Take a Tour of Russia's Giant New Arctic Military Base

Putin in the Arctic
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visit Alexandra Land in remote Arctic islands of Franz Josef Land, Russia March 29. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Russia's Ministry of Defense has unveiled the country's newest Arctic military base on one of the northernmost points of its remote Franz Josef Land archipelago. Moscow has invited internet users on a virtual tour around the facility known as Arkticheskiy Trilistnik or 'Arctic Trefoil'.

Despite its college dorm aesthetics, the base can comfortably support 150 staff for up to 18 months, establishing the mold for Russia's post-Soviet military strategy. It is the second base of its kind since Russia unveiled a similar base on Kotelny Island in 2015; and Russia is planning four more to follow.

The new base is a refinement of the trefoil design of three hubs, connected by an internal quad by covered lobbies, that will likely be repeated in the planned bases at Rogachevo, Cape Schmidt, Wrangel Island and Sredniy Island. All form part of Russia's bid to strengthen its military command and communication presence across its northernmost territories.

The new base on Franz Josef's northern Alexandra Land has limited conventional combat capabilities and is primarily focusing on radar and surveillance. But its significance, much like its shape, is three-pronged, analysts say.

Russian Defence Ministry website launched virtual excursion around the Arctic Trefoil military base https://t.co/4KPHtolTOz pic.twitter.com/PQPf6a2Y8D

— Минобороны России (@mod_russia) April 17, 2017

Northern "Coastal" Guard

While the virtual tour does not show any military equipment at the base, Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at London's Royal United Services Institute, notes that its arsenal is likely to include anti-ship and anti-aircraft defenses. Its combat significance, alongside other similar bases, will be in surveilling a region that Moscow has struggled to keep an eye on.

"The problem with Russian defense is that until recently the Russian military had a huge gap in its radar coverage on its Arctic coast," Sutyagin says, noting that Moscow had few facilities along the Northern Sea Route that spans the majority of the country's length. "It meant that virtually everybody could enter the waters without notice. Now you need radar so you are just aware of what passes through."

Sutyagin estimates that the base will have standard self-defense capabilities, such as Russia's surface-to-air missile system Pantsir, for air defense, and a cruise missile battery with up to 400 kilometers in range. The size or nature of the first deployment is not yet public, though it will almost certainly contain navigation experts to operate the radar and Arctic intelligence equipment.

The ability to flag a potential threat has become more pertinent to Russia, particularly since China—which is not an Arctic power—has pushed for equal trade access to the world's northernmost waters.

"Twice Chinese vessels have entered Russian territorial waters without permission from Russia, carrying out research but violating Russian sovereign law," Sutyagin says. "Two years ago the Chinese navy sent marines on an exercise at the Bering Strait," he adds, referring to a 2015 incident that concerned the U.S. but also Russia.

Since then, Russia has upgraded its ability to spot incoming vessels, which can then call a conventional force of Arctic-trained paratroopers or marines to the fore. Such units can be deployed quickly even from a distance.

Backing Arctic Claims

Russia is one of five countries with claims over the North Pole and the resources in it. The radar bases represent a permanent presence in its most remote areas that raises the stakes for anyone else willing to claim access to disputed waters.

"This is definitely a kind of posturing but we cannot mark it down as unfounded posturing," Sim Tack, military analyst at Stratfor, says. "It is part of a very distinct strategy that Russia establishes a permanent presence in region to back territorial claims. It would not mean much as a development otherwise. Even if the base's functions are limited to monitoring the fact that forces will be able to be present on the ground for an extended period of time, even in the case of supplies being interrupted, is significant."

According to Sutyagin, radar bases are links in a newly forged Russian chain of defense in the Arctic that Moscow hopes will involve other facilities such as an airfield nearby that can host more serious and more mobile firepower, albeit not permanently.

"That is serious argument potentially with other smaller nations for instance Denmark which is preparing a claim on the north pole via Greenland," Sutyagin says. "Russia will construct Arctic airfield less than 200 kilometers [124 miles] from the North Pole, also on Franz Josef Land, where it can deploy bombers if needed. If Denmark makes a bolder move for the North Pole, Russia can say 'Do you have real capability to control territories where we have permanent presence?'"

A Psychological Boost

The Defense Ministry and the Kremlin's frequent announcements of Arctic strategy—including the decision to showcase the newest base through a virtual tour—tells us something significant. The message to the Russian public is to reassure them that them that Russian capabilities are nearing the status that the Soviet Union once enjoyed in the High North.

"To a very large extent this announcement is for PR," Sutyagin says, adding that the government hopes to rally the patriotic spirit of military prowess with such announcements.

"They do not see this as a new claim [over the Arctic]" he says. "Rather they want to restore the Soviet sphere of influence which includes the famous Soviet Arctic triangle, spanning from the Kola peninsula to Kamchatka," he says.

The line between the two places spans Russia's northernmost ports, which had Arctic expertise during Soviet times though many facilities among them fell into disrepair after the end of the Cold War. Since 2014, Russian armed forces have sought to recover some of the prestige of Arctic operations, forming the Arctic military command, in the northwest. The increased visibility of these Arctic units seems to be part of a deliberate strategy to boost Russian public pride in the military at a time of economic hardship.

"Of course," he says, "the government wants people to see it and think 'we are so strong, so forget about your empty fridge.'"