Episode 14. War in the Arctic (Russia's Hypersonic Missile Program)
The coldest battlefield in the world is opening up, and old regional rivalries are beginning to flare up. This is moving trade routes from the US's backyard toward the Russians. A battle is about to begin for the far North, but only one side is really prepared. Russia is rolling out Arctic divisions, new bases and groundbreaking new missiles which threaten the US naval dominance across the world's oceans. Are these new missiles going to make carriers obsolete or are they just the next step in the rapidly changing landscape? We pose this question to our panel of experts.
Director of the Central Asia Program at George Washington University
Director of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Think Tank
Co-Director of PONARS - Eurasian Institute
Author of over a dozen books on Russian geopolitics and issues
PhD in Political Science from the University of Geneva
Master’s in History and International Development from the French Institute in Paris
Senior Analyst for the RAND Corporation specialising in Russia and Arctic Affairs.
Professor of Russian and Soviet History at Colby College
Specialist in science and technology developments in Russia
Professor of Naval Studies, Strategic Studies, and International Relations at University of Calgary.
Part 1: Open for Business (1:40)
According to Marlene Laurelle, the two biggest changes in the arctic are ecologically, climate change, and politically, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent formation of the Arctic Council. The former is creating a great deal of ‘space’ in the arctic, as areas previous blocked year round by sea ice slowly open first seasonally, and eventually permanently. This is creating new sea routes along the Russian and Canadian coastlines, and making resource extraction in these regions more economical.
We discuss the implications that the emergence of a new, potentially critical sea lane running almost entirely within Russian territorial waters would have in relation to the traditional American stance on Freedom of navigation.
Russia has also begun a program of re-assertion in its far north, rebuilding former military bases and civil infrastructure and exploring resources. The opening of the northern sea route could also allow for Russia to found and sustain new cities (such as Norilsk) in the far north, without being restricted by the established route of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
We also explore China’s growing interest in the arctic, considering itself (to the bemusement of other states) a “near-arctic power”. Laurelle considers its main motivations to be its general ambition to be a great power, interest in the resources that the region could offer, and the ability to reduce its reliance on the Indian Ocean/Southeast Asian Sea lanes. Its efforts have been limited to soft power so far, investing in Iceland and expanding scientific expeditions and investments.
Part 2: Old Goals for New Times (19:50)
During the Cold War, both the USSR and USA kept a careful eye on the arctic, as it represented the shortest and fastest route for a ballistic missile strike, and was the site of major Soviet (and now Russian) naval installations. With Stephanie Pezard we discuss Russia’s strategic armaments posture in the arctic, its ‘naval bastion’, and its modern research and development programs.
We explore the peculiar case of Svalbard, an archipelago formally owned by Norway, but which, due to a 1920 Treaty, freely accessible to anyone (barring military personnel), which has become home to a sizable (now majority) Russian population.
Russia has never been shy to flex its military muscles in ostensible defence of ethnic Russians, and has publicly criticised aspects of the Treaty. Norway has always considered Svalbard to be covered by Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, but has also taken steps to avoid conflict with the local Russians, both of which reduce the likelihood of a military crisis.
After the Cold War, American interest in the Arctic waned almost to nothing, but beginning with the Obama Administration, America has begun to consider Arctic policy again.
Then Secretary of Defence Pompeo spoke openly and critically of both Russia and China’s stances and activities there, but as of now, little concrete action has been taken.
Part 3: Waking the Bear (33:41)
Soviet/Russian military concerns in the arctic circle date back to Allied interventions during the Russian Civil War, when British and American troops occupied Archangelsk in support of White Russian forces.
Paul Josephson explains for us the history of Soviet/Russian naval activity in the arctic, and how the current efforts to modernise this capability are proceeding.
The Russians are investing heavily in nuclear powered options, both in terms of icebreaker vessels and floating power plants to support growing settlement and resource extraction in the far north.
The desire to strengthen and establish resource corridors in the region dating back to the Stalin era.
Part 4: Flipping the Table (43:42)
With Rob Huebert we explore the developments in strategic weapon systems, Hypersonics and the ‘Skyfall’ nuclear-powered cruise missile. He explains for us the alleged benefits provided by these concepts, and how they might be employed as either strategic strike or deterrent, as well as how the American military is hypothesised to respond either technically or doctrinally.
The introduction of so-called “hypersonic” missile systems has been a prominent aspect of the remerging competition between the US and Russia, and if pronouncements from governments can be believed, represent a major equalising of strategic weapon balance.
Traditional Ballistic Missiles achieve very high speeds by virtue of their orbital trajectory, and traditional countermeasures rely on this predictable path taken towards their target. Hypersonic glide systems represent an upset to this equation by allowing for greater manoeuvrability in-flight, as well as operating within atmosphere, potentially being able to avoid existing defences. Hypersonic Cruise Missiles could well allow for the negation of traditional American naval strategy (i.e. Carrier centric operations), resetting the strategic balance at sea.
Huebert argues that the emergence of these weapons is symptomatic of a broader trend and understanding that the world order has not changed substantively since the end of the Cold War, that the great power dynamics have not in fact given way.
We consider that America’s longstanding efforts to maintain “freedom of navigation” in the world maritime routes may be tested by the geographic remoteness of the “northern sea route” and the lack of friendly states and bases, giving greater leverage to Russia.
Both Canada and Russia consider the waterways in the far north as ‘internal waters’, a designation which, without substantive maritime traffic as yet, has remained largely unchallenged. If this route were to become as important as some believe it will, this designation could present a serious flashpoint, although Huebert believes that the Americans would be unlikely to push the issue in the short term, if only due to a lack of icebreaking and arctic sailing capability.
The Red Line's Arctic Conflict Reading List:
We’ve put together some further reading for those of you looking for more resources to help you get across the geopolitics of the Arctic.
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon member Jack Hudson.