U.S. Assumes Arctic Council Leadership Amid Increasing Tension in the Far-North
As Washington steps back in the Arctic, other countries are investing in their military capabilities there.
Last weekend, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin sparked a minor diplomatic crisis when he decided to visit the Norwegian island of Svalbard. Blacklisted from entering most of Europe due to sanctions related to Russian actions in Ukraine, Rogozin stopped on the Arctic island en route to a Russian scientific mission on the North Pole. He was accompanied by Orthodox priests and a massive icon of Jesus Christ. He later took to Twitter and proclaimed, “the Arctic is a Russian Mecca.”
In the last year, Moscow has upped its military presence in the region, increasing sorties by fighter jets and opening new bases in the region, constructing 10 search-and-rescue stations, 16 deepwater ports, 13 airfields, and 10 air-defense radar stations across its Arctic coast. Russia has also reopened previously closed Soviet bases in the far-north, including one in the Murmansk region, just 31 miles away from the Finnish border, which will house over 3,000 ground troops, 39 surface ships, and 35 submarines.
In response, Nordic countries have moved to strengthen their own hand in the north. In an op-ed published April 9, the defense ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, plus Iceland’s foreign minister, signed a joint declaration that “Russia’s conduct represents the biggest challenge to European security,” and that “as a consequence, the security situation around the Nordic countries has significantly worsened during the past year.” As a result, the five countries announced plans to expand defense ties with one another.
These tensions have several Nordic nations clamoring that the United States step up efforts to counter Russia in the Arctic. It was against this background that Secretary of State John Kerry made the long trip to the northernmost Canadian territory of Nunavut on Friday to assume the rotating leadership of the eight-country Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum composed of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
Speaking from Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, Kerry did not acknowledge Russia’s military moves in the region and focused instead on increased cooperation in the Arctic to fight climate change. “The decisions we make today, and in the next two years, and the actions we come together to take will determine the future of this region for generations to come,” he said, referring to efforts to control warming in a region whose temperatures are increasing at a pace twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
Indeed, climate change is part of the reason why the Arctic has become a renewed front for international competition. Climate is disrupting ecosystems there and also opening new ice-free channels for shipping, commercial fishing, and oil and gas exploration. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 13 percent of the earth’s remaining oil, 30 percent of its natural gas, and 20 percent of its liquefied natural gas are stored within the Arctic seabed.
“Russia is being provocative in the region, but it’s not undermining U.S. strategic interests,” Alex Ward, Brent Scowcroft Center Assistant Director at the Atlantic Council, told Foreign Policy. “The Kremlin is thumping its chest with military displays, but it’s still cooperating on climate change.”
In 2013, the Obama administration upped the Arctic’s foreign policy significance in Washington after it unveiled a strategy document for the region centered on keeping sea lanes and environmental protection. Though the United States and the Soviet Union dueled in the Arctic during the Cold War, Washington appears to have no appetite for a militarized Arctic.
“The Nordic countries really want the United States to take up a larger leadership role in the Arctic to balance Russia’s posturing, but there’s no sign that Washington is willing to escalate the situation,” Ward said.
As Washington steps back in the Arctic, other countries are investing in their military capabilities there. In March, Ottawa finalized a $3.4 billion project for five Arctic offshore patrol ships and is moving forward on a slew of projects to improve Canadian military capabilities in the far-north. The same month, Norway announced a billion dollar upgrade to its northern defense capabilities.
With competition for resources and increased military capabilities in the region, the Arctic could become a future flashpoint. “Countries are still trying to figure out how to use this space to project power without sparking a conflict,” Ward said.
In fact, there is a metaphor for Arctic countries’ inability to fully cooperate quite literally floating around in the Ocean. In October 2014, a large, fuel-filled barge broke free from its tow boat and has since drifted through Canadian, American, and Russian waters. The U.S. Coast Guard dropped a GPS device on the barge to keep track of its movements. But the U.S. and Canadian coast guards aren’t talking to Russia, so the Canadian World Wildlife Fund is currently acting as a go-between.
Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan