Security Brief: US-Russia Relations
Week of 04/05/2021 | Issue 6
Neoclis Soteriou and Alexandra Wong
Date: Monday, April 5, 2021
Location: Near Alexandra Land in the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia
Parties involved: Governments, military, and security services of Russia and the United States
The event: Moscow considers the Arctic as one of its main strategic bastions and has implemented strategies to continue to have an ambitious policy in the Arctic region. Russia is increasing its military presence in the Arctic and testing newly developed weapons in the region, including unmanned stealth torpedoes and anti-ship missiles. This is a way for Russia to secure its northern coast to open up and control a key shipping route from Asia to Europe which has been made possible by climate change causing the region to become ice-free. Weapons experts, as well as the United States and other Western officials, have expressed particular concern about one Russian 'super-weapon,' the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, which is an unmanned stealth torpedo that is powered by a nuclear reactor and can sneak past coastal defenses on the seafloor. Videos released by the Russian Ministry of Defense also depict the P-800 Oniks “Onyx” anti-ship missile being launched and Delta-class nuclear submarines breaking through the ice near Alexandra Land, site of the Nagurskoye military base. These videos of various missiles being tested are an attempt by Russia and its military to project military strength and power, against rival nations such as the United States, just as they did during the Cold War.
The effects of climate change are very likely to intensify as time passes, which increases the likelihood of the Arctic region being ice-free for extended periods or even permanently. Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously noted that an accessible Arctic region due to climate change is vital for Russian interests. Therefore, this will inevitably open the region up to new trade routes which will increase the strategic value of the Arctic region. This increased strategic value is likely to increase the threat of tension or even military conflict between the United States and Russia as both countries will have an interest in maintaining a strong presence in the newly ice-free Arctic to ensure their trade routes.
The remilitarization of Russia’s far northern regions, such as the Kola Peninsula near the city of Murmansk, coupled with the warming climate in those regions making them more inhabitable, allows for Russia to build and maintain a greater presence in those regions. This can be used by Russia to more easily project military strength and power into the North Atlantic, which increases the security threat to the United States and its NATO allies in particular. Russia’s militarization of the region does this by making the conflict between Russia and NATO countries more possible.
The Poseidon 2M39 torpedo is part of the new type of advanced Russian nuclear deterrent weapons championed by President Putin. The development of this system is likely to provoke the United States into a new arms race with Russia by seeking to develop competing nuclear deterrent weapons. This arms race may continue to escalate over time as Russia and the United States continue to maintain a strategic edge over one another. This is likely to cost both nations exceedingly large amounts of money, which could have otherwise been spent elsewhere. It may threaten the financial security of the United States, as well as its security interests.
The Poseidon 2M39 torpedo poses a significant security threat to the United States due to both its reported speed and stealth. Russian officials have alleged that the missile will be able to deliver a warhead of multiple megatons which would cause radioactive waves that would render swathes of the target coastline uninhabitable for decades. Reports indicate that the system is currently in a testing phase, and is likely to be fully operational soon, increasing Russian attack capabilities primarily along the West Coast of the United States.
The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as an international forum for the eight governments with sovereignty over lands in the Arctic Circle, including Russia and the United States. The chairmanship rotates every two years; Russia will chair from 2021 to 2023. Russia may use this position to advance its economic interests in the area, including natural gas and oil production. Continued industrialization and building of infrastructure in the Russian Arctic to advance these economic interests will likely contribute to an increased military presence.
On Wednesday, March 31, 2021, Russia claimed new parts of the Arctic continental shelf in submissions to the United Nations, overlapping with Canadian and Danish possessions. This action represents an aggressive strategy from Russia to increase territory for economic and military development, which has the potential to threaten US security interests in the region.
In the weeks leading up to reports of Russian Arctic militarization, Russia has deployed additional troops near its border with Ukraine. Currently, the region is home to the largest concentration of troops since the beginning of the Donbas conflict in 2014, in which pro-Russian separatists backed by Moscow continue to clash with Ukrainian forces. Together with the increased military presence in the Arctic, this pattern suggests that Russia may be increasingly likely to use its military strength and hard power to achieve the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals.
Russia is currently facing increased scrutiny from the United States, its Western allies, and organizations due to the recent anti-democratic actions of President Putin. Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny recently began a hunger strike over his politically motivated detention, attracting international attention and criticism; on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, President Putin signed a law allowing him to run for two more presidential terms. Diplomatic tensions may continue to escalate between the United States and Russia in the wake of these events. These recent weapons tests by Russia have come in the months after the inauguration of United States president Joe Biden in the United States. All available evidence indicates that during the 2020 presidential elections in the United States, Russia interfered in support of the incumbent United States President Donald Trump to prevent the election of President Biden. President Biden has had a tenuous relationship with President Putin well before the election, once angering President Putin by referring to him as a killer. Given the often opposing geopolitical goals of President Biden and President Putin, combined with their mutual personal dislike of one another, it is likely that the bilateral diplomatic relationship between Russia and the United States will continue to deteriorate going forward. As such, these recent weapons tests may be an intentional provocation against the Biden administration on the part of Russia.
Russia has recently been attempting to regain greater influence in several countries around the world through the use of vaccine diplomacy. Moscow has already sent hundreds of thousands of doses of the Russian-developed and produced Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to American allies in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Slovakia. Further, millions of future doses are expected by countries in Latin America, Africa, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. This vaccine diplomacy on the part of Russia has the potential to revamp its image as a scientific, technological, and benevolent power, especially as the United States and its Western allies hoard the Western-made vaccine doses and Western manufacturers struggle with limited production capacity. This has the potential to seriously harm the United States’ image abroad in comparison to that of Russia. Also, many Eastern European countries and Balkan states have cultural ties in their heritage to predominantly Slavic Russia but have been politically aligning themselves with the global West. Vaccine diplomacy encourages closer ties and affiliation with Russia over Western-aligned organizations such as NATO, which is likely to be detrimental to United States security interests.
Russia brokered the ceasefire following the renewed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region throughout summer and fall 2020. Russia, France, and the United States are co-chairs of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group created in 1992 for the resolution of the conflict, but Russia largely shut out France and the United States from negotiations, and currently maintains peacekeeping forces in the region. Russia may be increasingly willing to use its political and economic capital, in coordination with military strength, to strengthen its regional influence and hegemony over the United States and Western European allies.
 Satellite images show huge Russian military buildup in the Arctic, CNN, April 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/04/05/europe/russia-arctic-nato-military-intl-cmd/index.html
 Russian military presence expanding in the Arctic region, satellite images show, Euronews, April 2021, https://www.euronews.com/2021/04/07/russian-military-presence-expanding-in-the-arctic-region-satellite-images-show
 Russia Continues ‘Unprecedented’ Arctic Military Build Up, Reportedly Testing New ‘Super Weapon’, Haaretz, April 2021, https://www.haaretz.com/world-news/russia-continues-unprecedented-arctic-military-build-up-1.9683616
 Russia’s Arctic activity to increase with fresh strategy and more capability tests, Defense News, April 2021, https://www.defensenews.com/smr/frozen-pathways/2021/04/11/russias-arctic-activity-to-increase-with-fresh-strategy-and-more-capability-tests/
 Russia Claims Continental Shelf in Arctic Ocean, The Moscow Times, April 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/04/12/russia-claims-continental-shelf-in-arctic-ocean-a73566
 Russian Troop Buildup Near Ukraine Largest Since War Outbreak, Monitor Says, The Moscow Times, April 2021, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/04/07/russian-troop-buildup-near-ukraine-largest-since-war-outbreak-monitor-says-a73500
 U.S.-Russian Relations Will Only Get Worse, Foreign Affairs, April 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2021-04-06/us-russian-relations-will-only-get-worse
 Russia scores points with vaccine diplomacy, but snags arise, Associated Press, April 2021, https://apnews.com/article/europe-global-trade-middle-east-diplomacy-moscow-e61ebd3c8fe746c60f5ecc1ec323c99a