Gorbachev's Murmansk Initiative:

New Prospects for Arms Control in the Arctic?

Dan Hayward


The significance of the Arctic for the national security of the Soviet Union has resulted in attention being paid periodically in Soviet foreign policy to arms control for the Far North. The most recent instance was General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's speech in Murmansk late last year. The Soviet Arctic is of great strategic importance to Moscow for a variety of reasons, not the least being the fact that 55 per cent of the total land area of the Soviet Union lies north of 60° latitude and that half of the Soviet coastline is on the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, the Soviet northlands provide much of the country's production of strategic resources, such as oil, natural gas, and uranium. Finally, the Northern Sea Route along the Soviet arctic coast provides an east-west transportation corridor less vulnerable to possible Western and Chinese interdiction than the Suez Canal or the Siberian railways.1

Militarily, the Soviet Union has always been restricted by its lack of access to the open ocean. Its only year-round access to the Atlantic is from the ice-free ports on the Kola Peninsula through the Barents and Norwegian seas. The Soviet Northern Fleet's Kola bases host 172 submarines (39 of them capable of firing ballistic missiles) and 41 major surface warships. In addition to extensive naval facilities, the Kola also has 11 active military airfields.

The Arctic Basin and Soviet arctic territories are integral to the maintenance of Soviet nuclear forces. The Barents and Kara seas are the operating areas for the Northern Fleet's ballistic-missile submarines, protected by the ice cover and by the surface naval and air forces based on the Kola. Plesetsk, located inland on the Onega River, is a base for intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as a missile test-site and important space-launch facility. Arctic waters and territory are used for both test launchings and impacts of land-based and sea-based missiles, and underground nuclear tests take place on the island of Novaya Zemlya. In wartime, the Soviet bomber force could mount an attack on North America from northern staging and dispersal fields and, of course, use arctic airspace for its flights. Finally, the Soviet homeland is protected by a northern network of early-warning radars to detect air and missile attacks.


Renewed Interest

 Soviet interest in arms control for the Far North was first articulated by Premier Nikolai Bulganin in a 1958 proposal for a zone in northern Europe "free of atomic and hydrogen weapons". Although proposals for a "Nordic nuclear-weapons-free zone" have been the most prominent and continuing feature of Soviet arms control policy for the Arctic, Gorbachev's new proposal was much broader, calling for an arctic "zone of peace". This "Murmansk initiative" has been reiterated by Soviet diplomats abroad and was emphasized by Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov on his trip through Scandinavia.

 Speaking in Murmansk on 1 October 1987, Gorbachev dealt extensively with domestic issues, such as economic restructuring or perestroika, before beginning the arms control portion of his address. Appealing to the Scandinavian countries, he said that the northern European nations were the most receptive to new thinking, and he lauded Scandinavian leaders for their disarmament efforts. He went on to praise Norway and Denmark for not allowing foreign military bases and nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime.

 Gorbachev then described the "threatening character" of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) militarization of the North, noting such developments as possible compensation for the elimination of European intermediate-range missiles through the deployment of sea and air-launched cruise missiles, the modernization of the early warning radar at Thule, Greenland by the United States, and, of particular interest to Canadians, U.S. cruise-missile testing in the Canadian North and Canada's "vest program for a build-up of forces in the Arctic".

 Saying, "Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace", Gorbachev then proposed a six-point program for talks on limiting and reducing military activity in the region.

First, he said, Moscow would act as a guarantor of a Nordic nuclear-weapons-free zone, and would discuss "possible measures applicable to Soviet territory" as part of such a zone, including the withdrawal of ballistic-missile submarines from the Baltic Fleet. Gorbachev noted that medium-range missile launchers on the Kola Peninsula had been unilaterally dismantled, many shorter-range missiles redeployed, and military exercises in border areas restricted to demonstrate Soviet willingness to explore opportunities for "military détente" in northern Europe.

 Second, Gorbachev welcomed suggestions made by Finnish President Mauno Koivisto on restricting naval activities in the seas adjacent to northern Europe, and proposed talks between NATO and the Warsaw Pact on extending confidence-building measures to the Baltic, North, Norwegian, and Greenland seas. These measures could include the limitation of anti-submarine weapons, prior notification of major naval exercises, and invitation of observers to exercises. A meeting of interested countries, he suggested, could be held in Leningrad to discuss prohibiting naval activity in "mutually agreed-upon zones of international straits and in intensive shipping lanes in general". Gorbachev also referred to the Novaya Zemlya nuclear test-site, saying that an agreement by Washington to end or restrict nuclear tests would "resolve once and for all" the problem of Soviet nuclear tests in the Arctic.

The third point of the proposal covered peaceful co-operation in resource development, including a single energy program for northern Europe and joint exploitation of resources on the Kola Peninsula. Canada and Norway were mentioned as possible partners for oil and gas development in northern waters.

 Fourth, Gorbachev stated that the Soviet Union attaches a great deal of importance to scientific exploration of the Arctic. He therefore proposed a conference of circumpolar nations for 1988, possibly to be held in Murmansk, to co-ordinate scientific study and examine the creation of an international scientific council for the Arctic.

 The fifth point proposed drafting a comprehensive environmental protection plan for the Arctic. As an example, Gorbachev mentioned a northern European agreement on monitoring the state of the environment and "radiation safety", a reference to the effect on Scandinavia of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.


Finally, "depending on progress in the normalization of international relations," the Soviets could open the Northern Sea Route to foreign ships escorted by Soviet ice-breakers.

 Soviet officials have since furnished more details on the points of the Murmansk initiative. Alexei Makarov, minister-counsellor at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, told Canadian journalists in October, and again in February, that Moscow would be willing to discuss cuts in its military strength on the Kola, provided NATO reduces the pace of its "build-up" in the North. He reiterated Gorbachev's closing remarks that the Soviet Union is ready to discuss any counter-proposals.


Words into Action

 Speaking in Stockholm on 11 January, Premier Ryzhkov said that the Soviet leadership had considered further ideas to translate the Murmansk initiative into concrete actions. He announced that Moscow would invite observers from the Nordic countries to a Soviet naval exercise in 1988. He also proposed that the limitation and reduction of naval and air activities in the Baltic, North, Norwegian and Greenland seas be discussed by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and subsequently be included on the agenda of the second phase of the Conference on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe (CCSBMDE), saying that the Soviet Union is prepared to add the Barents Sea to the waters under discussion. Sweden and Finland should be invited to the talks as well, Ryzhkov added.

In Oslo on 14 January, Ryzhkov stated that the Soviets are ready to reach agreement on several points: limiting major air and naval exercises in the specified seas to one every two years; banning U.S. and Soviet anti-submarine activities in specified waters; prohibiting naval manoeuvers in major Atlantic sea lanes and fishing banks; and limiting the number and classes of ships allowed to concentrate in bays and sounds in international waters. For the first time, he mentioned the English Channel as an area to be included in any agreement.


Mixed Reviews

 Western reaction to the Mummansk speech and Soviet follow-up diplomacy has, on the whole, been lukewarm. Finnish President Koivisto welcomed the Gorbachev proposals, but European community foreign ministers meeting in Denmark in October and Nordic foreign ministers in Norway in March rejected them. Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, apparently not won over by Gorbachev's expressed support in Murmansk for her United Nations environmental commission, expressed interest in Ryzhkov's proposals, but said that Norway would resist any attempt to separate it from its NATO allies. Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark and Defence Minister Perrin Beatty both called on the Soviets to reduce their military strength on the Kola as a sign of their good intentions. U.S. Officials have taken the position that the initiative "tries to divide the alliance into regions of lesser or greater importance" and that the North cannot be considered in isolation from other NATO areas.

 The Murmansk initiative is clearly an important signal of Soviet interest in circumpolar co-operation on such matters as environmental protection, resource development, and scientific exploration. The Soviet "openness" in these areas is further reflected in the Soviet draft of the proposed Canada-U.S.S.R. arctic co-operation treaty, which provides for environmental, navigation, and scientific co-operation.2

These points of the Gorbachev initiative warrant close scrutiny by Canada and its arctic neighbours, given the Mulroney government's declared willingness to promote circumpolar co-operation.

 The arms control portion of the Murmansk speech, however, must be examined critically. While purporting to create an Arctic "zone of peace", it would in reality limit NATO military activity in Scandinavia and the adjacent seas to a greater degree than Warsaw Pact activity. The original address failed to include the Kola Peninsula-the largest concentration of military power in the world-in the framework of the talks, as well as the Barents and Kara seas, in which the Soviet Northern Fleet and much of the Soviet sea-based strategic nuclear force operates. The Kola and Barents have now been mentioned by Soviet officials, but no details have been provided concerning what limitations or reductions in force strength and activities would be considered for them.

 The concessions mentioned by Gorbachev-the dismantling of medium-range missiles on the Kola and the willingness to withdraw ballistic-missile submarines from the Baltic-are in fact withdrawals of obsolete systems rather than real cuts in Soviet strength. The Golf-class boats deployed in the Baltic were built in the 1960s, are conventionally rather than nuclear-powered, and carry the SS-N-5 missile with a range so short (1080 km) that the weapon was not counted in the SALT II arms limitation treaty.

 There is, in fact, very little that is really new in the specific arms control proposals made at Murmansk, although more detail has been given than in the past. Since 1958 the Kremlin has consistently promoted a Nordic nuclear-free zone, and the Soviet Union has periodically attempted to extend the confidence- and security-building measures to be discussed in the CCSBMDE to naval and air manoeuvres.

Any country's arms control policy is intended to complement its defence policy, and Soviet arms control policy is no exception. The Murmansk proposals are designed to support the tasks of the Soviet military in the Arctic: seizing control of the West's lines of communication through the Arctic, defence against aerial threats; protection of the Soviet sea-based strategic nuclear force; and safeguarding the forces and infrastructure supporting the nuclear arsenal.3 In particular, the proposals would restrict NATO naval operations along the northern lines of communication and in the seas closest to Soviet ballistic-missile submarine patrol areas; limit the number of weapons available to NATO for anti-submarine warfare and ban anti-submarine operations in certain areas; and remove NATO's nuclear weapons infrastructure from Norway and Denmark. The control of maritime chokepoints, which is central to Soviet strategy in the arctic theatre, is aided by limiting NATO's use of the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. Gap, the English Channel, and the Baltic approaches. Furthermore, for reasons of verifiability, it is likely that the proposed naval restrictions would exclude submarines, giving Soviet attack and ballistic-missile submarines free rein while constraining NATO's anti-submarine efforts.

The arms control portion of the Murmansk speech is, therefore, largely a repackaging and elaboration of previous Soviet proposals intended to produce a unilateral Soviet advantage. It is also another attempt to pursue a consistent Soviet foreign policy goal: the fostering of a division within NATO, in this case splitting Norway and Denmark from the other allies.

However, from an arms control point of view, Gorbachev's Murmansk speech is not completely lacking in promise. There is certainly some merit to the development of confidence-building measures for the seas; notification of manoeuvres, for instance, may be worth exploring as a means of preventing the disguise of "surges" of naval forces in preparation for war as mere exercises. NATO could make a counter-proposal to begin negotiations which attempt to prevent clashes between naval forces, arriving at a NATO-Warsaw Pact accord along the lines of the U.S.-Soviet and Anglo-Soviet Incidents at Sea agreements. The Canadian government, which stated in December 1986 that it would seek to limit excessive militarization of the Arctic, should take the lead in exploring possible NATO responses.

 There is, therefore, something to applaud in the Murmansk initiative: the fostering of circumpolar co-operation and the general lessening of tensions in the region. But the "zone of peace" does not live up to Soviet hype. Only a few of the specific measures proposed deserve further exploration. The most promising approach to arctic security through arms control may be to pursue measures of global applicability which will influence arctic strategic problems, such as restrictions on sea-launched cruise missiles.



1. See Ron Purver, .'The Strategic Importance of the Arctic Region", in R.B. Byers and Michael Slack, eds., Strategy and the Arctic. (Toronto: Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies, 1986), pp. 31-32.

2. See John Merritt, ''Has Glasnost Come Knocking?", Northern Perspectives, Special Edition, October 1987.

 3. Charles C. Petersen, "Soviet Military Objectives in the Arctic Theater", Naval War College Review, Autumn 1987, pp. 3 4.


Dan Hayward is a research assistant with the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament in Ottawa.

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