A not widely publicized deployment of vessels from the Russian Navy jumped into the news yesterday when a helicopter based on the nuclear-powered cruiser Pyotr Veliky, the flagship of the Northern Fleet, was totalled in a hard landing. Part of what made the accident news was where it happened: in the Kara Sea along Russia's Arctic Coast, near Kotelny Island in the Novosibirsk Archipelago (potentially the future home of the domed science city of Umka, according to that project's designers). The incident has touched off intense public discussion in the Russian media, during which one retired military officer drew out the world-war implications of U.S. ship-based anti-missile deployments to Russia's north.
In the past, large surface ships have ventured into this region only if accompanied by an icebreaker, but lower Arctic ice levels have allowed the Northern Sea Route to be used more freely. For decades, surface ships of the Northern Fleet have left Murmansk only to the west, into the Atlantic, never sailing eastward along the Arctic coast. According to an article by Victor Savenkov for Svpressa.ru, the last time a large battleship was in the Kara Sea region was August 1942, when a German heavy cruiser sank the Soviet icebreaker Alexander Sibiryakov.
Svpressa.ru interviewed Russian naval experts on what the Pyotr Veliky's mission might be in the Kara Sea, given that it is not an antisubmarine warfare (ASW) platform, and the type of surface ships it would potentially engage do not frequent the Arctic coast. Admiral (ret.) Valentin Selivanov, former commander of Russia's Mediterranean Squadron, said that, besides taking advantage of the weather to reach relatively nearby training areas that were not previously so accessible, a major factor was "to demonstrate that we are prepared to defend our interests in the Arctic militarily."
Col. Anatoli Tsyganok, director of a think tank called the Center for Military Forecasting, told Svpressa.ru that Russia has informed European countries wanting to use the Northern Sea Route, that they must pay for the use of Russian-built infrastructure there, and that any foreign warships must give notice through the Foreign Ministry of their planned routes in the region. "Thus, we are now viewing the Northern Sea Route seriously, not only as a commercial connection, but also as an important military route," said Tsyganok. He cited Russia's planned airborne landing exercises in the Arctic, as well as the development of motorized infantry brigades for Far North operations.
Tsyganok also replied affirmatively to a question about the deployment of U.S. Aegis-equipped ships in the Arctic, which would position them within striking distance of "the shortest trajectories of our ICBMs to the USA." The Aegis radar/anti-missile system is the main component of the U.S. "European Ballistic Missile Defense" program, which Moscow identifies as a threat to its strategic nuclear deterrent. "It is not to be excluded," said Tsyganok, that the Pyotr Veliky's cruise is related to such concerns. "The Americans are developing their BMD system in the north, just as in the south. Aegis-equipped ships regularly enter the Bering Strait," he added. "This is a threat to our security. Because it's one thing if BMD-equipped vessels appear along our southern borders and in the Mediterranean, but in the event of war, Russian missiles will fly to the USA across the North Pole. So it's another matter altogether, when such ships show up to the north of our country, and seek the ability to shoot down our missiles in the most vulnerable, boost phrase."