Authors: Mathieu Barron and Dr. Jahara Matisek*
It should not be a surprise that the Arctic is melting: climatic warming was identified by the scientific community in 1979.More alarming, though, is that 58% of Arctic sea ice has melted since 1980. Besides being troubling for environmental reasons, the melting of the Arctic opens a Pandora’s Box of geopolitical disputes over ownership of economic resources and newly navigable sea lanes. Chief among the dispute is the claiming of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZs) as dictated by the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of Sea. Such EEZ areas grant a country 200 nautical miles of exclusive access and rights to resources, such as fishing, natural gas, oil, minerals, etc. In the Arctic, there are valuable mineral resources, to include, nickel, copper, coal, gold, iron, natural gas, oil, uranium, tungsten, and diamonds, and then there are vast biological resources (e.g. fish, etc.).
The treasure trove of resources would be incredibly useful to any state, whether it be Russia or Norway. More importantly, numerous sea lanes are soon to open, to include the Bering Strait and the Transpolar Sea Route, which cuts directly through the Arctic Circle. With the Arctic being a dynamic environment, how should the United States (US)act to promote American prosperity to advance influence in the region?
Before identifying “success,” it is imperative to get a grasp of the region as a whole – who the main actors are, what the primary issues are, what the history of the region is. In the Arctic’s case, the Arctic Council is a who’s who in the northernmost portion of the planet. The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum with eight members: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US. In addition, there are six permanent participants, each representing indigenous Arctic peoples. The Council was founded to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction between its members. Generally, this means working together to respond to oil spills, management of fisheries, scientific research, and search and rescue operations.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there were multilateral operations in icebreaking and search and rescue, to include founding of the Arctic Council in 1996. However, the current Arctic environment in the 21st century is framed by great power competition from Russia and China, who are deviating from norms of conduct regarding the region. Moreover, these two countries are contriving new ways of boxing the US and other Western allies out of the region by signing trade deals with one another and building up Arctic military capabilities that are outpacing the West.
A Russian Arctic?
Russia is America’s biggest competitor in the realm of the Arctic for good reason. About a half of the Arctic – its people, and coastline, and likely a half of its hidden resources – belong to Russia. Even more, the Arctic sea ice on the Russian end melts faster and fuller than the ice on the Canadian end, allowing for more access to resources and shipping lanes. Outside of their geographic advantage, Russia maintains a significant edge in military assets in the Arctic Circle, showing no intention of reducing this footprint.
A 2017reportshowed that Russia stationed 19 warships and 34 submarines in the Arctic, compared to one American warship and no submarines. From a 2018estimate, there are six Russian bases in the Arctic, each equipped with S-400 anti-aircraft weapons systems alongside forty icebreakers between the bases. More troubling, a Canadian report claims that Russian military investments are increasing in the Arctic, leading to the development of four brigade combat teams, 14 operational airfields, 16 deep-water ports, and11 icebreakers. Each of these investments are essentially a Russian proclamation of their own Monroe Doctrine in the Arctic.
Finally, more than ever, Russian bombers are flying over the Arctic, with NORAD reporting 20 sightings and 19 intercepts last year. These developments are in no way shocking – they are even partly expected – given their Cold War antecedent of behavior in the region. However, the Russian government believes it has a valid claim to the Arctic and its resources, and are signaling a strong intent to defend this claim with military force. After all, this is the same state which invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. In shaping US plans for the Arctic, there is no bigger concern than Russian desires for increased influence and access to resources.
An American Response to Russian Arctic Hegemony?
So how should the US respond to this emerging threat in an oft-ignored theater? The first step lies in making the Arctic a policymaking priority. As of now, the Arctic is given almost no legislative or military attention, and exists mostly in the periphery of policy debates. The word ‘Arctic’ appears once in the National Security Strategy (NSS) and a whopping zero times in the National Defense Strategy (NDS).From a strategic standpoint, the last thing the US wants is a conventional war with a near-peer adversary in the Arctic Circle. This harsh environment has limited infrastructure, narrow logistical networks, and austere operating conditions for humans and machinery alike.
It is important to establish a geopolitical environment similar to NATO’s position on Russia in continental Europe: a careful balance with an enforceable red line. As preferable as it would be to maintain the Arctic Circle as a paragon of international cooperation, it is ignorant to assume that the region exists in a vacuum free of maneuvering for personalist gain. Additionally, making the Arctic a cooperative bubble may only encourage Russian aggression elsewhere if the fear of punitive actions in the Arctic is close to non-existent. Would we see another annexation, or other indirect actions by Russia to capture land and resources in the Arctic?
A careful US and allied militarization focused on flexibility in the Arctic theater is the key to showing signs of strength at the North Pole. By developing airstrips and forming infrastructure in the Arctic region to protect newly-melted sea lanes and land routes, allied forces will gain a logistical foothold in an undeveloped region. Even more, building new icebreakers to replace the two remaining US Coast Guard vessel will ensure continued capability in forward presence and sea control as well as signaling commitment in the form of personnel and appropriations. Finally, increasing multilateral arctic training exercises amongst northern NATO allies, forming a joint interagency task force – while also continuing cooperative efforts across the Arctic Council is needed to demonstrate US resolve to prevent China and Russia from asserting de facto control of the North Pole.
While not a panacea, actionable measures – besides words – by the US and her allies will breathe fresh air into Cold War-era Arctic policies. This will demonstrate that the West will not permit this dynamic and valuable region to fall prey to bellicose Russian behavior. Working with international partners through the Arctic Council and NATO and by revamping US efforts in the Arctic, it is possible not only to enforce the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, but to ensure American prosperity across the entire region. Guaranteeing the Commons of the Arctic, especially EEZs, will ensure American hegemony for the 21st century. If not, Arctic spoils will go to those, like Russia, that militarize it first.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, Department of the Air Force, Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.
Dr. Jahara Matisek (Major, U.S. Air Force) Assistant Professor, Department of Military & Strategic Studies, U.S. Air Force Academy. Non-Resident Fellow, Modern War Institute, West Point, U.S. Military Academy