What was once a battle for the moon has now become a race to the Arctic between the West and Russia. On September 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia’s military presence in the Arctic is one of nation’s top priorities, arguing that it will protect shipping routes between Europe and the Pacific. But a few Western countries are wary about Russian military in the Arctic. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said America would increase a presence in the Arctic while Canada expressed deep concerns. But a strong Russian existence puts Alaska and America’s access to natural resources at risk.
In November 2013, the United States confirmed a plan for a presence in the Arctic due to melting ice caps. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the melting ice leads to new shipping routes and boost tourism around Alaska. He also said “the US military would adopt infrastructure and capabilities ‘at a pace consistent with changing conditions.'”
“Throughout human history, mankind has raced to discover the next frontier. And time after time, discovery was swiftly followed by conflict,” he said. “We cannot erase this history. But we can assure that history does not repeat itself in the Arctic.”
Hagel suggested the situation could develop stronger ties between Russia and the West.
“By taking advantage of multilateral training opportunities with partners in the region, we will enhance our cold-weather operational experience, and strengthen our military-to-military ties with other Arctic nations,” said Hagel. “This includes Russia.”
But as Hagel delivered this speech, the relationship between the West and Russia deteriorate in November after Ukrainians rebelled against their Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, who decided on a trade plan with Russia over one with the European Union. A month later, Putin said Russia will expand into the Arctic even though the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway all claimed a stake in the cold lands. Putin said military is necessary “for protection of its security and national interests there.” In 2007, Russia dropped a Russian flag to the ocean floor at the North Pole as a symbolic claim to the region.
Tensions between the West and Russia never went away after the fall of the Soviet Union, but Putin and Russia’s involvement in Ukraine only increased the tension to Cold War levels. Putin knows what he wants and is not afraid to grab it. He knows the West can threaten sanctions and penalties, but Russia’s wealth in oil and natural gas greatly protects him from the consequences these may otherwise have. He can poke and prod the West and more than likely escape any harmful punishment.
On September 8, Russia’s military claimed construction on new military bases started in the region. It is the first time for new construction at the bases since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“On Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt, block-modules have been unloaded for the construction of military camps,” said Eastern Military District spokesman Colonel Alexander Gordeyev. “The complex is being erected in the form of a star.”
The Russians never used Wrangel Island, which is in the Arctic Ocean and separates “the East Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea,” in the Cold War. In August, Russian military rooted the Russian flag on the island to claim it. However, Wrangel Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means no construction of any kind can take place. It is another example that Putin will grab what he wants no matter the consequence.
Canada took no time to voice concerns over Russia’s growth in the Arctic. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper immediately said Canada is concerned over Russia’s growth in the Arctic.
“Cautious in the following sense: that we haven’t seen, obviously, the kind of aggressive moves in the Arctic that we have seen in eastern Europe by the Russians,” he said. “In fact, we have actually seen the Russian government … actually operating within international rules. However, I don’t think — because of what’s happening elsewhere and because of what’s happened for many years now — we should be complacent about this.”
Canada was the first Western country to stand up to Russia after the Ukraine-Russia crisis started in November. Harper announced Canada intended to boycott the then-G8 summit in Sochi, demanded Russia lose membership to the G8, and he was the first Western leader to visit Ukraine after parliament ousted Yanukovych in February. In retaliation, Russia “tested the boundaries of Canadian airspace.”
“I just think we should not be complacent, because we have seen over the period that President Putin has been in power just a gradual growing in aggressiveness of his government toward neighbours and the gradual military assertiveness of that country, and I just think it’s something we should never be too at ease about,” said Harper.
But why is everyone on edge over the Arctic? After all, humans cannot live there and growth cannot prosper. One can only reach Wrangel Island by helicopter or icebreaker boats in the summer. The answer is oil. In March, a week before Russia took Crimea from Ukraine, David Slayton from the Hoover Institution and CAN Corporation’s senior legal advisor Mark Rosen penned an op-ed at CNN that highlighted the consequences if America does not claim any of the natural resources in the Arctic, especially since Russia is just grabbing any land and claiming it for their own. The men said “it would be wise for Washington to seriously consider the economic potential and security vulnerabilities that exist on or near the US Arctic coastline.” Slayton and Rosen criticize the Department of Defense Arctic Strategy because it “dances around the issue” and panders to the environmentalists. From CNN:
But just saying “no” ignores the fact that the precious Arctic mineral and oil and gas resources will help assure the United States is able, over time, to achieve and then maintain its energy independence.
Science is incredibly important, as is safe and responsible development of the Arctic, but our agencies and scientists need to approach these issues with a greater sense of urgency. Arguably, the science needs to be a component of a detailed national action, but that’s only a fraction of good U.S. policy.
Slayton and Rosen propose these four points for the Obama administration:
One: Demonstrate leadership in the Arctic and develop a strategy and policy to match. The U.S. has no leadership in the high north and Russia does, which is a great concern for our allies.
Two: Invest in infrastructure, Navy and Coast Guard to support U.S. security and commercial interests in the Arctic. The key here is to develop the policy that drives those requirements so we are not “late to need.”
Three: Demonstrate leadership in the maritime domain worldwide — and not retreat as we are doing by default in the Arctic.
Four: Facilitate and further develop offshore natural resources in the high north/Alaska and the national, international, maritime and geopolitical governance structures that will underpin those enterprises.
The Arctic presents energy resources on a silver platter for America, especially since the Middle East is in chaos and another Iraq War is on the horizon.