets not only protect Russia’s coastline but also serve as a scientific platform and monitor commerce throughout the NSR.

Additionally, Russia has given its nuclear agency Rosatom partial control over the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in the Arctic, and limited traffic from foreign warships without proper notification protocols.

As Russia increases its military and nuclear presence in the Arctic, it will become increasingly difficult for other countries to utilize the region without conflict arising. It is important to watch this region as climate change persists, to see how Russian actions in the name of national security will influence broader international security.

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis


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