There are (Russian) missiles on the roads.
In this new series, we are going to focus on the militarization of the Russian Northern Sea Route and along segments of the Chinese New Silk Road and envision the political, military, industrial and business consequences for Russia, China, and their partners, notably through the installation of Russian missiles. We shall also evaluate the geopolitical consequences of the militarization of these “great roads”, which connect Asian powers and Russia to resources and markets. We shall more particularly point out the way assets are therefore protected in the framework of the potentially tense geopolitical environment brought about by climate change and resource depletion.
Over the last few years, Russia, China, and other Asian countries, have installed massive military capabilities, among them Russian surface to air missiles S-300 and S-400, along segments of the immense transcontinental or intercontinental land and maritime roads opened in Russia and in Asia. The function of those missiles is to reach and destroy attacking airplanes or missiles, in order to defend the territory where the missiles are based. (Jeremy Bender, “Russia is sending some serious weaponry in the Arctic”, Business Insider, 20 January 2015).
The “roads”, which are militarised, are created as answers to the necessity for Russia and China to connect Asian countries with resources and markets of Russia and Europe. They also result from the opportunity both geophysical and geopolitical, for Russia, that emerges from the warming of the Arctic, which redefines the Russian-Asian political and economic space (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian Strategies Interests Converge?”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 23, 2016).
In this series, we shall to explore the geopolitical meaning of the militarization of the transcontinental transport infrastructures in Russia and in Asia and what that implies for a world under the twin pressure of climate change and resource depletion.
In this first article, we shall see how the Russian Northern Sea Route is becoming a vast system of installation of missile capabilities. This militarization accompanies the transformation of the status of this region, which is turned from a forgotten frontier into a major strategic Russian asset. Then, we shall stress that this militarization is emblematic of our new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by the combination of rapid geophysical transformation with the need for countries and various actors to plan ahead to adapt to these new, potentially dangerous, conditions.
Missiles on the Northern Sea Route
The Russian political and military authorities are both industrially and commercially developing Northern Siberia and its maritime economic exclusive zone. In the same dynamic they are militarizing the new maritime road called the “Northern Sea Route”.
The maritime road follows the Siberian coast and thus links the Bering Strait to Norway, and is being massively developed, because the Russian authorities are turning the effects of climate change into massive opportunities (Jean-Michel Valantin “Strategic Thinking in the Russian Arctic: Turning Threats into Opportunities (part 1 and 2)”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 19 December, 2016).
Indeed, the warming of the region triggers a progressive retreat of the sea ice that facilitates navigation along the Siberian coast (Atle Staalesen, “Aiming for Year Round Sailing on Northern Sea Route”, The Independent Barents Observer, December 14, 2015). The same geophysical process makes new, and massive, oil and gas deposits more accessible, hence mammoth on- and off- shore industrial new operations, such as the Prirazlomnoya oil rig, which is the first Arctic oil rig (Trude Pettersen, “Prirazlomnoya “zero emission” system launched”, The Independent Barents Observer, April 12, 2016).
The Northern Sea Route is increasingly attractive for the Chinese shipping convoys, because it allows them to avoid the potentially dangerous Strait of Malacca and lanes to the Suez Canal, while three weeks on their journey to Europe can be spared (Atle Staalesen, “COSCO Sends 5 Vessels Through Northern Sea Route”, The Independent Barents Observer, October 10, 2016. These infrastructures and operations are attracting huge interest as well as investments from China, India and Japan.
As seen previously, the Northern Sea Route (NSR) has acquired such a strategic importance for Russia that the Russian political authorities have devoted the Northern fleet to its surveillance, defense and management (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Warming Russian Arctic: Where Russian and Asian interests and strategies converge?”, November 2, 2016 and “Russian Arctic Oil: a New Economic and Strategic Paradigm?” October 12, 2016, The Red (Team) Analysis Society).
Over the last decade, the Northern fleet has acquired new surface ships, as well as submarine ships of the new class “Borei”, i.e. the fourth-generation of ultra-silent stealth missile-carrying nuclear submarines. This new generation of ships is called “Borei” to clearly indicate the importance given to the Arctic by the Russian military (Globalsecurity.org, Project 935/Project 955 Borei).
Meanwhile, an Arctic command has been created. The Joint Arctic command is officially in charge of the coordination of the naval, land and air forces on the Siberian littoral, on the NSR and on the Siberian Archipelago (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Arctic Fusion: Russia and China Convergent Strategies”, The Red (Team) Analysis, June 23, 2014), including Russian islands in the Arctic, e.g. from east to west, the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago, the New Siberian Islands, the Wrangel Island and also Cape Schmidt (“Russia’s Defence ministry establishes Arctic strategic command“, Tass, December 01, 2014).
In parallel to the infrastructural development of the NSR, the Russian Defence ministry is responsible for the maritime development of the Route (Atle Staalesen, “Ministry of defense takes charge of Arctic shipping“, The Independent Barents Observer, July 07, 2016). One of the dimensions of this process is the installation of missile batteries on strategic sites along the road. Since December 2015, the Russian Northern Fleet has positioned a regiment in charge of several units of modernized S-300 missiles with a 400 km range in Novaya Zemlya, in the Kara Sea, north of the Yamal Peninsula, where major on-shore liquefied natural gas operations are developed (Atle Staalesen “Missile complex S-400 on guard in Kola Peninsula”, The Independent Barents Observer, January 11, 2017, and “Russia deploys S-300 in Novaya Zemlya”, The Independent Barents Observer, December 9, 2015).
The S-300s and S-400 missiles batteries are weapons systems able to track up to 100 flying targets and to engage 6 of them simultaneously; they are fully automated and have land and sea variants. The S-300s have an effective maximum range of 250 km, and the S-400’s range reaches 400 km (Wikipedia S-300 missile system). They can disable any kind of modern military aircraft, even stealth ones, with the assumed exception of the American F22-Raptor, and have an anti access/ denial area function, meaning that these weapons are meant to block an attacking flying force to enter into the air perimeter protected by the S-300s and S-400, as these missiles can be very precisely guided towards their targets. Knowing the costs of military airplanes, and the length and value of military pilots training, the kind of loss so entailed would be very quickly unsustainable for any military on Earth (Dave Majumdar, “No fly zoner: Russia’s lethal S-400 goes global“, The National Interest, December 18, 2015).
Thus, these missiles can drastically limit and degrade the operational freedom of any aerial force acting into its perimeter. Furthermore, S-400 complex systems are able to coordinate themselves with other surface to air weapons systems, such as the S-300s or the Pantsir S1 (a performance that the S-300 can not attain). In practical terms, these weapons systems and the system of systems that integrate them into a single defence system, create an envelope of protection for the forces, the authorities and the territory of those who install and use the system (Dave Majumdar, ibid).
This installation is part of the development of multiple Russian missile launch capabilities in the region, especially through the ships of the Northern Fleet dedicated to patrolling the NSR, with cruise missiles carried by destroyers, such as the nuclear patrolled destroyer Pyotr Veliky, and submarines, such as the Borei class Yuri Dolgoruki. Cruise missiles have several hundred km range and are shot at designated land or naval target, while flying at low altitude. Other missile capabilities are installed on the Kotelny Island, on the eastern segment of the NSR, especially anti-aircraft Pantsir S-1 and the anti-ships Termit missiles, have an 80 km range and are used for coastal defence. Those weapons systems have been tested during a series of drills conducted by the Northern Fleet in September 2016 (“Russia’s Northern Fleet conducts large-scale drills”, Arctic News, 26 September, 2016).
It is worth noting that, a few days before the drills on Kotelny Island, the Northern Fleet organised other air, land and sea drills on the western part of the Northern Sea Route, close to the Prirazlomnoya off shore oil and gas operation (Atle Staalesen, “Shooting cruise missiles from the Siberian Archipelago”, The Independent Barents Observer, September 20, 2016 and Thomas Nilsen, “Missiles here, there and everywhere”, The Independent Barents Observer, September 26, 2016). In October 2016, the Russian navy and the Russian army launched ballistic missiles from the west of the Russian Arctic, to the East, during two drills. Ballistic missiles are weapons able to carry a conventional or a nuclear payload from one continent to the other, and are part of the deterrent arsenal (Thomas Nilsen, “Ballistic missiles across the Arctic”, The Independent Barents Observer, October 12, 2016).
This of a particular importance, because ballistic missiles are not only part of the defence arsenal, but also of the deterrence arsenal. A deterrence strategy is aimed at discouraging any offensive intent from a potential adversary against the actor with deterrence capabilities. These capabilities are meant to impose such damages at the attacking force that an offensive is not only dangerous, but it becomes totally counter-productive (Edward Luttwak, Strategy, the logic of war and peace, 2002).
The Russian military in a warming world
In other words, an immense system of defence and deterrence is now installed along the Northern Sea Route. In the same movement, militarizing the NSR gives a new geopolitical importance to the Russian defence and deterrence policy .
As a matter of fact, during centuries, the littoral of Northern Siberia could not be said to have such a great strategic importance. It was mired in cold and ice almost all year-long, with a brief relapse during summer, and was mostly inhabited. From the Cold War to present days, the port of Murmansk was mainly devoted to the Soviet then Russian Federation Northern fleet, and its squads of submarines, while the remaining part of northern Siberia was largely unoccupied. The submarine fleet was navigating the national and international undersea and under-ice waters, imposing nuclear deterrence along the coasts of the United States, Canada and Europe and gathering intelligence (Alexandre S. Duplaix, Peter Huchthausen, Hide and Seek- The Untold Story of Naval Espionage, 2009).
The warming of the region, resulting from the current anthropogenic climate change, has deeply changed this state of affairs. As seen, the ongoing opening of the Northern Sea Route and the access to oil and gas on- and off- shore deposits turns Northern Siberia into a major strategic region for Russia. Thus, installing defence and deterrence capabilities is a political and military translation of this new geophysical and strategic situation.
The deterrence principle is the cornerstone of the past and present nuclear strategies: each government that possesses nuclear forces is deterred to use them, because it would imply its own annihilation in return (Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983). Conventional deterrence is much older, and is based on the principle according to which if an armed force attacks a very well defended territory, the loss it will have to sustain will not make the attack worth the effort. Furthermore, the loss will direly weaken the attacker (John Keegan, The History of Warfare, 1993).
As a matter of fact, this huge defence effort, in a challenging time for the Russian economy, given the pressures exerted both by the sharp decline in oil prices since June 2014 and the economic sanctions imposed by the US and by the EU because of the tensions in Ukraine, expresses the major importance of the development of the Arctic for the Russian political, economic and military authorities (see our series, Hélène Lavoix, Crisis and War in Ukraine, The Red (Team) Analysis Society and Colin Chilcoat, “Is Russia the King of the Arctic by Default?”, OilPrice.com, Oct 22, 2015 and Andy Tully, “Western Sanctions Halt Exxon’s Drilling in Russia’ Arctic”, Russia Insider, 19 September, 2014) .
It could also be said that this military effort is a message to other Arctic powers, among them the U.S., that Russia is, once again, a very important economic and military power, and must be treated as such.
Defense and economic development on a changing planet
This new strategic status is very complex from a geopolitical point of view. As seen, the Northern Sea Route attracts shipping convoys and investments not only from Russia, but also from China, India, South Korea and Japan. These countries, through their governments, their public and private oil and gas companies and their banks are heavily investing with their Russian counterparts in order to develop oil and gas, as well as transport infrastructures.
In fact, the militarization of the Northern Sea Route also emphasises the Russian political will to defend the geopolitical entity created by the interlocking of the numerous and massive national and private interests, partnerships and investments attracted by the new geophysical conditions of the Russian Arctic. It also means that the Russian political authorities are fully aware that the resources of the Arctic have the potential to attract conflicting interests in an era of international competition for depleting resources (Michael Klare, The Race for what’s left, the global scramble for the world’s last resources, 2012).
Hence, in this region, Russia defends in the same time its own national interest and the national interests and the investments of the rapidly developing Asian countries, and of the public and private companies that intend to benefit of the Russian potential.
It must be noted that the geophysical and geopolitical changes in the Russian Arctic express a deeper layer of political meaning, which is of interest to governments to the military and to the business communities: in the 21st century, the rapidly occurring geophysical changes are transforming the political, strategic and industrial conditions that were defined during the 20th century (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Planetary Crisis Rules, part 1 and 2”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, January 25 and February 15, 2016). They do not imply simple “adjustments” but, as we see in the Russian Arctic case, a full mobilisation to adapt and to turn them into assets. And assets need to be protected.
The next article will focus on the way Russian missiles are installed along segments of the Chinese New Silk Road, and what this means from a political, strategic and business point of view.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation – Tactical exercise of the Air Defence Regiment of the Eastern MD (Khabarovsk Krai) – 22.11.2016 – licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0.