Franz Josef Land — a frozen, desolate archipelago — sits at 80 degrees north latitude in the Arctic Sea above the Russian mainland. It is the site of new Russian Arctic military bases from which Russia intends to assert its control of much of the oil and gas beneath the Arctic and trade routes carved through the ice.
In 2007 two Russian mini-submarines descended more than two miles under the Arctic ice cap and planted a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole. The flag is an assertion of Russia’s disputed claim of sovereignty over about half of the Arctic Ocean floor and the oil and gas underneath it which are believed to be worth about $20 trillion.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds about 18 percent of the world’s untapped oil reserves.
Russia, China, Japan, Canada and other nations (not including the United States) are preparing to take advantage of both their claims on the Arctic oil and gas reserves and the increasingly open trans-Arctic shipping routes. China has announced its “Marine and Arctic Silk Road” program and is building icebreaker ships to trade on that “road.”
Russia, however, is building military bases and designing military equipment to enforce its claims to the Arctic.
A trefoil is not just a shortbread cookie the Girl Scouts sell. It’s also the geometric shape of the Russian base on Alexandra Land, part of the Franz Joseph Land archipelago. It is reportedly the second such base built by Russia in the Putin years, the other being farther east on another island in the archipelago. Both are air defense bases.
A military air base has also been built, reportedly for the Russian 99th Arctic Tactical Group. At least four other Russian bases, including another air base, are being built and the newly established Russia Arctic Command is training troops for war in the Arctic.
Russian Arctic air force bases, and air defense units, are nearly ready to establish Russian control over the shipping lanes through much of the Arctic Sea and over nations near the Arctic Circle such as Finland.
Russian arms makers are working hard to develop arms, vehicles, electronics and aircraft that can operate in extremely cold temperatures, which much of our and NATO’s military equipment cannot do.
In a mid-October Reykjavik, Iceland conference of the 52-nation Arctic Circle Assembly Vladimir Barbin, Russian ambassador for Arctic affairs, told the assembly that 10 percent of Russia’s GDP is being invested in the Arctic Region. He said that Russia is building three icebreakers every year and that Russia intends to push its Arctic borders to establish sovereignty in deeper waters. (The Russians have about 50 heavy icebreakers. The U.S. has three, two of which are old and about to be retired.)
Mr. Barbin’s statements echoed what Russian President Vladimir Putin said in 2014. While Russian “little green men” — Russian troops in uniform but under no flag and without national insignias on their uniforms — were conquering Ukraine, Mr. Putin said that, “Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic.”
Russia’s game is twofold: to continue increasing its stranglehold over European energy supplies and to control increasingly-open Arctic trade routes.
Nord Stream One, a gas pipeline from the Russia Baltics to Germany, is soon to be doubled in capacity by the Nord Stream Two pipeline running alongside it. Germany hopes to become a hub for European gas supplies. But the Nord Stream pipelines also give Russia great leverage over Western Europe.
In June 2017 talks with the Europeans, Viktor Zubkov, chairman of Russia’s state-run gas monopoly, Gazprom, said that U.S. and European Union sanctions against Russian oil and gas companies, such as those imposed three years ago, could threaten Europe’s gas supplies. Mr. Zubkov’s words were a warning of future energy blackmail.
According to an April 17 Financial Times report, Russia is drilling oil wells far north in the Arctic Circle. Oil shipments from those wells can be shipped anywhere most of the year. And, as with the gas pipelines, those shipments to oil-hungry nations in Europe and elsewhere give the Russians leverage.
China, hungry for oil and gas, is also asserting its interests in both trans-Arctic sea routes and the energy assets beneath them. In July, Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi announced their partnership in attempting to open the long-sought “northwest passage” enabling both nations’ ships to traverse trans-Arctic routes.
China’s representative to the Arctic Assembly conference, Special Representative for Arctic Affairs Gao Feng, announced a liquid natural gas project as part of China’s “Marine and Arctic Silk Road” initiative.
China has its sights on Iceland, which concluded a free-trade agreement with China in 2014. China’s is now the largest embassy in Iceland.
The United States is slowly awakening to Russian and Chinese initiatives in the Arctic. Our Air Force has just completed an upgrade to the capabilities at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, about 750 miles above the Arctic Circle. The Air Force is also developing a new strategy for the Arctic.
There appears to be no great concern among Pentagon leaders about the Arctic region, so it may be far too late to prevent Russian and Chinese dominance over the Arctic and its resources.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”