Friday, June 17, 2016

Russia's Arctic Expansionism: How Should the U.S. Respond? - Tiberiu Dianu

by Tiberiu Dianu

The rich but unclaimed territory of the Arctic has been an area of U.S.-Russian frictions and incidents that, in a post-Cold War period, can escalate to the level of open conflict.

With the NATO’s Warsaw summit less than a month ahead (July 8 and 9, 2016), the U.S. must formulate a long-term strategy for counteracting Russia’s Arctic military expansion that has been taking place for the last half a century. The rich but unclaimed territory of the Arctic has been an area of U.S.-Russian frictions and incidents that, in a post-Cold War period, can escalate to the level of open conflict. The polar region holds a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources, with American waters covering about 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to create jobs, revenues, and heat for more than 30 years. 

It becomes more and more obvious that, in the current geopolitical situation, Putin is not going anywhere. After all, he is now in his juvenile low 60s, and he’s been around since 1999, as an on/off-off/on prime minister and president (and the charade will go on and on). On the other hand, Trump has a very good chance of becoming the next U.S. president for the following four, or possibly eight, years. Let us not forget that Putin has outlasted Clinton, at the end of his second mandate, Bush, Jr., after his two mandates, and Obama, after his two mandates. So, now we may very well prognosticate how the U.S.-Russia relationship will look like in the next, say, 10 years or so. The reason I am saying this is because I detect a sort of attunement between the two world leaders, not because of the values they share (which, by the way, are not the same, like many erroneously have characterized), but rather for having a similar psychological pattern, both in texture and design. They sound and act alike, in the sense that both of them are undisputedly considered patriots (the political analysts would say “populists”), and therefore, invested with a lot of confidence, trust, and hope by their fellow citizens. Hence their constant high percentages in polls.

The Arctic Players

The region, located at the northernmost part of Earth, includes, in its subarctic zone, the northern territories of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, but its arctic zone is divided only amongst four players, alongside a 200-mile demarcation line, with Russia on one side, and the United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway on the other. The increased Russian military presence in the Arctic creates unease amongst these neighboring countries, especially Norway, who has proven very active in promoting NATO’s role in the Arctic, by backing the Western application of sanctions against Russia. 

Russia’s “Northern Exposure”

In the Putin era, Russia has taken several aggressive steps to mark its territory by reactivating and renovating its older Soviet military bases, in order to accommodate last generation defense systems (including radar and ground guidance systems), fighter aircraft, nuclear-powered icebreaker ships and submarines. It also has extended motorized infantry brigades and border patrol guards (in the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, Murmansk and Yamal-Nenets regions, Franz Josef Land, Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt). In October 2013, Putin vowed never to “surrender” Russia’s Arctic area. In October 2014, Russia announced its intention to submit more requests to the United Nations, seeking to expand its Arctic borders by 1.2 million square kilometers (more than 463,322 square miles). In November 2014, Putin announced to set up the headquarters of a “North” Arctic Command, operational in December the same year. In December 2015, Putin signed a new military doctrine, according to which the Arctic was officially listed in the Russian sphere of influence.

The United States’ Response

Beginning in 2013, the U.S. has developed a national strategy for the Arctic region, consisting of more than 30 specific initiatives in an implementation plan led by the Department of Homeland Security (and supported by other agencies like Commerce, Defense, State, Transportation, and National Science Foundation) “to project a sovereign U.S. maritime presence, support U.S. interests in the polar Regions and facilitate research that advances the fundamental understanding of the Arctic” (see Ronald O’Rourke’s May 27, 2016 report, pp. 8-9). 

But the United States has to take a more aggressive approach toward Russia’s militarization of the Arctic. The U.S. Navy should start building more polar icebreakers, in order to prepare for possible Russian aggression. Traditionally, the regional Coast Guards in the area was responsible for this task. 

Currently, the U.S. polar icebreaking fleet includes two heavy endurance icebreakers (Polar Star, under technical upgrading, and Polar Sea, operational, designed to perform missions in both the Arctic and Antarctic), one medium endurance icebreaker (Healy, used for scientific research in the Arctic), and one ship (Palmer, used for scientific research in the Antarctic). Plans have been made for five or six more (two or three heavy and three medium) icebreakers, whereas the price tag for one unit tops US$ 1 billion. By comparison, Russia has 41 icebreakers, and Canada has six (and is currently expanding). 

Toward a New American Arctic Strategy

Building and modernizing a new icebreaker fleet is only part of a more comprehensive Arctic strategy, that the U.S. has to design and implement. The American strategic interests in both polar regions (especially in the bordering Arctic), must be redefined at a national policy level. Therefore, the U.S. Arctic sector must be reconfigured. The Russians have already taken steps in the United Nations in order to expand their Arctic zone. We have to develop more Arctic military locations: temporary stations and permanent bases alongside Alaska’s coastal areas (Arctic and Pacific), and in the Aleutian archipelago (the Bering Sea), the westernmost part of the U.S. by longitude, bordering Russia (where the U.S. detonated the largest underground nuclear explosion, in 1971). 

Also, the United States should start a more intensive Arctic cooperation policy (including implementing bases) with its northern allies: Denmark (in Greenland), and Iceland.

Related to Greenland, the U.S. have been always developing a special geopolitical interest. Between 1941 and 1945 the island has been occupied by the American military, as a response to Denmark being invaded by Nazi Germany. In 1946, the U.S. offered to buy Greenland from Denmark, but the latter refused to sell it. 

As for Iceland, the U.S. Naval Air Station at Keflavik, closed in September 2006, is scheduled to reopen, almost ten years after the last forces left the country, due to the local authorities’ concern with the recent Russian activities.  

In addition to that, the U.S. should strengthen both NATO and bilateral cooperation with Canada and Norway, and extend a military partnership with the other non-NATO Scandinavian allies (Finland and Sweden).

Thus, an efficient American Arctic strategy would imply a binary component system, with micro (the technical and logistical support) and macro elements (the military arch of Arctic allies). Therefore, the United States should start updating and expanding the micro (where Russia is dominating now), in consonance with solidifying and extending the macro (where Russia is and will always be a solo player, and consequently, on its own, due to an absence of Arctic allies).

Tiberiu Dianu is a scholar and author of several books and articles in law and post-communist societies. He studied law, human rights, and criminal justice at the universities of Bucharest (Romania), Strasbourg (France), Oxford and Manchester (U.K.), American University (in Washington, DC), and University of Maryland at College Park (in Maryland). He currently lives in Washington, DC and works for various government and private agencies.    


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