The US must consider using its Arctic advantage against Russia
The fallout from this week’s Geneva summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin showcases a stark reality for Western, rules-based states that face the growing challenge of regional stability stemming from Moscow.
The reality is that a credible deterrence to Moscow’s aggression is absent due to fractured relationships and, most importantly, no pressure points for Russia other than Ukraine in the European region. The purpose of security cooperation in Europe, which includes NATO, the European Union and the security partnership of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) is to create a viable collective of defense capabilities to deter Moscow from pushing its agenda.
The fact that Russia does not face a pressure point like Ukraine is compounded for the EU by the fact that an opportunity exists to twist a screw but the United States and its allies remain slow to exploit it: the Arctic theater.
Common rhetoric asserts that Russia sees NATO as a source of risk inherently demanding aggression in response to ‘hostile’ military forces on its borders. But NATO presence wasn’t meant to encroach or imperially subsume, it was crafted to curb and deter continued aggressive expansion by the Soviet Union. While today’s Russia and the Communist Party of the previous century are two vastly different entities, they remain consistent in portraying themselves as victims of encirclement who are entitled to defend their sovereignty. Strangely, this manifests in annexations of Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine and in collective security partnerships that repress liberal democratic thought in the Baltics, Kazakhstan and the sub-Asian region.
We are foolish to think we understand the deeper meaning of Russian activities, although it takes little critical thought to ascertain a certain revanchism that falls in line with former Soviet blocs. What is blatantly understandable is Russia is using conventional hard power to exploit the weakness the United States has attempted to diffuse in the current European conflict. Massing troops at the Ukrainian border, whether an invasion follows suit or not, presents Moscow to the region and the world as the shot caller while the EU and the United States remain disunited in the effort to influence the security paradigm.
The weak hand displayed by the United States in discussions with Russia stems from the exclusion of the European Union. President Biden’s choice to engage Russia unilaterally only calcifies the divide between the United States and its European partners, undermining the threat of a collective response on par with Russian military might.
The EU, for its part, is in the middle of a turnover, with France’s assumption of the presidency of the union. Independence from security cooperation with the U.S. is a priority item for French President Emmanuel Macron, who has historically criticized NATO in similar discourse. The AUKUS deal certainly did not assuage France’s concerns with U.S. involvement in European security operations.
Thus, the West is hardly unified in countering Russia and is missing leverage to affect Moscow’s behavior, yet using the Arctic remains a prolific talking point mostly in American academic circles.
The era of talking is dwindling, if not already history: gone in favor of a new chapter of hard power moves to affect geopolitical outcomes. Therein lies the weak hand of American diplomacy — there are no activities aimed at making rivals see that there will be consequences for their actions. But for the U.S., collective engagement in the Arctic offers a Ukraine scenario for Russia.
The recent National Defense Authorization Act includes provisions for new Arctic domain efforts, but these should only be springboards for military activities, and the reality is that these efforts mean that the United States and European partners are far behind the ball.
That does not mean the efforts are not worth pursuing, but rather, are of greater importance than ever. In simple military terms, the Ukraine currently serves as a flank — a sensitive one that the EU and United States would welcome into the collective security apparatus and one which Russia is pressing. The same Western collective has a Russian flank to press, the Arctic, but those efforts are embryonic and largely two distinct lines between the U.S. and European partners.
Not only does the Arctic offer the allies an opportunity to rebuild state-level cohesion it also serves as an open field for closer military cooperation and integration at the flank, something that would be an effective deterrence to continued Russian adventurism.
Ethan Brown is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack controller. He is currently the senior fellow for Defense Studies at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, a contributor to the Diplomatic Courier, and has written for the Modern War Institute (West Point) and RealClearDefense. He can be found on Twitter @LibertyStoic.
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