Wall Street Journal on June 11, 2015, reported from Helsinki, Finland, on Russia’s new military exercises in the Arctic. Group of Seven leaders in Bavaria on June 8 vowed to extend sanctions if Russia doesn’t dial back its aggression against Ukraine. Excerpts below:
Yet in recent years the Russian leader has also turned his attention northward, to the Arctic, militarizing one of the world’s coldest, most remote regions. Here in Finland, one of eight Arctic states, the Russian menace next door looms large.
“That is a tough nut to crack, to know exactly what the Russians want,” newly appointed Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini says. “But I’m sure they know. Because they are masters of chess, and if something is on the loose they will take it”—a variation on the old proverb that “a Cossack will take whatever is not fixed to the ground.”
By 2030, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from the Kara Strait to the Pacific will have nine weeks of open water, according to the U.S. Navy, up from two in 2012. The NSR is a 35% to 60% shorter passage between European ports and East Asia than the Suez or Panama routes, according to the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic states.
The Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, will have five weeks of open water by 2030, up from zero in 2012. It represents a 25% shorter passage between Rotterdam and Seattle than non-Arctic routes. As with other claims about the climate, these aren’t universally accepted prognostications.
Then there are the Arctic’s vast energy resources. Energy fields in the region have to date produced some 40 billion barrels of oil and 1,100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the region also holds 13% of the world’s undiscovered conventional oil, a third of the world’s undiscovered conventional gas and a fifth of the world’s undiscovered natural-gas liquids. No wonder Moscow has been racing to reopen old Soviet bases on its territory across the Arctic and develop new ones.
Mr. Putin wants by the end of 2015 to have 14 operational airfields in the Arctic, according to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and he has increased Russia’s special-forces presence in the region by 30%. “In the Arctic area they have twofold objectives,” says a senior official at the Finnish Defense Ministry.
“To secure the Northern Sea Route and [exploit] the energy-resources potential. And they are increasing their ability to surveil that part of the world, to refurbish their abilities for the air force and the Northern Fleet. They are exercising their ability to move their airborne troops from the central part of Russia to the north.”
The Russian buildup in the region is made worse by the fact that Moscow makes no effort to be a good neighbor. The Kremlin’s unannounced military exercises in the region can only be a deliberate attempt to provoke. The Finnish senior official voices the concern that the Kremlin might use such drills “as deployment for a real operation”—which is considerably less paranoid than it sounds given Mr. Putin’s record. Russian warplanes have violated Finnish airspace as recently as August 2014, and pro-Kremlin media have also launched a systematic propaganda campaign against Finland. “They are writing things about us and our defense forces that are not from this world,” says the senior official, such as the yarn that the Finnish government removes children from ethnic-Russian Finnish families for adoption by gay couples in the U.S.
So far there has been plenty of Western strategizing but little by way of real mobilization. Russia still has the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers, many of them nuclear-powered. The U.S., by contrast, fields a single heavy icebreaker, the Coast Guard’s aging Polar Star.
For Finns, the Russian threat raises another touchy issue: their non-membership in NATO. The April 2015 election that propelled the populist Mr. Soini to the Foreign Ministry, and the centrist Juha Sipilä to the premiership, relegated Alexander Stubb, an uncommonly pro-NATO Finnish prime minister, to the Finance Ministry in the new government.
“If we think that the paradigm [in the region] is going to be changed,” he says, “there is no hesitation that we will do it,” meaning join NATO. He adds: “Whatever the system or situation in Russia we have to cope, and we have some experience with them. And they also respect us. They know our history. . . . We want to be independent and free.”