Russia poses a strategic threat to the U.S. in the Arctic
Russia has made no secret of their ambitious and aggressive plans for dominating the Arctic region and its resources. U.S. inattention to their advances could pose a long-term strategic threat to U.S. national security.
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The resource race of the 21st century requires that nations seek resources from every corner of the globe to meet growing demand.169 The seas—long considered valuable sources of minerals, food, and now, energy—are no exception.170
Not surprisingly, nations are racing to stake a claim to these resources.171 Russia made a bold move in August of 2007 by planting a flag on the Arctic Seacap at the North Pole in an attempt to reinforce claims it has been making since 2001 that it owns the resources on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.172 The Arctic Seacap is an especially sought after area since it “may hold billions of gallons of oil and natural gas—up to 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered reserves”173 and is rapidly melting, making it navigable for the first time.174 Russia’s actions met immediate resistance from members of the international community, and have sparked debate over the resources the sea holds and who their lawful owner is.175 In fact, one journalist commented that “[t]he polar dive was part publicity stunt and part symbolic move to enhance [Russia’s] disputed claim to nearly half the Arctic seabed.”176
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The world is at a precipice of a potential new cold war in the Arctic between Russia and the NATO Arctic nations. Russia is in a position to win it. The number of icebreaking hulls a country operates is the simplest and most tangible measure that can be used to judge its ability to conduct northern operations. The United States has a total of four diesel-powered icebreakers (one of which is out of service for this year) whereas the Russians have 14.51 Of the 14, seven are nuclear-powered--capable of cutting through nine feet of ice without even slowing down. In comparison, the U.S. icebreakers can only make it through six feet of ice at a constant speed.52 Even China and South Korea, non-Arctic nations, have icebreakers in preparation for regional access.53
In addition to greater Arctic naval power, the Russians also have a superior support infrastructure. The Soviet Union, in sustaining the Northern Sea Route and oil development in the Barents Sea, invested tremendous capital in developing a robust infrastructure of rail lines and river transport services. It maintained this infrastructure by offering state workers huge subsidies and inflated wages. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of state jobs, the region experienced a significant reduction in population. However, the Russian North still has a fully functioning infrastructure in place.54 Meanwhile, the North American presence is ―naked and unguarded.55
Russia intends to use these weaknesses along with divisions among the NATO members to increase its power in the region. According to a leading Russian economic journal, ―...Russia’s main task is to prevent the opposition forming a united front. Russia must take advantage of the differences that exist [between NATO states]."56 Moreover, a prominent Russian Navy journal acknowledged that an increase in regional militarization could increase the possibility for local military conflict. ―Even if the likelihood of a major war is now small, the possibility of a series of local maritime conflicts aimed at gaining access to and control over Russian maritime resources, primarily hydrocarbons, is entirely likely."57
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Russian Militarization of the Arctic. The mili- tary is an important dimension of Moscow’s Arctic push. The policy calls for creating “general purpose military formations drawn from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” as well as “other troops and military formations [most importantly, border units] in the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, capable of ensuring security under various military and political circumstances.”28 These formations will be drawn from the armed forces and from the “power ministries” (e.g., the Federal Security Service, Border Guard Service, and Internal Ministry). Above all, the policy calls for a coast guard to patrol Russia’s Arctic waters and estuaries.
Russia views the High North as a major staging area for a potential nuclear confrontation with the United States and has steadily expanded its military presence in the Arctic since 2007. This has included resuming air patrols over the Arctic, including stra- tegic bomber flights.29 During 2007 alone, Russian bombers penetrated Alaska’s 12-mile air defense zone 18 times.30
The Russian Navy is expanding its presence in the Arctic for the first time since the end of the Cold War, increasing the operational radius of the North- ern Fleet’s submarines. Russia is also reorienting its military strategy to meet threats to the country’s interests in the Arctic, particularly with regard to its continental shelf.31
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Medvedev’s decision to link the Arctic with Russia’s feeling of being wronged in the former Soviet space is especially intriguing, as Kremlin policymakers likely view both regions in similar terms. Russia’s preoccupation with peripheral buffer zones goes back centuries, with the post-Soviet struggle for influence in its self-proclaimed “near abroad” being the most recent manifestation. In 2006, Russian military commentator O. Litkova went so far as to argue that “the Arctic could significantly compensate Russia for the losses she suffered as a result of the collapse of the USSR.”44 The Arctic, like the near abroad, is viewed in terms of sectorial divisions in which Russia believes that history and geography afford it exclusive right of influence. In the case of the Arctic, this belief stretches back at least to the Soviet’s 1926 decree in which all territories within the extreme meridians of Russia’s eastern and western borders running to the North Pole were claimed as Russian.
Russia fears that the ice melt will do to the Arctic what the fall of communism did in Eastern Europe, that is, usher in a period of NATO encroachment into their traditional space. In 2011, two leading academic voices in Russia opined:
Officials and experts agree that NATO continues on a course toward enhancing its activity in the Arctic. What consequence will this have on Russia? In all aspects – negative…. With regard to the fierce competition for Arctic resources, NATO will squeeze Russia out, just as it squeezes Russia in other regions of Europe in the sphere of security. It is obvious that the USA, which is not party to [UNCLOS] will use NATO to strengthen its position in the region….Therefore, Russia should prepare for a difficult and long battle for the settling of its interest and legal rights.45
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What is certain, however, is that the Russian Arctic-based Northern Fleet is continually “stalked” by American (and perhaps British and French) fast-attack submarines from the moment the Russian sub- marines leave port. While, as noted above, the number of Russian “boomer” patrols has sharply declined since the days of the Cold War, the underwater games of “cat and mouse” continue as before, and several near-collisions have been reported as the Russian subs become increasingly successful in shaking off their American “tails.”54 The Cold War is not entirely over beneath the rapidly melting Arctic ice, and Russia’s nuclear submarine bases north of the Arctic Circle are yet another powerful signal that the Russians intend to enforce their claims in the Arctic. So, while the prospects of major progress on U.S.- Russian bilateral disarmament have never been brighter, the gradual rebuilding of the Russian Northern Fleet’s roster of ballistic missile submarines and the ongoing mission of American SSN’s to track them aggressively has meant increased rather than decreased U.S.-Russian naval competition.