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Russian Geopolitical Strategies in the Arctic Are Complicated by Rapid Glacier Retreat on Remote Islands

Alexandra Land, an island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago that lies at 80°N in the Arctic Ocean, is home to Russia’s northernmost military facility. The Nagurskoye air base is of great importance to Russia because of its location in the High Arctic, a region which has received increased attention in recent years as international tensions and military activity in the area have heightened. This shift is in large part due to the extensive melting of sea ice, which has opened up the Arctic Ocean to shipping as well as to oil and gas exploration. The melting of the glaciers which surround Nagurskoye uncovers land space for human infrastructure whilst simultaneously increasing the runoff in nearby streams and accelerating permafrost thaw, which could destabilize the foundations of infrastructure and profoundly disrupt landscapes. 

Military activity on Alexandra Land was first established by the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, when a dirt runway served as a small airbase, adjacent to a meteorological station. Its usage substantially dwindled following the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1980s and early 1990s but was restored in 2008 following Russian interest to protect its long northern coastline and vast energy and mineral resources, as well as to better monitor passage in the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which links Europe and East Asia. In 2013, the Russian Defence Ministry announced plans to form more permanent military facilities on Alexandra Land, including a new and larger air base as well as support installations. The base was designed to support a greater range of military aircraft, including bombers. 

The island lies at 85° 45’ N, close to the North Pole. It is largely covered by ice, and the few ice-free areas consist of permafrost. It lies within the NSR passage, with Norwegian archipelago Svalbard 260 kilometres to its west, and the Russian coastline 360 kilometres to its south. It houses two sizable ice caps, the larger Lunar Ice Cap and the smaller Kropotkin Ice Cap, which during the 1990s covered 74 percent of land area. There are many lakes across Alexandra Land which are fed by glacial meltwater or seasonal permafrost thaw.

Map of the Russian Arctic showing the location of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Credit: Andrey Glazovskiy, Jens-Ove Näslund, and Rolf Zale.

Warming air temperatures have accelerated melting of the glaciers in recent decades. Warming is especially striking in the Arctic because of polar amplification; the region has warmed at twice the global average rate over the last 30 years. A study found that mass loss from glaciers across Franz Josef Land doubled between 2011 and 2015 compared to the 1953 to 2011 average. Increasing meltwater feeds the lakes that lie within a few kilometres of Nagurskoye base, increasing their volume and potentially altering their configuration, which could spill over to the air strip, causing problems for military operations there. On the other hand, receding glaciers will open up ice-free space on the island that could be utilised for Russian military infrastructure. 

Permafrost underlies much of the ice-free land that the air base is situated upon. Stephen Gruber, a geoscientist at Carleton University who has conducted research in a number of high latitude permafrost sites (although not in Russia) mentioned that no matter where you go in the Arctic, big changes will come in the next decades due to warming. Gruber noted that many engineered structures in the Arctic, such as the air base on Alexandra Land, will undergo changes, some of them unexpected, because the current practice was based on past experience, which was not challenged by long-term warming and ice melt. 

In an interview with GlacierHub, Alexander Sergunin, a Russian national, professor at Saint Petersburg State University and author of Russia in the Arctic, stated that “I don’t see any specific implications of climate change, such as bringing Arctic states into war or military tension, but I think that climate change necessitates cooperation rather than confrontation.” Now that the Biden administration has returned to the Paris Agreement, Sergunin believes key players in the Arctic can cooperate on the issue of climate change. When Biden and Putin met in June for historically significant talks, Arctic matters were discussed, and although resolutions were likely not found, both leaders expressed their interest to cooperate.

A large glacier on Rudolph Island, Franz Josef Land. Credit: Oceanwide Expeditions.

Russia’s interest in Franz Josef Land stems from its desire to enhance territorial defence in the Arctic, across its exclusive economic zone, and improve control over activity in the NSR. The archipelago’s location makes it a useful location to retain power in the Arctic and increase surveillance of international activity, especially that of NATO forces. A recent article by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies speculates that the recent growth of the Nagurskoye air base suggests that Russia is seeking to expand their future military and offensive capabilities, to expand the geographical range that could be reached by aircrafts from Alexandra Land to US and other NATO bases in the Arctic. However, in his interview, Sergunin stated “the mission in the Arctic has changed compared to the Cold War period. Now the main mission is protection of the exclusive economic zone, Russian sovereignty, and coping with non-traditional threats such as illegal migration, pollution and smuggling.” 

A map showing the estimated aircraft range from Nagurskoye air base on Alexandra Land. Credit: Danish Defence Intelligence Service.

Offering a different perspective, Rasmus Bertelsen, a political scientist at The Arctic University of Norway and of Nordic nationality, explained “looking at this air base it is very important that we in the West don’t only think about the offensive potential, but from a Russian perspective, how useful it is to defend the Russian Arctic.” Because of Alexandra Land’s central location he added “they [Russia] can really defend a large part of the Arctic Ocean from Nagurskoye.” 

In addition, Bertelsen believes that questions surrounding geopolitics in the Arctic very much centre on nuclear weapons. “The Russian nuclear weapons are based in the Arctic, so conventional forces are largely to protect the nuclear forces,” he explained. This concern explains why Russia is keen to build a bastion from Alexandra Land, as declining sea ice opens up the Arctic Ocean to NATO forces, Russia must protect its nuclear armed submarines. “The Nagurskoye base is incredibly useful for defending these waters where the Russian missile submarines are hiding,” Bertelsen told GlacierHub.

An expedition passing through Rubini Rock on Franz Josef Land. Credit Ko de Korte/Oceanwide Expeditions.

The modernization programme of Russia’s military, which included the expansion to Nagurskoye station, is in line with the efforts of other Arctic nations. “Russia had a special military modernization programme, in general, but also in the Arctic specifically, it started in 2007 and is almost complete,” Sergunin told GlacierHub. From Sergunin’s perspective, “Russia is trying to restore its armed forces which we [Russia] had before, make them more capable of coping with new threats and the Arctic cold weather conditions, but that’s it, Russia doesn’t plan to use military force, they don’t plan to conduct any operations in the Arctic itself”. 

The rapid loss of sea-ice that has long acted as a physical barrier to the northern Russian coastline is now opening up the High Arctic to increasing maritime activity. Loss of sea ice is the most prominent and concerning change to the Arctic cryosphere under climate change. “The Northern Sea Route is part of the Russian exclusive economic zone; currently many parts of the zone are covered by ice even in the summertime,” explained Sergunin. But this is likely to change under global warming, opening up the zone to international vessels, which is a concern to Russia. “Russia is extremely eager to develop international shipping on the NSR, but the double-edged sword is that the less sea ice there is, the more vulnerable Russia becomes,” Bertelsen adds.

A typical view of Franz Josef Land, which is threatened by rapid glacier melt. Credit: Ko de Korte/Oceanwide Expeditions.

Melting glaciers on Franz Josef Land will present challenges for human infrastructure and activities on the archipelago, which have proved extremely important to Russian strategy in the High Arctic. Increasing meltwater runoff and permafrost thaw threaten the longevity of the Nagurskoye air base on Alexandra Land. Coupled with the threat of declining sea ice opening up Russian waters to international vessels, this small island deserves attention as climate change complicates the cryosphere within a region of huge geopolitical importance.

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