Putin's Russia in biggest Arctic military push since Soviet fall

By Andrew Osborn
1 / 7

Russian servicemen of Northern Fleet's Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk

Russian servicemen of the Northern Fleet's Arctic mechanised infantry brigade participate in a military drill on riding reindeer and dog sleds near the settlement of Lovozero outside Murmansk, Russia January 23, 2017. Picture taken January 23, 2017. Lev Fedoseyev/Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation/Handout via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MURMANSK, Russia (Reuters) - The nuclear icebreaker Lenin, the pride and joy of the Soviet Union's Arctic great game, lies at perpetual anchor in the frigid water here. A relic of the Cold War, it is now a museum.

But nearly three decades after the Lenin was taken out of service to be turned into a visitor attraction, Russia is again on the march in the Arctic and building new nuclear icebreakers.

It is part of a push to firm Moscow's hand in the High North as it vies for dominance with traditional rivals Canada, the United States, and Norway as well as newcomer China.

Interviews with officials and military analysts and reviews of government documents show Russia's build-up is the biggest since the 1991 Soviet fall and will, in some areas, give Moscow more military capabilities than the Soviet Union once had.

The expansion has far-reaching financial and geopolitical ramifications. The Arctic is estimated to hold more hydrocarbon reserves than Saudi Arabia and Moscow is putting down a serious military marker.

"History is repeating itself," Vladimir Blinov, a guide on board the icebreaker Lenin, which is named after communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, told a recent tour group.

"Back then (in the 1950s) it was the height of the Cold War and the United States was leading in some areas. But we beat the Americans and built the world's first nuclear ship (the Lenin). The situation today is similar."

Under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow is rushing to re-open abandoned Soviet military, air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands and to build new ones, as it pushes ahead with a claim to almost half a million square miles of the Arctic.

It regularly releases pictures of its troops training in white fatigues, wielding assault rifles as they zip along on sleighs pulled by reindeer.

The Arctic, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates, holds oil and gas reserves equivalent to 412 billion barrels of oil, about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas.

Low oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's actions in Ukraine mean new offshore Arctic projects have for now been mothballed, but the Kremlin is playing a longer game.

It is building three nuclear icebreakers, including the world's largest, to bolster its fleet of around 40 breakers, six of which are nuclear. No other country has a nuclear breaker fleet, used to clear channels for military and civilian ships.

Russia's Northern Fleet, based near Murmansk in the Kola Bay's icy waters, is also due to get its own icebreaker, its first, and two ice-capable corvettes armed with cruise missiles.

"Under (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev and (Russian President Boris) Yeltsin, our Arctic border areas were stripped bare," said Professor Pavel Makarevich, a member of the Russian Geographical Society. "Now they are being restored."

'AGGRESSIVE STEPS'

The build-up, which echoes moves in Crimea and Kaliningrad, has been noticed in Washington. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told his confirmation hearing this month it was "not to our advantage to leave any part of the world" to others.

Mattis, in a separate written submission, described Moscow's Arctic moves as "aggressive steps" and pledged to prioritize developing a U.S. strategy, according to Senator Dan Sullivan.

That poses a potential dilemma for President Donald Trump, who wants to repair U.S.-Russia ties and team up with Moscow in Syria rather than get sucked into an Arctic arms race.

The build-up is causing jitters elsewhere. Some 300 U.S. Marines landed in Norway this month for a six-month deployment, the first time since World War Two that foreign troops have been allowed to be stationed there.

And with memories of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea still fresh, NATO is watching closely. Six of its members held an exercise in the region in 2015.

The Soviet military packed more firepower in the Arctic, but it was set up to wage nuclear war with the United States not conventional warfare. Arctic islands were staging posts for long-range bombers to fly to America.

But in an era when a slow-motion battle for the Arctic's energy reserves is unfolding, Russia is creating a permanent and nimble conventional military presence with different and sometimes superior capabilities.

Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, is presiding over the re-opening or creation of six military facilities, some of which will be ready by the year's end.

They include an island base on Alexandra Land to house 150 troops able to survive autonomously for 18 months. Called the Arctic Trefoil, officials have said they may deploy military jets there. MiG-31 fighters, designed to shoot down long-range bombers, or the SU-34, a frontline bomber, are seen as suitable.

Moscow's biggest Arctic base, dubbed "Northern Shamrock", is meanwhile taking shape on the remote Kotelny Island, some 2,700 miles east of Moscow. It will be manned by 250 personnel and equipped with air defense missiles.

Soviet-era radar stations and airstrips on four other Arctic islands are being overhauled and new ground-to-air missile and anti-ship missile systems have been moved into the region.

Russia is also spending big to winterize military hardware.

"The modernization of Arctic forces and of Arctic military infrastructure is taking place at an unprecedented pace not seen even in Soviet times," Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of Moscow Defense Brief, told Reuters.

He said two special Arctic brigades had been set up, something the USSR never had, and that there were plans to form a third as well as special Arctic coastal defense divisions.

"Russia's military activity in the Arctic is a bit provocative," said Barabanov. "It could trigger an arms race."

(For a graphic on Russia's Arctic Expansion, click: http://tmsnrt.rs/2k9Vhxh)

'FRIENDLY PEOPLE'

In Murmansk, home to Russia's icebreakers and just an hour from the Northern Fleet's headquarters, the prospect of an Arctic renaissance is a source of pride.

The city is steeped in Arctic and military history. The conning tower of the Kursk submarine, which sunk in 2000 after an explosion, looks down from a hill above the port.

And in central Murmansk, scale models of dozens of icebreakers crowd the halls of the Murmansk Shipping Company, while sailors, wrapped in great coats, barrel along its streets.

"These Arctic bases are on our territory. Unlike some other countries we are not building them overseas," said Denis Moiseev, a member of the Russian Geographical Society.

"Other countries are also very active in trying to push their borders towards the North Pole. Our army must be able to operate on all our territory in extreme conditions."

One country regularly mentioned as an unlikely Arctic rival is China, a close Moscow ally, which has observer status on the Arctic Council, the main forum for coordinating cooperation in the region, and is starting to build its own icebreakers.

Politicians are keener to discuss a commercial Arctic push.

New roads and a railway are being built and ports overhauled as Moscow expands its freight capacity and, amid warmer climate cycles, readies for more traffic along its Arctic coast.

It hopes the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Murmansk to the Bering Strait near Alaska, could become a mini Suez Canal, cutting sea transport times from Asia to Europe.

But while the route's popularity inside Russia is growing, relatively high transit costs and unpredictable ice coverage means it has lost some of its luster for foreign firms.

Grigory Stratiy, deputy governor of the Murmansk Region, told Reuters there was strong interest in sea route from Asian nations however and that new icebreakers would allow for year-round navigation in the 2020s.

"Whatever the weather, the Northern Sea Route will be needed. Its use will definitely grow," said Stratiy, who said Russia was keen to attract foreign investment to the Arctic.

When asked about his country's military build-up, he smiled.

"There's no reason to be afraid I can reassure you," he said, saying it was driven only by a need to modernize.

"Russia has never had any aggressive aims and won't have them. We are very friendly people."

(Editing by Janet McBride)

  • Protesters tear through D.C. after National Guard troops and Secret Service keep them from the White House
    Yahoo News

    Protesters tear through D.C. after National Guard troops and Secret Service keep them from the White House

    Downtown Washington, D.C., was filled with flames and broken glass in the early hours of Sunday morning as large groups of protesters moved through the city for the second straight night. The protesters caused extensive damage to businesses in the blocks surrounding the White House after a large contingent of law enforcement — including National Guard troops, the U.S. Park Police and the Secret Service — kept the demonstrators back from the president's residence. Protesters lit fires at multiple locations around the city and clashed with law enforcement, hurling fireworks and other projectiles at the officers.

  • Truck driver arrested after appearing to drive into protesters
    CBS News

    Truck driver arrested after appearing to drive into protesters

    Video captured by CBS Minnesota and a webcam shows a tanker truck apparently trying to plow through a large crowd of protesters on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis on Sunday night. Officials said the man is under arrest and was taken to a local medical center with non-life-threatening injuries. Footage shows a tanker truck approaching the throng of people at a high speed, as protesters frantically try to avoid being hit.

  • 2 Atlanta police officers were fired and 3 were placed on desk duty for their use of force in arresting 2 college students during a Saturday night protest
    INSIDER

    2 Atlanta police officers were fired and 3 were placed on desk duty for their use of force in arresting 2 college students during a Saturday night protest

    Two Atlanta police officers were fired Sunday for their conduct at a protest Saturday, the city's mayor and police chief said. Investigators Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter, who were both members of the department's fugitive unit, were terminated from the police force, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Department told Insider. Investigators Carlos Smith and Willie Sauls, and Sergeant Lonnie Hood, were placed on administrative duty, the spokesperson said.

  • Factbox: China's numerous diplomatic disputes
    Reuters

    Factbox: China's numerous diplomatic disputes

    China is engaged in diplomatic disputes on numerous fronts, from acrimony with the United States to a backlash over its clampdown on Hong Kong, a border dispute with India and criticism over its handling of the novel coronavirus. UNITED STATES From disputes over trade and technology, to U.S. criticism over the coronavirus outbreak and China's accusation of U.S. backing for protests in Hong Kong, ties between the world's two biggest economies are at their lowest point in decades. HONG KONG China's plan to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong provoked U.S. retaliation and disapproval from other Western capitals.

  • Letters to the Editor: Stacey Abrams lost in Georgia, but she could lift Biden as his VP.
    Los Angeles Times Opinion

    Letters to the Editor: Stacey Abrams lost in Georgia, but she could lift Biden as his VP.

    To the editor: I like what columnist Jonah Goldberg has to say about Joe Biden's potential picks for vice president, yet I disagree with his assessment of former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Abrams is a winner. Maybe it behooves Goldberg to take a second look at Abrams and her qualifications.

  • With cheap gasoline scarce, Venezuelans can buy at a premium
    Associated Press

    With cheap gasoline scarce, Venezuelans can buy at a premium

    President Nicolás Maduro said that starting Monday Venezuelans will be able to buy gasoline at international market prices, marking a historic break in the socialist country's practice of having the world's cheapest fuel. Across the nation, 200 filling stations will allow drivers to fuel up for the equivalent of 50 cents a liter, or $1.90 a gallon. Venezuelans will also be able to buy a limited amount of subsidized gasoline each month, paying 2.5 cents a liter, or 9 cents a gallon.

  • The coronavirus is disappearing in Italy, according to Italian doctors
    Business Insider

    The coronavirus is disappearing in Italy, according to Italian doctors

    PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images Italy has been one of the worst-affected countries in the global coronavirus pandemic. However, the COVID-19 virus is now disappearing in the country according to Italian doctors Alberto Zangrillo, who heads a hospital in Milan, said that "in reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy." A leading doctor in Genoa said that "the strength the virus had two months ago is not the same strength it has today."

  • Israel police kill Palestinian they mistakenly thought was armed
    AFP

    Israel police kill Palestinian they mistakenly thought was armed

    Israeli police in annexed east Jerusalem on Saturday shot dead a disabled Palestinian they mistakenly thought was armed with a pistol, prompting furious condemnation from the Palestinians. The incident happened in the alleys of the walled Old City near Lions' Gate, an access point mainly used by Palestinians. "Police units on patrol there spotted a suspect with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol," an Israeli police statement said.

  • Reuters

    Iran says it is ready to continue fuel shipments to Venezuela

    Iran will continue fuel shipments to Venezuela if Caracas requests more supplies, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Monday, despite Washington's criticism of the trade between the two nations, which are both under U.S. sanctions. "Iran practises its free trade rights with Venezuela and we are ready to send more ships if Caracas demands more supplies from Iran," Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference broadcast live on state TV. Defying U.S. threats, Iran has sent a flotilla of five tankers of fuel to the South American oil-producing nation, which is suffering from a gasoline shortage.

  • Burkina Faso gunmen 'kill dozens' at cattle market in Kompienga
    BBC

    Burkina Faso gunmen 'kill dozens' at cattle market in Kompienga

    Some 30 people have been killed in eastern Burkina Faso in a gun attack on a cattle market, reports say. Gunmen on motorbikes fired into the crowded market in Kompienga town around lunchtime on Saturday, eyewitnesses and residents said. It is unclear who was behind the attack, but Burkina Faso has seen a recent sharp rise in jihadist violence and inter-communal clashes.

  • Tanker truck drives into crowd of Minneapolis protesters
    Yahoo News Video

    Tanker truck drives into crowd of Minneapolis protesters

    A tanker truck driver is in custody after barreling into a crowd protesting the death of George Floyd on a Minneapolis highway on Sunday. Video footage shows the vehicle driving toward the group on the closed interstate then slowing down, before demonstrators appear to pull the driver out of the cab.

  • Man in Louisville Crowd Shot Dead by Authorities, Says Gov. Beshear
    The Daily Beast

    Man in Louisville Crowd Shot Dead by Authorities, Says Gov. Beshear

    A man has died in Louisville after being shot at by LMPD and Kentucky National Guard forces, according to Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. In an earlier statement, Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Steve Conrad confirmed that a man had been shot and killed, but did not say whether or not the individual had died as a result of shots fired by law enforcement. Conrad linked the shootout to the protests in the city.

  • Israeli forces shot and killed an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem as he walked to special needs school
    The Telegraph

    Israeli forces shot and killed an autistic Palestinian man in Jerusalem as he walked to special needs school

    Israeli forces shot and killed an unarmed autistic Palestinian man on his way to a special needs school in Jerusalem's Old City on Saturday, prompting comparisons to the police violence in the US and accusations of excessive force by Israeli forces. In a statement, Israeli police said they spotted a suspect “with a suspicious object that looked like a pistol” and opened fire on 32-year-old Iyad Halak, when he failed to stop. Israel's Channel 12 news station said members of the paramilitary border forces fired at Mr Halak's legs and chased him into an alley.

  • As Australia clashes with China, the European Union lays low
    Politico

    As Australia clashes with China, the European Union lays low

    Australia has stuck its neck out just as China is in a head-chopping mood. With the world teetering on the edge of a pandemic-induced economic meltdown, Australia, the world's 13th-largest economy already on the ropes after years of drought and a horrific fire season, now finds itself squaring off against the world's No. 2 super-power. As China threatens to attack Taiwan and pledges retaliation against any country that questions its coronavirus response, Australia this week, along with the U.S., U.K. and Canada, called out the Chinese government over a new national security law in Hong Kong they say is in direct conflict with Beijing's international obligations.

  • The YouTuber who received backlash for 'rehoming' her adoptive son with autism said he 'wanted this decision 100%'
    INSIDER

    The YouTuber who received backlash for 'rehoming' her adoptive son with autism said he 'wanted this decision 100%'

    YouTuber Myka Stauffer has responded to criticism over having her adoptive son, Huxley, placed in a new home. Stauffer and her husband James explained the situation in a video last week where they said they weren't the right family to suit Huxley's medical needs. The couple, who are popular parenting YouTubers, faced a backlash for their lack of transparency over what happened.

  • Cuomo pleads for calm after night of statewide protests
    CBS News

    Cuomo pleads for calm after night of statewide protests

    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used his daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday to plead for calm after a night of unrest in cities throughout the state. "Violence never works," Cuomo said. Mr. Floyd wasn't even charged or accused of a violent crime.

  • Trump's Divisive Instincts Helped Him Win the White House. Where Will They Take America Now?
    Time

    Trump's Divisive Instincts Helped Him Win the White House. Where Will They Take America Now?

    On a night when protests over racial injustice erupted into violent clashes across the country and multiple fires burned and store windows were smashed just two blocks from his bedroom in the White House, President Trump did not address the nation or try to calm a country grieving over the twin injuries of police brutality and a pandemic that has disproportionately hit minorities. Trump wrote on Twitter just after 10 p.m. Saturday that the National Guard had been “released” in Minneapolis, “to do the job the Democrat Mayor couldn't do.” Shortly after noon the next day, Trump played the political card again, writing, “Other Democrat run Cities and States should look at the total shutdown of Radical Left Anarchists in Minneapolis last night.”

  • U.S. Supreme Court upholds Puerto Rico financial oversight board appointments
    Reuters

    U.S. Supreme Court upholds Puerto Rico financial oversight board appointments

    The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld appointments to Puerto Rico's federally created financial oversight board that had been challenged by creditors in a ruling that avoids disruption to the panel's restructuring of about $120 billion of the bankrupt U.S. territory's debt. The justices, in a 9-0 decision authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, concluded that the 2016 appointment of seven board members did not violate the U.S. Constitution's so-called appointments clause as the challengers had argued. The outcome hinged on the court's conclusion that the board has control primarily over local issues, meaning the appointments were valid under the Constitution's language regarding naming officials to certain government posts.

  • Bangladesh lifts virus lockdown, logs record deaths on same day
    AFP

    Bangladesh lifts virus lockdown, logs record deaths on same day

    Bangladesh lifted its coronavirus lockdown Sunday, with millions heading back to work in densely populated cities and towns even as the country logged a record spike in deaths and new infections. "The lockdown has been lifted and we are heading almost towards our regular life," health department spokeswoman Nasima Sultana said, calling on those returning to work to wear masks and observe social distancing. The lifting comes as Bangladesh -- which on Friday took an emergency pandemic loan from the International Monetary Fund -- reported its biggest daily jump in infections Sunday, with 2,545 new cases and a record 40 deaths.

  • Hong Kong's Tiananmen commemoration banned by police for first time in three decades
    The Telegraph

    Hong Kong's Tiananmen commemoration banned by police for first time in three decades

    Hong Kong police on Monday banned an upcoming vigil marking the Tiananmen crackdown anniversary citing the coronavirus pandemic, the first time the gathering has been halted in three decades. The candlelight June 4 vigil usually attracts huge crowds and is the only place on Chinese soil where such a major commemoration of the anniversary is still allowed. Last year's gathering was especially large and came just a week before seven months of pro-democracy protests and clashes exploded onto the city's streets, sparked initially by a plan to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.

  • White supremacists attending George Floyd protests, Minnesota officials believe
    The Independent

    White supremacists attending George Floyd protests, Minnesota officials believe

    Officials in Minnesota believe that white supremacist “agitators” were inciting chaos at protests against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd. The Minnesota state corrections department said on Sunday that white supremacists were thought to be attending demonstrations in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and making chaos. “They're agitators,” said Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell on those who have caused destruction during demonstrations.

  • Thousands of Complaints Do Little to Change Police Ways
    The New York Times

    Thousands of Complaints Do Little to Change Police Ways

    In nearly two decades with the Minneapolis Police Department, Derek Chauvin faced at least 17 misconduct complaints, none of which derailed his career. Over the years, civilian review boards came and went, and a federal review recommended that the troubled department improve its system for flagging problematic officers. All the while, Chauvin tussled with a man before firing two shots, critically wounding him.

  • This high-tech Embraer private jet design seamlessly blends sustainability and technology. Take a look at Praeterra.
    Business Insider

    This high-tech Embraer private jet design seamlessly blends sustainability and technology. Take a look at Praeterra.

    Embraer Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer's Praeterra design concept for its Praetor 600 business jet merges high-tech with sustainability. The aircraft interior features computer circuit board-like designs complemented by fiber-optic ceiling lighting and sidewalls lined with informational screens. Cabin materials are also sourced sustainably and developed in a way that allows them to have a second life once they're no longer required inside the aircraft.

  • Louisville police and soldiers return fire, killing man
    Associated Press

    Louisville police and soldiers return fire, killing man

    Police officers and National Guard soldiers enforcing a curfew in Louisville killed a man early Monday when they returned fire after someone in a large group fired at them first, the city's police chief said. A witness said the group had nothing to do with the protests, and was shocked to see soldiers with machine guns arrive in military vehicles to disrupt their gathering. "Never thought I would experience that here in America,” Kris Smith said.

  • Kate Hudson confirmed her brand Fabletics is no longer working with the YouTuber who 'rehomed' her adoptive son
    INSIDER

    Kate Hudson confirmed her brand Fabletics is no longer working with the YouTuber who 'rehomed' her adoptive son

    Rich Fury/Getty Images Kate Hudson has confirmed her sportswear company Fabletics is no longer working with Myka Stauffer. Influencer and YouTuber Stauffer posted a video to her channel last week where she and her husband James explained their adoptive son Huxley had been placed in a new home. They said they weren't equipped to meet Huxley's medical needs, including autism, and faced a fierce backlash from the public.