CQ Weekly: Russia's Arctic Grab


President Barack Obama has described the Arctic as “peaceful, stable and free of conflict.” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski calls the icy region a “zone of peace.”

White House analysts and government agencies have put the odds of a military clash in the Arctic about as high as war on the moon.

But heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow threaten to upend an era of Arctic collaboration and cooperation. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea has already begun shifting the diplomacy dynamics in the region.

Now, the eight Arctic countries — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States — are going to have to chart a new path forward in a rapidly changing region.

Nobody is suggesting, of course, that armed conflict in the Arctic is anything more than a remote possibility. Nonetheless, deteriorating relations with Russia — coupled with concerns about Moscow’s growing military presence in the Arctic — are drawing new attention to U.S. security and preparedness in a region that some experts believe has been chronically ignored and underfunded since the end of the Cold War. Boosting resources in the Arctic involves hefty investments in new ships, aircraft and communications gear, not to mention expensive infrastructure such as ports, airplane hangars and runways. It can’t happen overnight.

For a Defense Department bound by budget caps, recovering from more than a decade of continuous, manpower-intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and consumed by other demands, those investments in Arctic equipment and infrastructure may be years, or even decades, away.

The Arctic is a priority, but it isn’t the department’s top priority in terms of attention or resources. Defense officials also are concerned about provoking an Arctic arms race if the United States responds too aggressively. As such, the Defense Department’s strategy is to closely monitor the region and be prepared to take a more muscular stance if or when it’s needed.

“We don’t see a lot of threats and challenges there, and we don’t want to create them,” says Daniel Y. Chiu, deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy and force development. “We think our response is measured and appropriate and ready for change.”

But those with a local stake in the changing environmental, political and strategic landscape of the Arctic say the administration’s wait-and-see approach lacks detail. Murkowski and others worry that the United States will be caught flat-footed in the Arctic. There is, they argue, a far more urgent need for resources and attention that has only been accelerated by declining relations with Russia.

“There’s 2.5 miles that separate Little Diomede and Big Diomede,” Murkowski says of the two islands — one U.S. territory, the other Russian — in the Bering Strait. “It’s an in-your-face reminder that there is very little that separates us.”

Militarization of the Arctic

Even before its incursion into Ukraine, Russia began paying closer attention to its military assets in the Arctic, reopening Soviet-era bases, conducting submarine patrols and flying bombers over the region, activities that, on their own, are not terribly concerning. But when combined with the situation in Crimea, it is drawing closer scrutiny.

The United States and the other Arctic nations have resolved disputes through vehicles like the Arctic Council, a consensus governing body, and the Law of the Sea Convention. Building up defenses in the Arctic would be counterproductive to those diplomatic efforts.

David Balton, deputy assistant secretary of State for oceans and fisheries, says the United States still is able to cooperate, at least for now, with Russia despite the new tensions.

“There is a question what high levels of tension means for our ability to cooperate with Russia,” says Balton, who toured Alaska in August. “For now, I would say we are still moving forward. But the situation is an evolving one and I don’t know what it is going to look like a month from now or a year from now.”

Even with the uncertainty, Balton stresses that boundary disputes and other disagreements in the Arctic will be resolved as they always have been — by scientists, lawyers and diplomats, not by gunships or fighter jets.

But it’s hard to ignore an increasingly aggressive Russian military buildup there. “Prior to the current crisis, quite frankly a lot of it seemed very understandable,” Chiu says. “Under current circumstances, obviously we have to use more caution as we consider these activities, and we are.”

Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says she considered the militarization of the Arctic a myth just six or nine months ago. Indeed, the region was suffering from the opposite problem: a dearth of search-and-rescue capabilities. The situation, however, has changed.

“It’s hard to know where our relationship with Russia is going, but we know it’s rapidly deteriorating,” Conley says.

The hope is that, even if the United States and Russia cannot agree on most issues, cooperation in the Arctic at least will continue. Earlier this month, Murkowski brought up the escalating tensions between the two countries with her Russian counterpart at the Arctic Parliamentarians Conference, a three-day meeting in Whitehorse, Canada.

“I expressed to him that I felt it was very important that even with the tensions — and I think I used the word ‘anxiety’ — between the United States and Russia right now, that it was important that we be able to come together at conferences like this to discuss areas of cooperation,” Murkowski says. “And he, I think, clearly appreciated that when we’re talking about these issues, that cooperation exists.”

For its part, the Obama administration has drafted over the last several years a spate of forward-looking strategy documents that describe the roles that a host of government agencies — including the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments — will play in the Arctic in the years to come. Those documents all pre-date Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and do not address the current status of relations between Washington and Moscow.

But Chiu stresses the United States cannot afford to respond aggressively. For one, the country has limited defense dollars to spend on new weapons systems, such as Arctic fortified drones, or infrastructure the country doesn’t need. And perhaps more importantly, the United States doesn’t want to start down the path toward militarization of the Arctic. The goal, as spelled out in numerous strategy documents, is to maintain peace in the region.

There is, Chiu says, a delicate balance to be struck. The United States can avoid being caught behind the eight ball by putting an emphasis on situational awareness, such as ice forecasting, and intelligence. Focusing on that, Chiu says, would put the military in the best position to manage the situation over time and be prepared to act and make investments when and where they are necessary.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that securing U.S. interests in the Arctic is a priority of the White House. Murkowski and others say that, without money to back up the administration’s strategy and planning documents, they amount to little more than lip service.

“I always talk about the Arctic as a zone of peace. I want to keep it that way,” Murkowski says. “But I also recognize that part of that peaceful posture is knowing that if there were something that happens with our Arctic nations up there that the United States is in a position, is in a place, to be responsive.”

Arctic Nation

Four million people live in the Arctic Circle, and half of them are in Russia. The United States occupies just 4 percent of the land above the Arctic Circle, compared with the 80 percent of that land belonging to Russia and Canada, according to an analysis in March by the Center for a New American Security.

“Americans’ understanding of the Arctic is often limited to the small community of Barrow, Alaska, population 4,000, which is nestled along the ice-crusted coastline on the Chukchi Sea,” the paper states.

Barrow’s remoteness is almost incomprehensible for most Americans. To illustrate that point, the Coast Guard noted in its 2013 Arctic strategy that the coastal town is 504 miles to the closest coffee chain. Gasoline is delivered only once per year to Barrow’s only gas station. The northern Alaska outpost is, in short, a world apart from official Washington.

The challenge for Murkowski and other advocates of increasing resources in the Arctic is reminding lawmakers and Americans alike that the United States is, in fact, an Arctic nation. Murkowski’s strategy has been to promote increasing resources directed at the Arctic as a national — rather than an Alaskan — imperative.

“If an icebreaker is viewed as a boat for Alaska, we’re never going to see an icebreaker,” Murkowski says. “It needs to be viewed as a national asset.”

Murkowski says she has attracted the attention of influential lawmakers such as Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Maine independent Angus King, a vocal member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who participated in the Navy’s Ice Exercise earlier this year.

Indeed, Senate appropriators inserted language in their version of the fiscal 2015 defense spending bill that would require the Defense Department to provide Congress with plans to buy more icebreaker ships and to assess how the military is improving its awareness of activities, conditions and trends in the Arctic that could affect U.S. safety, security and environmental or commercial interests.

In its report on the bill, the committee also urges the Defense secretary to continue to examine ways the department can support a range of Arctic issues, including mapping waters and improving observations and prediction of weather, ocean and ice conditions.

While the Defense Department sought to protect its Arctic resources in its budget-constrained request for fiscal 2015, there is little new funding in the bill for Arctic equipment, underscoring what Murkowski says is a broader problem. Many lawmakers are intrigued by the Arctic but don’t necessarily see it as a priority, particularly as the United States plays a seemingly endless and expensive game of whack-a-mole with threats elsewhere around the world. By comparison to those threats, the Arctic suffers from being a comparatively long-term requirement.

“If it’s not a hair-curling crisis that gets our attention, it doesn’t get our attention,” Conley says.

Another complicating factor for the Arctic is the number of government agencies involved in policymaking and prioritizing for the region. The White House’s January 2014 implementation plan of its latest Arctic strategy assigns various tasks to the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, Energy, Transportation, Interior and Commerce, as well as the EPA, NASA, the National Science Foundation and even the Smithsonian, to name a few.

“Everybody’s in charge, nobody’s in charge,” says Conley.

While the Arctic may not make many people’s priority list, there is a host of security, economic and environmental reasons for lawmakers to be interested in the region. Thanks to climate change, Alaska has warmed more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the U.S. in the last 60 years and the polar ice cap today is 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979. As a result, shipping and transit in the region is increasing exponentially, growing in the Bering Strait alone 118 percent from 2008 to 2012.

The Arctic region is estimated to have approximately 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves and 30 percent of the undiscovered gas reserves. There is another $1 trillion worth of minerals, such as zinc and nickel, in the region. The entire region ranks second behind only the Gulf of Mexico for volume of resources, according to the Coast Guard.

Russia and other countries, including non-Arctic nations like China, are seizing on the possibilities of the resource-rich “new frontier” and buying icebreaker ships and other capabilities to enable them to travel the increasingly navigable waters.

By comparison, the U.S., Murkowski says, is “woefully behind” other countries. Two of the Coast Guard’s three polar icebreakers, for instance, have exceeded their intended 30-year service lives and one of those is not operational, creating a potential shortage in search-and-rescue capabilities as sea traffic in the region increases.

“With or without the infrastructure, the Arctic is evolving as a place of action, and we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to step it up so we are part of what is going on,” she says.

Studies vs. Resources

Since last year, the White House, Defense Department, Navy and Coast Guard have all released new strategies for the Arctic in the hope of creating a path forward for the region. The documents lay out priorities and assign tasks to specific agencies and departments, but Murkowski and others argue that the administration has not requested the resources to back up the plan.

“It’s one thing to put out a nice white paper and outline your strategic vision,” Murkowski says. “It’s another thing to put your resources behind it.”

Chiu says he understands the frustrations. Budget resources, after all, are the most tangible way to measure the Pentagon’s priorities. But Chiu stresses that the need for an expanded military presence in the Arctic is likely still decades away, if current environmental projections remain on track. That gives the military some time to prepare.

“This is something we have to very carefully parse over time,” he says.

Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich says he has seen more interest in the Arctic from Navy and other Defense Department officials since he first took office six years ago. But, like Murkowski, Begich says the military, with its expansive budget, still needs to step it up in the region — including assuming some of the responsibility of the cost of icebreakers, which have been paid for and operated by the Coast Guard.

The Pentagon has tapped U.S. Northern Command as the advocate for the Arctic within the department. As such, NORTHCOM officials will take the lead on assessing what could or should be done in the Arctic, and in what time frame. NORTHCOM will report to Pentagon officials this fall.

The goal, Chiu says, is to ensure the department monitors the Arctic on a regular basis rather than simply issue papers as part of a “file and forget process.”

Meanwhile, the Defense Department believes its current assets and infrastructure in Alaska are adequate for today’s needs. Alaska is home to more than 22,000 active-duty service members and 5,000 reservists. The Defense Department’s Arctic capabilities include nuclear submarines and ski-equipped C-130 cargo aircraft, which have been operating in the Arctic for decades.

In early August, the Air Force announced plans to base F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, pending an environmental assessment. The decision, which would make Eielson the first F-35 base in the Pacific Ocean, had more to do with the Defense Department’s overall basing plans for the stealth fighters than its Arctic strategy. But it does underscore the strategic value of Alaska’s location.

“Where we’re sitting on the top of the globe really puts us in that key spot to be really responsive,” Murkowski says. As the Defense Department continues to assess the changing Arctic, it is unclear whether the military will ultimately need to place significant deterrence capabilities in Alaska to protect the country’s northernmost point. That will depend on the threats in the region.

“When you’re talking about deterrence, it’s deterrence of what?” Chiu says. “Although we’re monitoring changes and activities with concern, we do not see specific aggression in the Arctic. And, as a result, there is not anything to deter.”

Assuming the Arctic Gavel

In April, the United States will take over as head of the Arctic Council, a rotating position that is already placing some new emphasis on the region. In preparation, the Obama administration has named retired Adm. Robert J. Papp, the former Coast Guard commandant, to be special representative to the Arctic, a new post.

Papp, Balton and other officials spent more than a week in Alaska in August and met with elected officials, industry leaders, Alaska natives and others to discuss the range of issues affecting the changing Arctic region. That input, as well as information from government agencies, will guide the proposals the United States will put before the council.

Murkowski, however, is concerned that Papp, who operated in the Arctic during his time in the Coast Guard, doesn’t have adequate support and resources within the State Department to effectively do his job.

“He does not have what he needs. And quite honestly this is not the job of one person,” Murkowski says.

Nonetheless, the council chairmanship could give the administration the opportunity to pursue its agenda in the Arctic, both within the United States and internationally. But like so much else in the Arctic, the work of the council hinges largely on the one country that takes up more than half the region.

“You can’t have Arctic cooperation unless the Russians are participants,” Conley says.

By:  By Megan Scully, CQ Staff