Some lawmakers in Congress, analysts and government officials say the United States is behind other nations, chief among them Russia, in preparing for the new realities facing the Arctic.
ABOARD COAST GUARD CUTTER ALEX HALEY, in the Chukchi Sea —
With warming seas creating new opportunities at the top of the world, nations are scrambling over the Arctic — its territorial waters, transit routes and, especially, its natural resources — in a rivalry some already call a new Cold War.
When President Obama travels to Alaska on Monday, becoming the first president to venture above the Arctic Circle while in office, he hopes to focus attention on the effects of climate change on the Arctic. Some lawmakers in Congress, analysts and some government officials say the United States is lagging behind other nations, chief among them Russia, in preparing for the new environmental, economic and geopolitical realities facing the region.
“We have been for some time clamoring about our nation’s lack of capacity to sustain any meaningful presence in the Arctic,” said Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard’s commandant.
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Aboard the Alex Haley — named after the author of “Roots,” who was a 20-year Coast Guard veteran — the increased activity in the Arctic was obvious in the Chukchi Sea. While the cutter patrolled one day this month, vessels began to appear one after another on radar as the ship cruised north of the Arctic Circle.
There were three tugs hauling giant barges to ExxonMobil’s onshore natural-gas project east of Prudhoe Bay. To the east, a flotilla of ships and rigs lingered at the spot Royal Dutch Shell began drilling for oil this month. Not far away, across America’s maritime border, convoys of container ships and military vessels were traversing the route that Russia dreams of turning into a new Suez Canal.
The cutter, a former Navy salvage vessel built nearly five decades ago, has amounted to the government’s only asset anywhere nearby to respond to an accident, oil spill or incursion into U.S. territory or exclusive economic zone in the Arctic.
To deal with the growing numbers of vessels sluicing north through the Bering Strait, the Coast Guard has had to divert ships such as the Alex Haley from other core missions, like policing American fisheries and interdicting drugs. The service’s fleet is aging, especially the nation’s only two icebreakers. (The U.S. Navy rarely operates in the Arctic.) Underwater charting is paltry, while telecommunications remain sparse above the highest latitudes. Alaska’s far north lacks deep-water port facilities to support increased maritime activity.
All these shortcomings require investments that political gridlock, budget constraints and bureaucracy have held up for years.
Russia, by contrast, is building 10 search-and-rescue stations, strung like a necklace of pearls at ports along half of the Arctic shoreline. More provocatively, it has also significantly increased its military presence, reopening bases abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Russia is far from the only rival — or potential one — in the Arctic. China, South Korea and Singapore have increasingly explored the possibility that commercial cargo could be shipped to European markets across waters — outside Russia’s control — that scientists predict could, by 2030, be ice-free for much of the summer.
In 2012, with great fanfare, China sent a refurbished icebreaker, the Xuelong, or Snow Dragon, across one such route. Signaling its ambitions to be a “polar-expedition power,” China is building a second icebreaker, giving it an icebreaking fleet equal to America’s. Russia, by far the largest Arctic nation, has 41.
“The United States really isn’t even in this game,” Zukunft said at a conference in Washington, D.C., this year.
He lamented the lack of urgency in D.C., contrasting it with the challenges of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union confronted each other in the Arctic and beyond. “When Russia put Sputnik in outer space, did we sit with our hands in pocket with great fascination and say, ‘Good for Mother Russia’?”
“The Arctic is one of our planet’s last great frontiers,” Obama said when he introduced a national strategy for the region in May 2013. The strategy outlined the challenges and opportunities created by diminishing sea ice, from the harsh effects on wildlife and native residents to the accessibility of oil, gas and mineral deposits, estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey to include 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas.
In January, the president created an Arctic Executive Steering Committee, led by the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, John Holdren. The committee is trying to prioritize the demands for ships, equipment and personnel at a time of constrained budgets.
Holdren said in an interview that administration officials were trying “to get our arms around matching the resources and the commitment we can bring to bear with the magnitude of the opportunities and the challenges” in the Arctic.
What kind of frontier the Arctic will be — an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition. An increasing divergence over the answer has deeply divided the U.S. and its allies on one side and Russia on the other.
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, President Vladimir Putin has sought to restore Russia’s pre-eminence in its northern reaches — economically and militarily — with zeal that a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies compared to the Soviet Union’s efforts to establish a “Red Arctic” in the 1930s. The report’s title echoed the rising tensions caused by Russia’s actions in the Arctic: “The New Ice Curtain.”
Decades of cooperation in the Arctic Council, which includes Russia, the U.S. and six other Arctic states, all but ended with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing war in eastern Ukraine. In March, Russia conducted an unannounced military exercise that was one of the largest in the far north. It involved 45,000 troops, dozens of ships and submarines, including those in its strategic nuclear arsenal, from the Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk.
The first of two new army brigades — each expected to grow to more than 3,600 soldiers — deployed to a military base only 30 miles from the Finnish border. The other will be deployed on the Yamal Peninsula, where many of Russia’s new investments in energy resources on shore are.
Putin has pursued the buildup as if a 2013 protest by Greenpeace International at the site of Russia’s first offshore oil platform above the Arctic Circle was the vanguard of a more ominous invader. “Oil and gas-production facilities, loading terminals and pipelines should be reliably protected from terrorists and other potential threats,” Putin said when detailing the military buildup last year. “Nothing can be treated as trivial here.”
In D.C. and other NATO capitals, Russia’s military moves are seen as provocative — and potentially destabilizing.
Russia has intensified air patrols probing NATO’s borders, including in the Arctic. In February, Norwegian fighter jets intercepted six Russian aircraft off Norway’s northern tip. Similar Russian flights occurred last year off Alaska and in the Beaufort Sea, prompting U.S. and Canadian jets to intercept them. Russia’s naval forces have also increased patrols, venturing farther into Arctic waters.
Of particular concern, officials said, has been Russia’s deployment of air defenses in the far north, including surface-to-air missiles whose main purpose is to counter aerial incursions that only the U.S. or NATO members could conceivably carry out in the Arctic.
“We see the Arctic as a global commons,” a senior Obama administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not apparent the Russians see it the same way we do.”
Russia has also sought to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic through diplomacy. This month, Russia resubmitted a claim to the United Nations to a vast area of the Arctic Ocean — 463,000 square miles, about the size of South Africa — based on the geological extension of its continental shelf.
The commission that reviews claims under the Convention on the Law of the Sea rejected a similar one filed in 2001. But Russia, along with Canada and Denmark (through its administration of Greenland), have pressed ahead with competing stakes. Russia signaled its ambitions — symbolically at least — as early as 2007 when it sent two submersibles 14,000 feet down to seabed beneath the North Pole and planted a titanium Russian flag.
Although the commission might not rule for years, Russia’s move underscored the priority the Kremlin has given to expanding its sovereignty. The U.S. has not even ratified the law-of-the-sea treaty, leaving it on the sidelines of territorial jockeying.
The U.S. and its NATO allies still have significant military forces — including missile defenses and plenty of air power — in the Arctic, but the Army is considering reducing its two brigades in Alaska. The Navy, which has no ice-capable warships, acknowledged last year that it had little experience operating in the Arctic Ocean.
Despite concerns over the military buildup, others said some of Russia’s moves were benign efforts to ensure the safety of ships on its Northern Sea Route, which could slash the time it takes to ship goods from Asia to Europe. Russia had pledged to take those steps as an Arctic Council member.
“Some of the things I see them doing — in terms of building up bases, telecommunications, search and rescue capabilities — are things I wish the United States was doing as well,” said Robert Papp Jr., a retired admiral and former commandant of the Coast Guard who is now the State Department’s senior envoy on Arctic issues.