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When hell freezes over: Russia’s Arctic ambitions

MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin honored a scientist who piloted a small submersible to the Arctic seabed in 2007, planted a titanium version of the Russian flag then claimed “The Arctic is Russian.”

The frozen Arctic Ocean, half the size of the United States, had been mostly ignored, but militarization by Putin ensued and, in combination with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, convinced Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Now seven of the world’s eight Arctic nations are members of NATO, and Washington has increased surveillance and defense systems in Canada and Alaska to protect the northern perimeter of North America from encroachments and missiles. Putin wants the Arctic.

The contest underway at the top of the world is about hegemony over trade as well as resources. Russia’s “Arctic Silk Road,” called the Northern Sea Route, is designed to provide a shipping link between Europe and Asia, allowing ships to bypass the Suez and Panama Canals.

Already, portions of Russia’s Sea Route, which hugs the Siberian coastline, are ice-free in the summer. A Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and along Alaska’s coast is not viable or developed.

Canada’s north is empty, and its government has blocked development of its massive Arctic oil and gas reserves discovered in the 1980s. By contrast, Russia’s Siberian coastline is populated with settlements, a floating nuclear reactor to power industries and navigational, search and rescue and icebreaking capability. The route could shave 20 days off the Europe-China journey and bypasses the Suez or Panama Canals. But only 86 transits occurred in 2021, and it’s years away from viability.

But Russia has militarized the region, building as many as 50 defensive outposts from the Barents Sea to territories near Alaska. The Kola Peninsula, for instance, Russian land abutting Finland and Norway, is the most “nuclearized” place on the planet. The headquarters for Russia’s Northern Fleet are there, with two-thirds of Russia’s second-strike maritime nuclear capabilities.

At the other end of its Arctic coastline are one-third of Russia’s nuclear-equipped warships and subs in Vladivostok, with a base near Alaska.

In 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put Russia on notice, and in 2021 the U.S. took over surveillance from Canada to monitor the northern region under NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Canada’s navy is smaller than Norway’s and has no polar icebreakers operable in the Arctic.

By contrast, America now has 12,000 troops in its Arctic airborne division in Alaska and conducts Arctic maneuvers with Nordic nations, Great Britain and other Arctic Council members.

The Pentagon now has more advanced fighter jets in Alaska than in any other location in the world. Six new icebreaker ships are being built, and a proposed northern satellite and radar monitoring security system will stretch from Alaska to Europe.

But Russia’s costly war with NATO over Ukraine will impede its Arctic ambitions as capital, expertise and technology disappear as a result of Western sanctions. The Arctic Council was formed in 1991 as a high-level intergovernmental forum comprised of eight nations with frontage on the Arctic Ocean. These nations convene regularly to address issues faced by their governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic involving the environment, resource extraction, shipping and sovereignty claims. The eight are Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Russia is currently chair of the council, but on March 3, 2022, the other seven declared that they would not attend meetings inside Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.

Over the 20 years of the council’s existence, Moscow has made outrageous land claims and embarked on aggressive oil exploration in the region, encroaching regularly on territory owned by Canada and others. Moscow maintains that its undersea continental shelf extends beneath most of the Arctic Ocean. (Such submissions are made to a United Nations agency, which corroborates evidence, but settlements must be reached between disputing nation-states and rarely happens.)

Equally absurd was a recent demand by a Russian politician that Russia should take Alaska in retaliation for American sanctions. That will happen when hell freezes over.

Diane Francis is a non-resident senior fellow in the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. She is editor-at-large of National Post in Canada, a columnist for Kyiv Post and author of 10 books. She writes a twice-weekly newsletter about America and the World on Substack.

Tags Arctic Circle Arctic cooperation and politics Arctic Council Arctic drilling Denmark Finland Geopolitics of the Arctic NATO NORAD Russia Ukraine-Russia conflict United States Vladimir Putin
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