The House Intelligence Committee heard last week that “in some respects” the Russians “welcome climate change” because of how melting ice serves their national security and maritime dominance priorities.
“The Arctic has been a closed-off arena from a defense perspective for years,” testified Office of Naval Intelligence Russia and Eurasia Senior Naval Intelligence Manager Jeffrey Ringhausen. “And now it appears that the ice there is melting, and that’s going to open up, from a Russian perspective, a threat vector to them… norms in the Arctic are now a question of governance, and sort of establishing that governance opens the potentiality for conflict.”
Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) noted that the intelligence community has warned of “additional stress” on U.S. armed forces in parts of the world hit hard by climate-related humanitarian crises “or because extreme weather events physically threaten our bases or other capabilities.”
“Meanwhile, thawing in the Arctic and anticipated new maritime access lanes could spur both China and Russia to project combinations of military power and economic influence in a region of emerging geostrategic significance,” Schiff added. “Newly reachable mineral resources or oil reserves in tandem with easier accessibility for commercial naval vessels could create friction among Arctic climates and undercut the efficacy of the multilateral Arctic Council to peaceably resolve disputes.”
Peter Kiemel, counselor at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers that the “changing conditions in the Arctic will have significant security, economic, and social implications for both Arctic and non-Arctic states.”
“Scientists tell us that the Arctic is warming as rates more than twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. This makes for an increasingly navigable Arctic that could be free of ice cover in the summer sometime between 2030 and 2040,” he said.
“These conditions would drastically shortened maritime routes between Asia, Europe, and North America. The region will also attract increased commercial interests such as mining, energy exploitation, shipping, and fishing,” Kiemel continued. “As a result, the Arctic is emerging as a new domain of strategic competition. Russia, China, and others are dramatically increasing their activities and investments in the region.”
Ringhausen said that the Russian government’s maritime efforts taking advantage of climate change are primarily in the Arctic and focused “securing Russia’s economic interests in the Arctic zone” and “military modernization, primarily of the forces of the Northern Fleet Joint Strategic Command — nearly all of Russia’s armed forces in the Arctic are subordinated to this command.”
“To further its maritime economic interests, the Russian government within the maritime realm is undertaking to modernize infrastructure along its northern coast and on some of its Arctic islands,” Ringhausen added. “The goal is to be able to monitor, protect, and defend its exclusive economic zone in the Arctic, and it will, to enforce a regulatory regime across the Northern Sea route.”
As climate change increases the yearly navigable time in the Arctic, “the Russian government has promoted the Northern Sea route in its Arctic region as possibilities for increased shipping and investment.”
“Moscow believes that there is substantial economic potential in the Arctic. Naval intelligence assesses that this economic potential exists, but that the Russian government appears overly optimistic regarding its development in the near and medium term,” Ringhausen continued. “This applies both to the Northern sea route becoming a major shipping lane and to expanded resource extraction. Climate change will not make those resources easier to extract, either ashore or offshore, nor is it likely to change the basic geography or economics of shipping that make the Northern sea route unlikely to become a major, highly trafficked thoroughfare. While Arctic shipping is likely to increase, it will remain a minuscule portion of global shipping.”
Based in ice-free harbors near Murmansk and in the Barents Sea, the Russian Northern Fleet’s primary mission “is to operate a submarine force, providing a sea-based strategic deterrent as part of Moscow’s nuclear triad,” and “much of the Northern Fleet is focused on supporting this submarine sea-based to deterrent force.”
“Climate change is unlikely to have much, if any, impact on the Northern Fleet and its primary missions and operations. Greater variability in sea ice coverage is the most relevant climate change impacts,” said Ringhausen. “However, since the Northern Fleet largely operates in the Barents Sea, which is ice-free year-round, there is virtually no impact on naval operations in this region. Because Russia’s strategic submarines are built to operate in ice zones, climate change is unlikely to have a large systemic impact on them, either.”
“Other than strategic deterrence, the Northern Fleet sub-missions include the overall defense of the Arctic approaches to Russia. To this end, work is underway to refurbish and reestablish military infrastructure required to monitor, protect, and defend Russia’s northern regions,” he said. “Russia is modernizing maritime frontier outposts, area surveillance sensors, and airfields. It’s also developing a chain of search-and-rescue stations.”
Ringhausen noted to lawmakers that “all of those Russian naval stations there are at least 20 meters above sea level.”
“They’ve also built them back along the rivers, primarily so that they could place them on bedrock as opposed to the more erodable dirt at the entrance of those rivers. So, they’re unlikely to be affected by sea level rise,” he said. “The shipping yards — or the ship construction yards — in, near Arkhangelsk in the White Sea may be affected. The Russians haven’t made any attempts to mitigate that, that I know of.”