Russia’s Military Exercises in the Arctic Have More Bark Than Bite

For now, cooperation still reigns.

Soldiers board an amphibious warfare ship on the Barents Sea shore in western Arctic Russia on April 17.
Soldiers board an amphibious warfare ship on the Barents Sea shore in western Arctic Russia on April 17. Lev Fedoseyev/TASS/Getty Images

It is a good bet that, this summer, security pundits will be talking about a new Cold War in the Arctic. Year after year, Russia holds military exercises there. And every year, they break new post-Cold War records for size and complexity. Last year’s Vostok 2018 officially involved some 300,000 service members, according to the Kremlin. This year’s Tsentr 2019 is sure not to disappoint.

But there is probably less reason to worry than most observers allow.

For the most part, Russia’s large-scale military exercises are scheduled and predictable, although short snap exercises do typically occur in the days leading up to the main event. The country schedules four major drills on a rotating basis: Vostok (East), Zapad (West), Tsentr (Center), and Kavkaz (South), which correlate to Russia’s military districts. The last Tsentr exercise was in 2015, and it involved an estimated 100,000 military personnel and focused on Russia’s command and control capabilities in the southeastern corner of the Central Military District, which covers Russia’s central Volga, Ural, and Siberian regions.

This year, Tsentr will be conducted at the northern end of the district in the Northern Sea Route (NSR), an emerging maritime corridor connecting Europe to Asia. According to the Russian government, the exercise will focus on maintaining a high level of preparedness for combat in an Arctic environment.

Beyond that, Tsentr 2019 will likely have three main goals. First, Russia wants to demonstrate its area denial capabilities in the Arctic as well as its maneuverability in the NSR. Second, Tsentr 2019 will demonstrate Russia’s intentions to maintain a strong presence in the Arctic. But that agenda is not surprising or new; sheer geography makes Moscow the largest Arctic player, and the Kremlin has never hidden its desire to keep the lead. Finally, the exercise seeks to demonstrate that Russia can protect its energy investments in the Arctic.

On display during Tsentr 2019 will be Russia’s new hardware tailored for the Arctic region, including the Tor-M2DT air defense systems and T-80BVM main battle tanks. New radar systems and refitted Soviet-era military bases will also be put through their paces. For the most part, these capabilities look defensive and not particularly alarming, especially given that Russian troops have little actual preparedness for using them in the Arctic environment.

Finally, it makes sense that Russia is keen on backing up its recent assertiveness in the NSR with military might. This year, Moscow introduced a new transit protocol for the area. The protocol obliges foreign states and firms to host a Russian pilot while navigating the NSR and stipulates that foreigners may be refused passage at any point. After this summer’s exercises, the decree will now have plenty of military bite.

Although Tsentr 2019 will mostly be defensive, the West should still be cautious. Despite consistent commitment to cooperation in the Arctic, Russia is now evidently signaling a less amenable attitude. It likely isn’t ready to exert neoimperial control there, but it could execute such an agenda if it wanted to. This reality has military implications for other Arctic powers, which are strengthening their own presence there, including by recently opening NATO’s North Atlantic command and the U.S. Navy’s recent refocus on the High North.

Of concern is also the immense scale of the exercise. It is not surprising that Russia’s Northern Fleet will be engaged in the exercise, along with its Central Military District personnel, Russia’s new Arctic Brigades, and troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which includes Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. However, there are murmurs that Russia’s Pacific Fleet will also take part. Demonstrating the capacity to converge naval assets in the North Atlantic is impressive, albeit largely symbolic. The West will also have to watch to see whether China will take part in Tsentr 2019. Chinese forces joined last year’s large-scale Vostok 2018 exercise, and with the two nations growing closer, it would not be out of the question for them to take part again.

If China is not invited, it would be a loud signal that the country is an unwelcome presence in the Arctic. Of course, given the amount of Chinese investment in Russia’s Arctic energy infrastructure, and its strategic interest in accessing the NSR, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be hard-pressed to shun Chinese leader Xi Jinping. If the two project a united front in Tsentr 2019, Western policymakers should take note.

No matter what happens, expect coverage of Tsentr 2019 to be overblown. The Russians aren’t coming. Their presence in the Arctic is legitimate, and Tsentr 2019 will ultimately showcase the country’s defensive capabilities there. Militarization of the Arctic was a Cold War-era concern, and in today’s interconnected world there are far more incentives for cooperation than conflict. Arctic powers recognize this and for some time now have kept the region free from Russia-Western tensions.

For now, the détente will likely hold. Indeed, the most likely avenue for conflict in the Arctic is still miscalculation, which is why the other “Arctic 5” powers (Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States) should start bolstering bilateral dialogues with Moscow. In the meantime, they’ll just have to ignore media coverage of Russian exercises that make it seem like war is coming.

Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan is a lecturer of strategic studies at Deakin University in Australia, delivering the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College. She is a nonresident fellow of the Modern War Institute at the U.S. Military Academy. Twitter: @BuchananLiz

Mathieu Boulègue is a research fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House.