While the United States and its allies watch Russian strongman Vladimir Putin dismember Ukraine and carve out a foothold in the Mediterranean, they should keep an eye on the Arctic.
“Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic,” Putin says. “We should pay more attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position.”
Toward that end, Russia has opened a string of new military bases in the Arctic, including an air-defense facility, landing strips capable of handling heavy-lift transport planes and military barracks. Moscow plans to build 13 airbases in the Arctic and has unveiled a new Arctic command that will field four Arctic-ready brigades.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for Putin. In 2002, Putin’s Russia claimed almost half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole. A 2009 Kremlin strategy paper placed a priority on securing energy resources in “the Barents Sea shelf and other Arctic regions.” In 2013, Russia announced it would construct four new warships expressly for Arctic operations, along with a constellation of border outposts on its Arctic frontier. In 2014, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote the foreword to a book advocating “the historical and judicial right of Russia for the return of the lost colonies, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.” And in mid-2015, Russia’s top general announced, “The Defense Ministry will focus its efforts on increasing the combat capabilities of its units and increasing combat strength…in Crimea, the Kaliningrad region and the Arctic.”
“Russia intends, without a doubt, to expand its presence in the Arctic,” Putin huffs. “Naturally, the defense of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.”
Why does Putin care so much about the Arctic? Two words: energy and power. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil. Oil and gas account for more than 50 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue. New energy finds in North America and Saudi Arabia’s willingness to flood the market are driving down the cost of energy. This is battering Russia’s one-dimensional economy. To reverse that or at least blunt its effects, “Russia must make huge investments in exploring and recovering oil from virgin deposits…of the east Siberian region and the Arctic shelf,” as an AEI study explains.
Russia’s claims are different than that of other Arctic nations both in the way the claims are being made and in the nature of the claims: Other nations are not laying claim to half of the region or the entire North Pole. Other nations are not making territorial claims in a brazen military context.
As he has shown in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin has no problem using force to defend his claims and expand Russia’s borders. If Russia continues down its current path—using bluster and military deployments to justify its claims—it will achieve a fait accompli in the Arctic. To prevent that unhappy outcome, the United States needs to take prudent steps to defend its Arctic interests and promote a rules-based order in the Arctic. After all, developing the Arctic’s bounty in a transparent manner governed by the rule of law and sound trade practices makes more sense than allowing Moscow to, quite literally, divide and conquer.
However, the United States is not currently postured to challenge Putin’s a might-makes-right approach to the Arctic.
For example, the United States has only two operational polar icebreakers—one of which is a medium-duty vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has exceeded its 30-year lifespan. Russia, by contrast, deploys 40 icebreakers and has another dozen planned or under construction, according to the U.S. Naval Institute.
It wasn’t always this way. The U.S. deployed eight heavy icebreakers at the height of the Cold War. Adm. Robert Papp, former chief of the U.S. Coast Guard and now U.S. ambassador-at-large for Arctic issues, warns this icebreaker gap could haunt the United States. “While our Navy can go under the ice with submarines—and, when the Arctic weather permits, which is not all that often, we can fly over the ice—our nation has very limited Arctic surface capabilities. But surface capabilities are what we need to conduct missions like search and rescue, environmental response, and to provide a consistent and visible sovereign presence,” he explains.
In addition, the administration plans to cut 2,630 troops based in Alaska, and the Army plans to cut its only cold-weather airborne brigade.
As Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft bluntly says of U.S. Arctic capabilities, “We're not even in the same league as Russia right now.”
There is a solution: Borrow a page from what worked during the Cold War and build an alliance of Arctic nations to pool resources and protect shared interests. The Arctic Council is not well suited for such a role given that it is expressly forbidden from dealing with military-security issues.
The good news is that four of the seven nations with territories bordering the Arctic are members of NATO (United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway), and a fifth (Sweden) is a de facto member of the alliance, collaborating extensively with NATO in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya and air-defense operations in Eastern Europe. With a wary eye on Russia, these Arctic allies are getting serious about Arctic security.
Norway has moved its military headquarters above the Arctic Circle, transferred “a substantial part of its operational forces to the north” and based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Toronto Star adds that Norway is procuring 48 F-35s “partly because of their suitability for Arctic patrols.” Norway is routinely hosting multinational Arctic maneuvers, including a 15-nation exercise on the edge of the Arctic Circle in February-March 2016 enfolding 16,000 troops (1,900 of them U.S. Marines).
Norway, Sweden and Finland have developed what The Economist magazine calls a “Nordic security partnership” as a hedge against unwelcomed Russian activity in the Arctic. Sweden has held large-scale Arctic war games featuring 12,000 troops.
Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland and deploying a joint-service Arctic Response Force.
Canada is building an Arctic Training Center halfway between the Arctic Circle and the North Pole; conducting maneuvers to defend its Arctic territories; and procuring a squadron of drones—some of them armed—to be Ottawa’s “eyes in the sky in the Arctic,” according to Canada’s top air force general.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have joined Norway, Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers. In late 2012, the U.S. and Canada agreed to deepen their military cooperation in the Arctic, with a focus on cold-weather operations, training, capabilities, domain awareness and communications. The Pentagon unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy in 2013. The strategy cites a range of national-security interests in the Arctic, including: missile defense, missile-launch warning, strategic sealift, strategic deterrence, maritime security and maritime freedom of maneuver. In 2015, for only the second time 52 years, Marine units deployed to the Army's Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska to train alongside Army units in cold-weather mountain warfare. And it was announced in December 2015 that for the first time in 35 years, the U.S. is building a new polar icebreaker.
NATO officials have pointedly declared the Arctic a region of “strategic interest to the alliance.” For its part, Norway is urging NATO to be more engaged in defending allied interests and territories in the Arctic. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen noted before he left NATO’s top civilian post, NATO members “bordering the Arctic region…would expect that NATO’s Article 5 applies to all NATO territories, including a NATO territory in the Arctic region.” (Article 5 is NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause.) However, as of now, there is not a critical mass of support within the alliance for a higher NATO profile in the Arctic. That would change with more leadership from Washington.
With or without NATO, the United States and its allies should develop a collaborative security component for the Arctic. Coordinating U.S. capabilities and plans with fellow Arctic members of NATO makes sense for at least three reasons.
First, it would prevent duplication of procurement, enable the pooling of assets, allow for a rational division of labor and free each ally to play to its strengths.
Second, it would underscore the allies’ seriousness about Arctic development and put Putin on the defensive. If the allies make farsighted moves in the Arctic, they could force Putin to pull back elsewhere.
Third, it would enable the United States and its closest allies to deal with Moscow on an equal footing in the Arctic. Putin has far fewer economic, military and diplomatic chess pieces at his disposal than the combined resources of the United States and its NATO partners. The operative word here is combined.
As Churchill observed, dealing with Russia is about strength. “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness,” he said at the beginning of the Cold War. When the message is “hard and consistent,” to borrow Putin’s language, Russia will get the point and take a cooperative posture. When the message is weak and inconsistent, Russia will take what it can get.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.