Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: The newest role in the North? Arctic ambassador

The president is creating a new Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region, the U.S. State Department announced on Friday.

This comes as Russia has increased its military presence in the Arctic in recent years and after a warning from the NATO Secretary General about rising tensions in the so-called High North.

Arctic nations, including the United States, currently coordinate as members of the Arctic Council. In March, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the council froze out Russia, issuing a joint statement that “our representatives will not travel to Russia for meetings of the Arctic Council.” Russia had been in a rotation as the leader of the council.

“Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine is a game-changer for global security,” reads an op-ed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg published on Wednesday by Canada’s Globe and Mail. “The shortest path to North America for Russian missiles or bombers would be over the North Pole.”

The U.S. State Department’s announcement reads that the new Arctic Ambassador-at-Large, who will be appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, will “advance U.S. policy in the Arctic, engage with counterparts in Arctic and non-Arctic nations as well as Indigenous groups, and work closely with domestic stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments, businesses, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, other federal government agencies and Congress.”

The position of U.S. Coordinator for the Arctic Region, currently held by career diplomat James P. DeHart, will be elevated to Ambassador-at-Large. It’s not clear from the State Department announcement if DeHart will hold the ambassador position.

The announcement does not mention Russia directly but acknowledges the eight Arctic nations, which are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation and the United States.

Once Finland and Sweden join NATO, seven out of the eight Arctic states will belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The decision to appoint an Arctic Ambassador-at-Large was made after “extensive consultations” with members of Congress, government officials and “external stakeholders,” according to the State Department.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was quick to praise the move, saying she persistently advocated for an Arctic ambassador.

Earlier this month, Murkowski introduced the Arctic Commitment Act in the Senate to boost the U.S. maritime presence in the region by shoring up Alaska ports, establishing a year-round presence of the Navy and the Coast Guard in the Arctic region, negotiating a trade agreement with Iceland, and boosting investment in Arctic development projects.

“Before today, the U.S. was the only Arctic nation without dedicated diplomatic representation for the Arctic Region at the Ambassador level or higher,” reads a prepared statement by Murkowski. “I’ve kept pressure on the State Department, and introduced legislation, consistently emphasizing that it must uphold its duty to America by creating a position commensurate with our responsibilities in this rapidly evolving region.”

The new ambassador will help spur the “diplomacy necessary to preserve a peaceful, prosperous Arctic,” according to Murkowski, who is a founder and co-chairwoman of the Senate Arctic Caucus and has helped lead U.S. delegations to the Arctic Council Plenary Assembly, the leading intergovernmental forum for Arctic affairs.

“This announcement — which dovetails the recent opening of the new Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies — sends a strong signal to our allies and adversaries that America is all-hands-on-deck in the Arctic,” reads Murkowski’s statement. “Make no mistake, because of Alaska, America is not only an Arctic nation, but an Arctic leader. I look forward to the announcing of a nominee and urge the State Department to quickly move forward with the next steps.”

Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, wrote in his op-ed that Russia has set up a new Arctic Command, opened hundreds of new and former Soviet-era Arctic military sites and uses the region to test novel weapon systems.

“Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a new naval strategy pledging to protect Arctic waters ‘by all means,’ including increased activity around the non-militarized Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and hypersonic Zircon missile systems for its Northern Fleet,” Stoltenberg wrote.

“Just last week, Russia unveiled plans for a new strategic missile-carrying submarine cruiser for Arctic operations. Russia’s ability to disrupt Allied reinforcements across the North Atlantic is a strategic challenge to the Alliance,” the op-ed by the NATO secretary general reads.

China is also mentioned as increasing its presence in the Arctic with new Arctic research stations being built, according to Voice of America, a U.S. government-owned news source.

Stoltenberg wrote that China has declared itself a “near-Arctic state” and is planning a “Polar Silk Road” that would link China to Europe via the Arctic.

China also plans to build the world’s biggest icebreaker vessel, according to the NATO secretary general.

Climate change is cited as a reason for increasing U.S. government oversight in the Arctic. Melting sea ice is creating more maritime opportunities in the region for both commercial and military activities.

By:  Amanda Bohman
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

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