What's Putin up to in the Arctic?

What's Putin up to in the Arctic?
© MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

What’s Russia President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Trump, France's Macron discuss G-7 ahead of annual meeting Romney: 'Putin and Kim Jong Un deserve a censure rather than flattery' MORE up to? That question gets asked a lot, especially when it comes to Russia’s activities and intentions in the Arctic. Russia first begged the world to ask this question in 2007 when it planted a Russian flag on the seabed directly beneath the North Pole.

Eight years later, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked this question of the chief of staff of the U.S. Army after the Pentagon floated a proposal to reduce troop presence in Alaska despite increasing Russian military activity in the region. Putin tried to answer this question himself in 2017 in a Hollywood-worthy photo-op when he flew with his prime minister to the remote Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land, bundled himself in a bulky red parka hooded with fur, and proclaimed he wanted Russia to beef up its presence in the region with “large infrastructure projects, including exploration and development of the Arctic shelf.” Russian activities in the Artic, as well as their motivations, deserve not only scrutiny but also a plan for countering them.

With rapidly rising temperatures, the Arctic is attracting ever greater geopolitical interest. Warmer temperatures have dangled the tantalizing prospect of increased resource extraction, shorter shipping routes across an ice-free Arctic Ocean, and greater strategic dominance for nations with a presence in the region. The United States and Russia have been able to cooperate in the Arctic. Just the other week, Russian and American ships conducted a joint patrol in the Bering Sea, deepening their communications to look out for illegal maritime activities. We also respect each other’s right to hold regular military exercises in the Arctic to such an extent that we started holding formal talks last year to make sure things don’t get out of hand. 

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But, despite this cooperation, Russia is engaged in “a pattern of aggressive… behavior in the Arctic,” in the words of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Although some still debate what Putin’s up to, many signs are pointing to Russian militarization of the Arctic. Russia has opened new military installations, re-opened old ones, and improved the country’s communications capabilities in the region.

There has also been build-up after build-up in Moscow’s Arctic military drills. Last year, they involved 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, 80 ships and 36,000 tanks — the largest such exercise since 1981. NATO held its largest military drills in the Arctic since the end of the Cold War during the same year — a sign of mutual saber-rattling. But the figures don’t even compare: NATO’s drill included just 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft, 65 ships and 10,000 tanks.

Moscow’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has hinted that this year’s drills could be even larger in scale, making them a “serious test of the battle capacities of [Russia’s] Arctic troops.” In 2018, 11 Russian bombers simulated an attack run on a Norwegian radar station in Vardø, and other aircraft have made similarly aggressive runs since at least 2014. Since 2017, the Kremlin has deliberately interfered in critical communications networks during NATO military exercises in the Arctic.

There is little doubt that stable relations are wavering between the United States and Russia in the Arctic. The United States can no longer be lulled by Putin’s statements that Moscow’s Arctic ambitions are peaceful. Russia’s actions provide the most probable answer to what Putin’s up to. Even as we continue to ask this question, however, we need to develop the nation’s Arctic presence and capabilities. 

Our country cannot afford to continue falling behind in the race to capture new economic opportunities. We must protect against military aggression that may come about as rising temperatures melt once-frozen passageways. Countering Russian revanchism in the Arctic means, first and foremost, building the nation’s capabilities and presence in the region.

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According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Arctic strategy issued in April of this year, U.S. failure to improve its Arctic capabilities “has resulted in a strategic resource gap that threatens the Nation's ability to effectively uphold sovereignty.” Additionally, the United States’ two icebreakers can hardly compete with Russia’s 40. Congress has approved $1 billion to develop the U.S. fleet — now, the goal should be to deliver on that promise and acquire more. The U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic has been vacant since President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE took office; filling that role would also be a step forward.

Lastly, the greater the potential for conflict in the Arctic, the more our servicemen and women need to be prepared for inhospitable conditions there. American and NATO forces need specialized training if they are to operate effectively in a hostile environment where temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon.

As warming temperatures open new opportunities in the Arctic, they also give way to a precarious geopolitical balancing act. Peace in the Arctic is on thin ice; we cannot allow it to get any thinner. We can keep asking the questions about Putin, but we also must focus going forward on strengthening our Arctic capabilities. 

Alice Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. She has previously served as a federal prosecutor, judge and special assistant to the president and senior director for the National Security Council during the Obama administration where she worked on Arctic policy.