Russia is preparing for a new cold war in the Arctic
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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
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.
Tension between Russia and other Arctic nations will remain high as they continue to compete for Arctic territory. Maintaining UNCLOS as a viable legal framework for settling Arctic territorial claims should help avert potential confrontations between Russia and other UNCLOS members.