Next month, U.S. troops are heading to a massive mock battle in a region of the Far North that is becoming a vortex of economic and military activity, writes Michael T. Klare.
By Michael T. Klare
In early March, an estimated 7,500 American combat troops will travel to Norway to join thousands of soldiers from other NATO countries in a massive mock battle with imagined invading forces from Russia. In this futuristic simulated engagement — it goes by the name of Exercise Cold Response 2020 — allied forces will “conduct multinational joint exercises with a high-intensity combat scenario in demanding winter conditions,” or so claims the Norwegian military anyway. At first glance, this may look like any other NATO training exercise, but think again. There’s nothing ordinary about Cold Response 2020. As a start, it’s being staged above the Arctic Circle, far from any previous traditional NATO battlefield, and it raises to a new level the possibility of a great-power conflict that might end in a nuclear exchange and mutual annihilation. Welcome, in other words, to World War III’s newest battlefield.
For the soldiers participating in the exercise, the potentially thermonuclear dimensions of Cold Response 2020 may not be obvious. At its start, Marines from the United States and the United Kingdom will practice massive amphibious landings along Norway’s coastline, much as they do in similar exercises elsewhere in the world. Once ashore, however, the scenario becomes ever more distinctive. After collecting tanks and other heavy weaponry “prepositioned” in caves in Norway’s interior, the Marines will proceed toward the country’s far-northern Finnmark region to help Norwegian forces stave off Russian forces supposedly pouring across the border. From then on, the two sides will engage in — to use current Pentagon terminology — high-intensity combat operations under Arctic conditions (a type of warfare not seen on such a scale since World War II).
And that’s just the beginning. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Finnmark region of Norway and adjacent Russian territory have become one of the most likely battlegrounds for the first use of nuclear weapons in any future NATO-Russian conflict. Because Moscow has concentrated a significant part of its nuclear retaliatory capability on the Kola Peninsula, a remote stretch of land abutting northern Norway — any U.S.-NATO success in actual combat with Russian forces near that territory would endanger a significant part of Russia’s nuclear arsenal and so might precipitate the early use of such munitions. Even a simulated victory — the predictable result of Cold Response 2020 — will undoubtedly set Russia’s nuclear controllers on edge.
To appreciate just how risky any NATO-Russian clash in Norway’s far north would be, consider the region’s geography and the strategic factors that have led Russia to concentrate so much military power there. And all of this, by the way, will be playing out in the context of another existential danger: climate change. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the accelerated exploitation of Arctic resources are lending this area ever greater strategic significance.
Energy Extraction in the Far North
Look at any map of Europe and you’ll note that Scandinavia widens as it heads southward into the most heavily populated parts of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. As you head north, however, it narrows and becomes ever less populated. At its extreme northern reaches, only a thin band of Norway juts east to touch Russia’s Kola Peninsula. To the north, the Barents Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean, bounds them both. This remote region — approximately 800 miles from Oslo and 900 miles from Moscow — has, in recent years, become a vortex of economic and military activity.
Once prized as a source of vital minerals, especially nickel, iron ore, and phosphates, this remote area is now the center of extensive oil and natural gas extraction. With temperatures rising in the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet and sea ice retreating ever farther north every year, offshore fossil-fuel exploration has become increasingly viable. As a result, large reserves of oil and natural gas — the very fuels whose combustion is responsible for those rising temperatures — have been discovered beneath the Barents Sea and both countries are seeking to exploit those deposits. Norway has taken the lead, establishing at Hammerfest in Finnmark the world’s first plant above the Arctic Circle to export liquified natural gas. In a similar fashion, Russia has initiated efforts to exploit the mammoth Shtokman gas field in its sector of the Barents Sea, though it has yet to bring such plans to fruition.
For Russia, even more significant oil and gas prospects lie further east in the Kara and Pechora Seas and on the Yamal Peninsula, a slender extension of Siberia. Its energy companies have, in fact, already begun producing oil at the Prirazlomnoye field in the Pechora Sea and the Novoportovskoye field on that peninsula (and natural gas there as well). Such fields hold great promise for Russia, which exhibits all the characteristics of a petro-state, but there’s one huge problem: the only practical way to get that output to market is via specially-designed icebreaker-tankers sent through the Barents Sea past northern Norway.
The exploitation of Arctic oil and gas resources and their transport to markets in Europe and Asia has become a major economic priority for Moscow as its hydrocarbon reserves below the Arctic Circle begin to dry up. Despite calls at home for greater economic diversity, President Vladimir Putin’s regime continues to insist on the centrality of hydrocarbon production to the country’s economic future. In that context, production in the Arctic has become an essential national objective, which, in turn, requires assured access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Barents Sea and Norway’s offshore waters. Think of that waterway as vital to Russia’s energy economy in the way the Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, is to the Saudis and other regional fossil-fuel producers.
The Military Dimension
No less than Russia’s giant energy firms, its navy must be able to enter the Atlantic via the Barents Sea and northern Norway. Aside from its Baltic and Black Sea ports, accessible to the Atlantic only via passageways easily obstructed by NATO, the sole Russian harbor with unfettered access to the Atlantic Ocean is at Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula. Not surprisingly then, that port is also the headquarters for Russia’s Northern Fleet — its most powerful — and the site of numerous air, infantry, missile, and radar bases along with naval shipyards and nuclear reactors. In other words, it’s among the most sensitive military regions in Russia today.
Given all this, Putin has substantially rebuilt that very fleet, which fell into disrepair after the collapse of the Soviet Union, equipping it with some of the country’s most advanced warships. In 2018, according to The Military Balance, a publication of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, it already possessed the largest number of modern cruisers and destroyers (10) of any Russian fleet, along with 22 attack submarines and numerous support vessels. Also in the Murmansk area are dozens of advanced MiG fighter planes and a wide assortment of anti-aircraft defense systems. Finally, as 2019 ended, Russian military officials indicated for the first time that they had deployed to the Arctic the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, a weapon capable of hypersonic velocities (more than five times the speed of sound), again presumably to a base in the Murmansk region just 125 miles from Norway’s Finnmark, the site of the upcoming NATO exercise.
More significant yet is the way Moscow has been strengthening its nuclear forces in the region. Like the United States, Russia maintains a “triad” of nuclear delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range “heavy” bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), signed by the two countries in 2010, the Russians can deploy no more than 700 delivery systems capable of carrying no more than 1,550 warheads. (That pact will, however, expire in February 2021 unless the two sides agree to an extension, which appears increasingly unlikely in the age of Trump.) According to the Arms Control Association, the Russians are currently believed to be deploying the warheads they are allowed under New START on 66 heavy bombers, 286 ICBMs, and 12 submarines with 160 SLBMs. Eight of those nuclear-armed subs are, in fact, assigned to the Northern Fleet, which means about 110 missiles with as many as 500 warheads — the exact numbers remain shrouded in secrecy — are deployed in the Murmansk area.
For Russian nuclear strategists, such nuclear-armed submarines are considered the most “survivable” of the country’s retaliatory systems. In the event of a nuclear exchange with the United States, the country’s heavy bombers and ICBMs could prove relatively vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes as their locations are known and can be targeted by American bombs and missiles with near-pinpoint accuracy. Those subs, however, can leave Murmansk and disappear into the wide Atlantic Ocean at the onset of any crisis and so presumably remain hidden from U.S. spying eyes. To do so, however, requires that they pass through the Barents Sea, avoiding the NATO forces lurking nearby. For Moscow, in other words, the very possibility of deterring a U.S. nuclear strike hinges on its ability to defend its naval stronghold in Murmansk, while maneuvering its submarines past Norway’s Finnmark region. No wonder, then, that this area has assumed enormous strategic importance for Russian military planners — and the upcoming Cold Response 2020 is sure to prove challenging to them.
Washington’s Arctic Buildup
During the Cold War era, Washington viewed the Arctic as a significant strategic arena and constructed a string of military bases across the region. Their main aim: to intercept Soviet bombers and missiles crossing the North Pole on their way to targets in North America. After the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Washington abandoned many of those bases. Now, however, with the Pentagon once again identifying “great power competition” with Russia and China as the defining characteristic of the present strategic environment, many of those bases are being reoccupied and new ones established. Once again, the Arctic is being viewed as a potential site of conflict with Russia and, as a result, U.S. forces are being readied for possible combat there.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the first official to explain this new strategic outlook at the Arctic Forum in Finland last May. In his address, a kind of “Pompeo Doctrine,” he indicated that the United States was shifting from benign neglect of the region to aggressive involvement and militarization. “We’re entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic,” he insisted, “complete with new threats to the Arctic and its real estate, and to all of our interests in that region.” To better protect those interests against Russia’s military buildup there, “we are fortifying America’s security and diplomatic presence in the area… hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military.”
The Pentagon has been unwilling to provide many details, but a close reading of the military press suggests that this activity has been particularly focused on northern Norway and adjacent waters. To begin with, the Marine Corps has established a permanent presence in that country, the first time foreign forces have been stationed there since German troops occupied it during World War II. A detachment of about 330 Marines were initially deployed near the port of Trondheim in 2017, presumably to help guard nearby caves that contain hundreds of U.S. tanks and combat vehicles. Two years later, a similarly sized group was then dispatched to the Troms region above the Arctic Circle and far closer to the Russian border.
From the Russian perspective, even more threatening is the construction of a U.S. radar station on the Norwegian island of Vardø about 40 miles from the Kola Peninsula. To be operated in conjunction with the Norwegian intelligence service, the focus of the facility will evidently be to snoop on those Russian missile-carrying submarines, assumedly in order to target them and take them out in the earliest stages of any conflict. That Moscow fears just such an outcome is evident from the mock attack it staged on the Vardø facility in 2018, sending 11 Su-24 supersonic bombers on a direct path toward the island. (They turned aside at the last moment.) It has also moved a surface-to-surface missile battery to a spot just 40 miles from Vardø.
In addition, in August 2018, the U.S. Navy decided to reactivate the previously decommissioned Second Fleet in the North Atlantic. “A new Second Fleet increases our strategic flexibility to respond — from the Eastern Seaboard to the Barents Sea,” said Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson at the time. As last year ended, that fleet was declared fully operational.
Deciphering Cold Response 2020
Exercise Cold Response 2020 must be viewed in the context of all these developments. Few details about the thinking behind the upcoming war games have been made public, but it’s not hard to imagine what at least part of the scenario might be like: a U.S.-Russian clash of some sort leading to Russian attacks aimed at seizing that radar station at Vardø and Norway’s defense headquarters at Bodø on the country’s northwestern coast. The invading troops will be slowed but not stopped by Norwegian forces (and those U.S. Marines stationed in the area), while thousands of reinforcements from NATO bases elsewhere in Europe begin to pour in. Eventually, of course, the tide will turn and the Russians will be forced back.
No matter what the official scenario is like, however, for Pentagon planners the situation will go far beyond this. Any Russian assault on critical Norwegian military facilities would presumably be preceded by intense air and missile bombardment and the forward deployment of major naval vessels. This, in turn, would prompt comparable moves by the U.S. and NATO, probably resulting in violent encounters and the loss of major assets on all sides. In the process, Russia’s key nuclear retaliatory forces would be at risk and quickly placed on high alert with senior officers operating in hair-trigger mode. Any misstep might then lead to what humanity has feared since August 1945: a nuclear apocalypse on Planet Earth.
There is no way to know to what degree such considerations are incorporated into the classified versions of the Cold Response 2020 scenario, but it’s unlikely that they’re missing. Indeed, a 2016 version of the exercise involved the participation of three B-52 nuclear bombers from the U.S. Strategic Air Command, indicating that the American military is keenly aware of the escalatory risks of any large-scale U.S.-Russian encounter in the Arctic.
In short, what might otherwise seem like a routine training exercise in a distant part of the world is actually part of an emerging U.S. strategy to overpower Russia in a critical defensive zone, an approach that could easily result in nuclear war. The Russians are, of course, well aware of this and so will undoubtedly be watching Cold Response 2020 with genuine trepidation. Their fears are understandable — but we should all be concerned about a strategy that seemingly embodies such a high risk of future escalation.
Ever since the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons of their own in 1949, strategists have wondered how and where an all-out nuclear war — World War III — would break out. At one time, that incendiary scenario was believed most likely to involve a clash over the divided city of Berlin or along the East-West border in Germany. After the Cold War, however, fears of such a deadly encounter evaporated and few gave much thought to such possibilities. Looking forward today, however, the prospect of a catastrophic World War III is again becoming all too imaginable and this time, it appears, an incident in the Arctic could prove the spark for Armageddon.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, including the just-published, “All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change” (Metropolitan Books), on which this article is based.
This article is from TomDispatch.com.
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US/NATO exercises near the Russian border are reminiscent of NAZI Germany’s mass mobilization along the Soviet Union’s frontier just before Operation Barbarossa. Hitler’s obsession with Russia and “Lebensraum” for the German people seems to be no different from that of the US and Western Europe’s present day compulsion to dominate the Eurasian nation. Hitler’s invasion of Russia–like that of Napoleon—-served to sow the seeds of NAZI Germany’s destruction and any attempt to militarily confront the Russians today on their home turf will result in a worldwide Armageddon.
Thanks for this great article! The Russians are fully aware of the moronic behavior of the West and have already written the West off as a partner for the future. Yes, they would flatten Scandinavia, Western Europe and North America in a flash, if provoked. Look at the US. Its a joke. For 60 years now it has continued its downward spiral from the Toilet to the Septic Tank. Of course the Russians are watching very closely. Yes, they also are concerned that the US or NATO could try to move on their facilities.
I’m pretty sure someone else said that already.
I do object to the author’s use of the term, “Putin’s regime.”
It is the Russian government, full stop.
The use of that “regime” expression is so common in material from America that it is tiresome.
The phrase is a red flag concerning propaganda content, so why use it?
And by the way, anyone from a country where the president represents a minority of votes and the Congress literally runs on lobby money plus being a country that spends a trillion dollars a year on the military and state security, does seem slightly short-sighted about the meaning of the word “regime.”
Remember, too, America represents about five percent of the world’s population, yet in dozens of efforts, it tries to tell the other ninety-five percent how to run their affairs.
These war games are a waste of money. The Russians already “own” tbe Arctic Ocean.
They have a bakers dozen nuclear powered ice breakers and can traverse the entire arctic circle year around. Some of those ice breakers are armed.
The US has one WW11 era ice breaker.
The new Maritime Silk Road will open up the arctic to trade and military access to China and Europe.
Recently, they have moved a new floating nuclear power station capable of supplying a city of 100k to the northern most gas fields to bump up production. They have two more under construction.
The newly completed pipeline to China’s northern border has begun operation.
The US is a day late and a dollar short.
Who’s war gaming in the North? Is it Russia or is it the US? Who is it that is war gaming in Korea? Is it the US or N. Korea? The Russians complain that our war gaming looks more and more like preparations for an invasion and they have a point. Yet these war games are all based on the premise, unproven, that Russia might want to invade somebody. Get a grip, people! The US has done almost all the invading in recent memory (and no Russia did not invade Crimea unless you also want to admit that the US invaded Cuba) What’s the real purpose of these games beyond threatening the countries next to the games? Mr. Klare would do well to get a better grip on the world today, as well… “Russia, which exhibits all the characteristics of a petro-state,” Really? How many petro-states do you know that supply the world with 95% of the rocket motors used to launch space vehicles, who are also the leading exporter of wheat?
“all characteristics of a petro-state” are those shared by Nigeria, Norway and Russia, so there are not that many. The sentence was about developing new oil and gas fields, that is probably a shared characteristic.
In reality it is foolish and a waste of time to worry about what the A-Clowns at the Pentagoon are up to. Have they really done anything of import, ever? Maybe beat the Japanese in WWII. The Russians are not the Soviets. Putin is most likely the most intelligent and capable Statesman and Leader since the time of the American Revolution in all the World. The Russians are fully aware of the moronic behavior of the West and have already written the West off as a partner for the future. Yes, they would flatten Scandinavia, Western Europe and North America in a flash, if provoked. Look at the US. Its a joke. For 60 years now it has continued its downward spiral from the Toilet to the Septic Tank. Of course the Russians are watching very closely. Yes, they also are concerned that the US or NATO could try to move on their facilities. What a dimwitted thing to to do and even dumber to think it could somehow be done. Why would the Russians base Hyper-sonic Weapons near their Borders? What advantage would that give them? They already have clearly stated they will not initiate a War but they will finish it. I am sure most of the Retaliatory Weapons are in Eastern Russia. Far away from everyone and from peering eyes.
Does Nord Stream II count?
Murmansk is the main Russian port on open Atlantic, rather than Baltic or Black Sea. The reason is that it is reached by Gulf Stream, and thus in never freezes in winter, and therefore it is the main base for the fleet and submarines. Relocating the submarine base is not practical because the submarines are suppose to be a deterrent when they are in the ocean and not when they are in the port.
But we know HOW Americans would react if a Russian-led coalition installed radars and other monitoring electronics a little to the south of Tijuana, close to American bases in San Diego and Orange County. We can extrapolate from speeches about mortal danger posed by Cubans in Nicaragua which is “closer to Texas than blah blah”. And that even in the face of an obvious fact that when Cubans travel to Nicaragua, they are FURTHER from USA than at home. At least Russians do not complain that some NATO facility in Romania is closer to Stavropol region than Omsk.
In any case, what is more amusing is the lack of gratitude to Russia for making exercises more realistic:
Norway says it has electronic proof that Russian forces disrupted GPS signals during recent NATO exercises, and has demanded an explanation from its eastern neighbour, the Nordic country’s defence minister said on Monday (18 March).
Finland and Norway said in November 2018 that Russia may have intentionally disrupted GPS signals before and during military exercises last year, which have also affected the navigation of civilian air traffic in the region.
In late October 2018, NATO conducted its largest military exercises since the end of the Cold War in Europe’s North in Norway, amid growing tensions with Russia over Moscow’s development of new nuclear-ready missiles and uncertainty over the Trump administration’s commitment to transatlantic security.
“Trident Juncture”, which took place in an area stretching from the Baltic Sea to Iceland, involved 50,000 military personnel from 31 countries – the 29 NATO members plus non-members Sweden and Finland.
It used to be that housewives could find their way to the supermarket without GPS, or going further back, Barents found Novaya Zemlya without GPS (but he got stuck if I recall). But the newest generation of wives, and, apparently, NATO troops, cannot. Actually, other articles on “jamming topic” were pointing finger at ionosphere disturbances that are responsible for polar lights, bad radio reception etc., plus the pattern of orbits of GPS satellites that favors lower latitudes. And for a good reason! NATO in general and USA in particular should stick to climates that soldiers like, South Korea, Baden-Wirtenberg, Panama Canal zone, Okinawa… Who wants to be stationed at Aleutians?
With such huge, known and easily extractable reserves of both natural gas and oil, already available on the international markets, it’s difficult to imagine that any new discovery would be worth fighting a war over. CONSORTIUMNEWS readers may wish to review the website, howmuch.net. It shows an overview, in visual terms, all the major global crude oil reserves, displayed country by country in GBBL’s. Major gas reserves will always be in Eurasia (mostly in Iran and Russia)
The renewable s, parallel energy sources and strategies will overtake most of the world’s petrochemical industries anyway. Examples are many, such as solar, wind, not to mention energy conservation strategies, Thorium superseding Uranium reactor cores, perhaps the mining of Helium 3 on the moon, just sitting there waiting for NASA to retrieve it for use in Fusion power.
ASIDE: Visit Global Construction Review mag and the MIT breakthrough articles on fusion developments!
Superconductive electrical transport over vast distances will reduce dissipation losses by fifteen percent, nanotechnology will minimize surface air friction on commercial jets thus fuel consumption and so on…all these alternatives and improvements will, over the next ten to twenty years, converge to reduce carbon based energy to just a sliver of the new energy pie.
If a war appears on the horizon it will come from bankers financial decisions and will not be based on resource disputes, seizure and or control. Brexit keeps England out of any future military conflict in the EU. This signals the go ahead for war between Germany and Russia. Each side of this new conflict will marshal their respective allies, so in this case, the Baltic states and Poland allied with Merkel’s Germany.. (no wonder she’s been so visibly nervous lately)
HSBC bank (HQ at City of London) ranks 9th in the entire Asia Pacific consequently and has little interest in a full scale war with China however banker strategists in London may have calculated that an opportunity exists to forever weaken the continent (EU) should war between Germany and Russia break out.
Trump, of course, has no interest in picking a fight with Putin, he has his hands full with Venezuelan politics and it’s oil industry (Mobil Oil Corporation’s Plan A) Besides, any war between Russia and the USA would be, in absolute terms, far too costly.
Thank your for the great article. This article has helped me better understand U.S. military posture. Russia’s concerns are real. Also, Canada is very nervous that the Trump administration annex / steal from Canada everything North of the North West passage under the lie of U.S. security.
“Few details about the thinking behind the upcoming war games have been made public, but it’s not hard to imagine what at least part of the scenario might be like: a U.S.-Russian clash of some sort leading to Russian attacks aimed at seizing that radar station at Vardø and Norway’s defense headquarters at Bodø on the country’s northwestern coast.”
One aspect of such exercises is the extend of wasted resources. In the case of ongoing peace, prepositioning huge amount of hardware AND a cumbersome logistic chain capable to operate in very adverse weather condition costs quite a bit, contributing to combined NATO budget that is well over billion dollars. In the case of war, Russia presumably prepares countermeasures that cost vastly less. For example, if they want to eliminate radar + submarine listening station, they can destroy it with missiles without getting close. So there is an arm race of missiles that can get through missile defenses and those defenses. Similarly, missiles can damage access to caves with prepositioned hardware.
Russian command clearly cannot plan to send huge ground forces into Norway with all the support needed to counter NATO response, but they can prepare defenses nixing utility of NATO preparations. It would cost them some, but they have structural and geographic advantages to afford it.
In the meantime, “we cannot afford universal healthcare” etc.
Imagine a world where diplomacy and arms reduction treaties win the day. All the expenditure of resources and manpower currently wasted on how best to destroy our fellow man and our planet could be redirected to positive actions to move to sustainable energy sources and economies that benefit the average person.
I firmly believe that we would have willing partners abroad. The problem lies with the entrenchment of warmongers in government and corporations feeding at the trough without any accounting whatsoever. “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”- Pogo
The stark heading says it all. The Arctic is the latest battlefield, one of many flashpoints globally where WWIII might break out. There are now so many it is becoming increasingly difficult to ultimately avoid nuclear war. But there is very little discussion. For my own contribution to the debate read my free book, Never Forget the Ghosts of History (WordPress) and the accompanying essay, as to why we seem determined on our own destruction.