While the United States and its closest allies watch Russian strongman Vladimir Putin dismember Ukraine and rebuild the Russian Empire piecemeal, they should keep an eye on the Arctic.
“Our interests are concentrated in the Arctic,” Putin said in August. “And of course we should pay more attention to issues of development of the Arctic and the strengthening of our position.” As if to underline his seriousness, Putin dispatched a contingent of troops and ships in September to reopen a Soviet-era Arctic military base in Severomorsk, not far from the northernmost parts of Sweden and Finland. The deployment includes landing ships and icebreakers, AFP reports.
This isn’t the first time Putin put the world on notice about Russia’s designs in the Arctic. In 2001, Putin’s Russia brazenly claimed ownership over almost half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole, basing its claims on a flimsy contention that the North Pole is connected to the Russian landmass by an underwater ridge. In 2008, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat missions,” ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.” A 2009 Kremlin strategy paper placed a priority on securing energy resources in “the Barents Sea shelf and other Arctic regions.” In 2011, Russia unveiled plans for two Arctic army brigades - 10,000 troops.
In 2012, the Kremlin announced that key air units would redeploy to Arctic airfields in Novaya Zemlya. That same year, Moscow outlined plans to stand up “infrastructure hubs” in the Arctic to be used as way stations for Russian warships. In 2013, Russia announced it would construct four new warships expressly for the Arctic, along with a constellation of border outposts to protect its Arctic frontier. And earlier this year, 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…over which the Russian flag flew 150 years ago.”
“Russia intends, without a doubt, to expand its presence in the Arctic,” Putin huffs. “We are open to dialogue…but naturally, the defense of our geopolitical interests will be hard and consistent.”
Putin appears to be employing a clever strategy by which claims will justify possession, and possession will justify claims. As he has shown in Georgia and Ukraine, he has no problem using force to defend his claims and expand Russia’s borders.
But why does Putin care so much about the Arctic? Two words: energy and power. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 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 elsewhere are steadily driving down the cost of energy. Without major reforms, this will devastate the Russian economy. To prevent or at least delay that, as an American Enterprise Institute study explains, “Russia must make huge investments in exploring and recovering oil from virgin deposits…of the east Siberian region and the Arctic shelf.”
Putin’s words and deeds help explain why Adm. James Stavridis (military chief of NATO from 2009-13) has warned the Arctic could become “a zone of conflict.”
Although it is an Arctic nation, the United States is not particularly well postured for Arctic operations. 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 some 25 polar icebreakers.
Adm. Robert Papp, former chief of the U.S. Coast Guard and recently-appointed Arctic emissary, worries 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.
Concerned about “the potential for land or area grabs and the potential for state-on-state confrontations” in the Arctic, Gen. Brad Webb, commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe, says U.S. troops need Arctic-hardened communications gear. As DefenseNews reports, his counterpart at U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), Rear Adm. Kerry Metz, expects the Pentagon to start ramping up “Arctic warfare and mountain warfare abilities” of key Special Ops units.
There’s a reason U.S. military brass in both Europe and the States are weighing in on Arctic security: Responsibility for the Arctic is currently divided between NORTHCOM and U.S. European Command (EUCOM). “This division of the area of responsibility runs counter to the concept of unity of command and the tenet of total responsibility residing in one commander,” a report issued by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) argues. CNA is calling on the Pentagon to make NORTHCOM responsible for overseeing the entire Arctic.
To prevent Moscow from attempting a Crimea-style fait accompli in the Arctic, the United States and its Arctic allies may be best served by pooling their resources to protect their shared interests.
For its part, Norway wants NATO to be more engaged in defending allied interests and territories in the Arctic. This makes good sense. After all, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway are all members of the NATO alliance. And Sweden, though officially non-aligned, has partnered extensively with NATO in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya. In addition, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred momentum in Sweden for NATO membership.
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.)
With or without NATO, it is only prudent for the United States and its allies to develop some sort of collaborative security component for the Arctic. The groundwork is in place:
- Norway has moved its military headquarters inside the Arctic Circle, relocated its coastguard headquarters north of the Arctic Circle and based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports. In addition, Norway has led Arctic military maneuvers enfolding 13 nations.
- Sweden has held its own 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 an Arctic Response Force, according to SIPRI.
- Norway, Sweden and Finland are developing what The Economist magazine calls a “Nordic security partnership” as a hedge against unwelcomed Russian activity in the Arctic.
- Canada is building new bases, including an Arctic Training Center; conducting annual maneuvers to defend its Arctic territories; developing plans to deploy up to eight Arctic patrol ships; and procuring a squadron of drones—some of them armed—to defend its Arctic territory.
- The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard have joined Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers. In 2012, the United States 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 recently unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy, which warns that the Arctic could be “an avenue of approach to North America for those with hostile intent toward the U.S. homeland.” 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. The importance of Arctic maritime security and sealift will only increase in the coming years, as the fabled Northwest Passage opens up. A navigable Northwest Passage will cut 4,000 miles off a sea voyage from Europe to Asia. Maritime traffic through this ocean highway is expected to increase tenfold by the end of 2014.
Coordinating U.S. capabilities and plans with fellow Arctic members of NATO makes sense for at least three reasons.
First, it would enable the allies to 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 rearrange the global chessboard and put Putin on the defensive. The Russian strongman has far fewer economic, military and diplomatic chess pieces at his disposal than the combined resources of the United States and its NATO partners. Indeed, if the allies make farsighted moves in the Arctic, they could force Putin to pull back elsewhere.
Third, it would position the United States and its closest allies to deal with Moscow from a posture of strength and clarity in the Arctic—thus limiting the sorts of misunderstandings that can lead to what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
When the message is clear and backed by muscle—“hard and consistent,” to use Putin’s language—Russia will take a cooperative posture. When the message is muddled, Russia will take what it can get.