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U.S. Wary of Russia’s Arctic Military Buildup

The U.S. is watching Russia’s growing military activity in the Arctic with increasing concern, writes Marc Lanteigne of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University in the Arctic Journal.

Written by Marc Lanteigne Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Russia’s nuclear icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, in the Arctic Ocean.Vera Kostamo/Sputnik

This past week was noteworthy for those studying the growing number of questions concerning Arctic security as the two largest regional powers, the Russian Federation and the United States, made important policy announcements that may, in the near term, significantly shape the strategic landscape of the far north.

Despite ongoing attempts by major Arctic actors to minimize security threats in the region, the “securitization” of the Arctic may be considerably advanced this year if recent activities are an indicator. Since January, Moscow has been announcing a series of new military infrastructure policies and projects for its northern regions, while the U.S. Defense Department recently made public a December 2016 Report to Congress on the state of American security in the Arctic that included proposals for improving regional national interests.

Russia has made little secret of the fact it considers the far north a major strategic priority; this was stressed in an Arctic military doctrine released in late 2014, followed by a maritime security doctrine in July 2015 that emphasizes the buildup of a Russian military presence in the Atlantic and Arctic. In anticipation of the Arctic becoming a region of greater importance as economic and shipping activities become more feasible due to ice erosion, the government of Vladimir Putin has been taking numerous steps over the past three years to ensure Russia’s security interests are being respected in the region.

These initiatives have included reopening Cold War-era military bases and ports flanking the Arctic Ocean, with more modern equipment being shipped northward, as well as the refurbishment of various facilities at the Rogachyovo Airfield in Novaya Zemlya, including a widening and lengthening of the landing strip there.

Among the Arctic military policies announced by Moscow in the last month are two new divisions to be stationed along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) in anticipation of increased traffic through the waterway in coming years. A new base, nicknamed the Northern Shamrock, is being completed on Kotelny Island in the East Siberian Sea. This week also saw the first Arctic Ocean trial voyage of one of Russia’s newest icebreakers, the diesel-electric vessel Novorossiysk, which was scheduled to travel this month to the region near Franz Josef Land.

As have Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, the United States has looked at Russian military activities in the Arctic with increasing levels of concern. It is too soon to tell to what degree the Arctic will be a strategic priority for the incoming Trump administration, given the so-far erratic indicators that have recently emanated from Washington regarding international policy priorities. However, James Mattis, the newly appointed defense secretary, did make mention of the importance of the Arctic to American interests in recent comments calling for the creation of “an integrated strategy” for the region under the new administration, especially in light of Russian expansion.

Additional signs of the potential direction of U.S. Arctic policy were provided by the new Defense Department report, which was completed during the last months of the Obama administration. The document, designed as a supplement to the 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, sought to reinforce many previous American policies regarding the Arctic, including the need to defend sovereignty, build alliances and partnerships and respect freedom of the seas and the rule of law.

While the 2016 report noted the numerous areas in which regional cooperation was still prevalent, the Arctic was nonetheless at risk due to some “friction points,” including differences between the United States and other Arctic powers over border demarcations, particularly the “excessive maritime claims” in the Arctic by Canada and Russia.

Specifically, the report cited American differences with Canada over the status of the Northwest Passage, claimed by Ottawa as internal waters, as well as the exclusive economic zone beyond the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (see map below), which under Canadian Coast Guard regulations (or NORDREGs), requires all foreign vessels entering the zone to register beforehand. As for Moscow, the Defense Department report noted American opposition to the rules requiring all ships transiting the NSR to first obtain Russian permission.

(Map: Canadian Coast Guard)

(Map: Canadian Coast Guard)

Among the report’s recommendations were a strengthening of “C5ISR” capabilities in the region, meaning command, control, communications, computers, combat systems, information, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as the strengthening of American coastal defense in light of the new transit routes in the far north being created by ice erosion. The development of new infrastructure, including in concert with allies (cooperation with Iceland at Keflavík and the upgrading of the Thule Air Base in Greenland were two examples cited), was also mentioned as a priority. The strengthening of partnerships in the areas of joint exercises and monitoring, as well as the promotion of international law and rights of passage, were recommended.

However, noteworthy omissions in the report included the question of U.S. icebreaker capability, especially in light of Russia’s still expanding icebreaker fleet. The Obama government called for an expansion of U.S. icebreaker capabilities in 2015. The country currently operates one heavy icebreaking vessel, the Polar Star, while Russia now oversees more than 40 ships that are functioning or will soon launch.

(US Coast Guard 2015)

(US Coast Guard 2015)

These include three nuclear-powered vessels, the Arkitika, the Sibir and the Ural, under construction and expected to launch by 2020. It remains unclear whether the “icebreaker gap” will be a strategic priority for the Trump government, given many conflicting signals regarding overall American Arctic policies. Also missing from the report was the question of the growing number of non-Arctic states – with China at the top of the list but also other governments in Europe and East Asia – that have developed more visible Arctic policies and may play an enhanced role in future strategic debates in the region.

When examining whether these two Arctic titans are potentially moving closer to a regional strategic rivalry, especially considering the downturn in Russia-Western relations following the Ukraine crises of 2014, it is important to note the many unknown factors that may figure in future Arctic security calculations. These include overall U.S.-Russian relations under Trump, which recently have shown some signs of a fragile rapprochement, fossil-fuel and commodity prices, which may determine the near-future economic attractiveness of Arctic resources, and the strength of regional organizations, including the Arctic Council, which may serve as a safety valve to mitigate any offensive thinking among the major players.

For now, however, the United States and Russia are making it increasingly apparent that neither power wants to be at a strategic disadvantage as the Arctic continues to open.

This article originally appeared in the Arctic Journal.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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