Arctic Military Tensions Rise
“America and Britain play cold-war games with Russia in the arctic.”
That is the headline of an informative article in the current issue of “The Economist” describing expanding naval activity by rival military powers in Northern latitudes. The headline reflects British fondness for irony: developments in the Arctic region are no game.
Today, melting polar ice encourages both commercial investment and nationalism. Big money and big militaries are involved.
Neither the Obama nor Trump administration has given priority to Arctic developments, but the hard reality remains that important challenges are unfolding. Both China and Russia are extremely assertive in the North. President Vladimir Putin relentlessly pursues power and influence, in this part of the world as in others
Currently, Putin has sent warships into the Barents Sea for war games. Now NATO has also sent surface ships there for the first time since the Cold War.
Russia’s deployment is an element in a wider strategy. In 2021, Russia succeeds Iceland in chairing the Arctic Council, which also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.
President Barack Obama visited Alaska five years ago, but the trip was symbolic and rhetorical. This is unfortunate as the U.S. also chaired the Arctic Council at the time.
Historically Britain has led in Polar management, joined in the 20th century by the United States. Now Russia is spearheading organizing a region where their stake is vital. Putin initiatives include regular major international investment conferences.
In April 2019, Russia hosted government leaders from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden in a session of the Arctic Forum held in St. Petersburg. In May 2019, participants from a wider range of countries attended Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), held in Arkhangelsk in Russia.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 put a freeze on Moscow’s relations with other Arctic nations, and the wider international community. The Arctic Forum event indicates warming relations for Moscow with close neighbors.
Yet end of isolation does not mean harmony. Continuing disputes align Russia against Canada and Denmark regarding control of the Lomonosov Ridge, most of which is in international waters. Other nations involved in such disagreements include Finland, Iceland, Sweden and the United States.
Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation can claim resources beyond a 200 mile limit if a direct continuous continental shelf can be established. Such technical measures can mitigate national rivalries. Territorial disagreements among nations in and near the Arctic Circle are complex.
Long term, here is encouraging history regarding international Arctic cooperation. International Polar Years occurred in 1882-1883, 1932-1933 and 2007-2009. The first two inspired the International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-1958, during the height of the Cold War. Discovery of the Van Allen Radiation Belts was among important IGY scientific discoveries.
American scientific and government leadership was instrumental in launching and successfully completing this comprehensive global research and policy enterprise. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also initiated demilitarization of Antarctica. This was the first major arms control agreement of the Cold War and laid the foundation for others.
Simultaneously, Eisenhower underscored military dimensions, and combined science cooperation with attention to national defense. In August 1958, the new nuclear submarine Nautilus made the first undersea voyage to the North Pole. Enemies and allies took notice.
Beyond the White House, the U.S. government is actively engaged in Arctic cooperation. A leader on a par with Ike would have great opportunities.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org