Capstones | 3.1.16
By Alan W. Dowd
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
“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
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
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
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
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.