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The Arctic War
August 18, 2022
In 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin honored a scientist who piloted a small submersible to the Arctic seabed, planted a titanium version of the Russian flag, then claimed “The Arctic is Russian”. American and Canadian officials were taken aback because, until then, the frozen Arctic Ocean, half the size of the United States, had been mostly ignored. Militarization by Putin has followed and, in combination with the invasion of Ukraine, convinced Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Now seven of the world’s eight Arctic nations are members of NATO because the top of the world is another potential battlefield. Washington has responded by bolstering its surveillance and defence systems in Canada and deploying jets and troops in Alaska, to protect the northern perimeter of North America from encroachments and missiles. Control of the Arctic is up for grabs and there is much at stake.
The fight at the top of the world is not simply an arms race, but is about Russian and Chinese hegemony over trade as well as resources. Russia has invested heavily in creating its own “Arctic Silk Road”, called the Northern Sea Route, to provide a shipping link between Europe and Asia. Estimates are that portions of the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer months in a few years which could open up three potential routes: Russia’s Northern Sea Route which hugs Russia’s coastline; the Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and along Alaska’s coast; and, lastly, the Transpolar Route that transits across the geographic North Pole, beyond the territorial waters of all eight Arctic states.
The only viable option is Russia’s route. The Transpolar route may never be ice-free or navigable and Canada’s Northwest Passage is littered with 94 islands (two bigger than Spain) and lots of ice. Besides, Canada’s north is empty, hosting a handful of settlements and mines and without military presence. Canada’s federal government has blocked any development of its massive Arctic oil and gas reserves discovered in the 1980s unlike Alaska which still produces oil. By contrast, Russia’s Northern Sea Route is already ice-free most of the summer and its Siberian coastline is populated with cities, a floating nuclear reactor to power industries, and navigational, search and rescue, and icebreaking capability. The route potentially could shave 20 days off the Europe-China journey and bypasses the Suez or Panama Canals.
Commercial shipping is minimal – 86 full-length transits in 2021 -- and is primarily liquefied natural gas and oil from Siberian facilities to markets in Europe and Asia. Plans are to increase volume with the help of a fleet of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers that can clear a path for tankers year-around. But this may never rival the year-around, just-in-time shipping models that now transit via the Panama and Suez routes. However, strategically it opens up Russia’s hinterland, resource, and trade prospects.
Of immediate concern is Russia’s militarization of the region. For a decade, the Kremlin has revamped shuttered Soviet bases, and built as many as 50 defensive outposts from the Barents Sea to territories near Alaska. Russia’s new “Arctic command” comprises four Arctic brigades, refurbished airfields, and deep-water ports, and Moscow regularly launches mock military attacks on Nordic countries as well as real ones by jamming GPS and radar capability during NATO exercises.
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 is there, with two-thirds of Russia’s second-strike maritime nuclear capabilities. The Kola stands sentry to Russia’s portion of the Arctic with three military bases and repositories for nuclear arms. 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 which could become, according to an expert, “a flashpoint of tension, should Russia decide to contest American access to the Arctic.”
America began to be alerted to Russia’s northern strategy and in 2019 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw down the gauntlet with his Northern Doctrine speech to the Arctic Council (comprised of countries with Arctic borders: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. He bluntly put Russia and China on notice for militarizing the region, and chastened Canada by describing its claim of sovereignty to the Northwest Passage as “illegitimate” because it has no military or other presence there.
Alaska military presence has been bolstered in recent years, and in September 2021, as Russia amassed troops along Ukraine’s border, Canada quietly acceded defence of its northern region to Washington via the NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) arrangement. Months later, a staggering estimate of $40 billion was levied to Canada for its share of a future, technologically advanced system to defend its combined northern perimeter against intercontinental ballistic missiles. In addition, Canada was told to stop dithering over procuring modern fighter jets and it’s a good guess that very shortly Ottawa will agree to join the U.S. ballistic missile defence after 20 years of refusing to do so. Already, American and British submarines prowl “Canadian” Arctic waters in the absence of Canadian naval ships.
Canada sidelined itself as a geopolitical player in the Arctic with a navy smaller than Sri Lanka’s and no 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, 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. Western sanctions against capital and technology and talent have dried up pipeline and exploration efforts, and Europe’s drive to replace Russian energy will force Russia to lose income eventually and become more dependent on energy exports to China which is already a huge customer. China has already invested heavily in the Russian Arctic, building super icebreakers and funding a Polar research institute in 2009 in Europe to sponsor new scientific expeditions to the Arctic. And in 2014, it became an observer on the Arctic Council, and began describing itself as a “near-Arctic state” but Pompeo shut that down. “There are only Arctic states and non-Arctic states. No third category exists – and claiming otherwise entitles China to exactly nothing,” he said in 2019.
China is one of 12 nations with “observer status” attached to the Arctic Council which 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. Russia’s priority has been the Arctic and Siberia, which generates 20 percent of its GDP in resource extraction and processing. Currently, a plethora of Arctic claims overlap and remain on the back burner, but Russia 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.
Putin has been plotting world domination for decades, and now struggles to take even Ukraine, so it was absurd that the Chairman of his Russian State Duma warned last week that Russia could demand Alaska back if the U.S. starts trying to dispose of Russian assets abroad. Everyone knows that won’t happen until Hell Freezes Over.