National Security & Defense

Is a Truly Cold War Emerging in the Arctic?

The Seawolf-class fast-attack submarine USS Connecticut surfaces through the ice in the Beaufort Sea during ICEX 2018 exercises. (Mass Communication Specialist First Class Daniel Hinton/US Navy)
The U.S. and Russia have ramped up their jockeying for regional hegemony as melting sea ice gives humans increasing access to resource-rich Arctic waters.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently acknowledged to Reuters that there has been “a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic” and expressed concern about Russia’s expanding military influence in the region. Russian officials, meanwhile, have grown suspicious of increased NATO activity in the Arctic. In April, President Vladimir Putin complained that “NATO conducted the largest exercises in the region” and that Russia’s” aviation activity in the Baltic Sea zone, in the Arctic, is an order of magnitude lower than the activity of NATO countries.” With the relations between the U.S. and Russia already fraught, the Arctic could soon become the site of a very cold war.

The new intensity of the jockeying over the Arctic stems from the increased rate of melting sea ice, which has created new trade routes through the region and increased accessibility to the vast resources it contains. Various studies have shown that the Arctic “encompasses about six percent of the Earth’s surface and an estimated 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered fossil fuel resources,” according to a paper by two scholars at Webster Vienna Private University. Additionally, it is estimated that around “90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is located under the region’s disputed international waters.” These factors have the potential to change  “the regional geopolitical landscape” between Russia and the United States as each strives for Arctic hegemony.

In June, the Department of Defense released its Arctic Strategy. The report updates the 2016 DOD Arctic Strategy. It identifies America’s desire for “a secure and stable [Arctic] region in which U.S. national security interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended, and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges.” The report expresses particular concerns about the Northern Sea Route, which seems to be one key source of the regional tensions between Russia and the U.S. The route, which lies in Arctic waters off Russia’s northern coast, is the quickest sea passageway linking East Asia with the European part of Russian Federation. “In the Northern Sea Route, Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships, and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” Pompeo told Reuters.

Why is the route such a focus of the budding conflict? Russia has an obvious interest in controlling access to the arctic. According to the Warsaw Institute, the region is vital to the country’s energy policy and accounts for 30 percent of its GDP. “I think the Russians have a grand strategy, having to do with the Northern Sea Route,” says author Timothy J. Colton, the chairman of the Department of Government at Harvard University. The DOD report specifies that the U.S. wants the region to remain safe and stable. In the long term, this could be hard to accomplish as long as each country is suspicious of the other’s motives. Russian efforts to control the Northern Sea Route could easily lead the U.S. to build up its forces and Russia to respond in kind, sparking an arms race that each side blames on the other.

Russia views itself as the preeminent Arctic power. It is already the largest Arctic country by landmass and population, and its commercial and military investments in the region have produced a formidable return. If the United States is to vie for Arctic supremacy with Russia, it will need to devote more resources to operations in the area. As one expert on the Arctic region affirmed, “to control the Arctic you need to have an icebreaking fleet.” Presently, while Russia has 40 icebreakers – including some that are nuclear — the U.S. has a 1976 Polar Star heavy icebreaker and the USCGC Healey (WAGB-20), which debuted in 2000. This is a significant discrepancy and the deficit will not be erased anytime soon. Congress recently approved funding to build six new icebreakers by 2026.

Russia’s official state policy is to “expand the resource base of the Arctic.” The Kremlin views the region as a potential “national strategic resource base capable of fulfilling the socio-economic tasks associated with national growth.” As the world adapts and evolves from the effects of climate change, competition for Arctic resources will intensify. Given Russia’s native Arctic landmass and America’s fleet deficit, the U.S. is already falling behind.

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