U.S. military warns against Russian Arctic expansion

ANALYSIS: The United States' military is belatedly recognizing that it lags behind Russia in the Arctic.

By Malte Humpert, High North News - March 23, 2018
Sailors and members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut (SSN 22) as it surfaces above the ice during ICEX 2011. (Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O’Brien / U.S. Navy)

U.S. military officials have upped their rhetoric on Russia’s activities in the Arctic.

In statements made before the Armed Services Committee of the U.S. Senate, military commanders for the U.S. Pacific Command and the U.S. European Command warned about Russia’s growing influence in the Arctic, its military build-up, and the United States’ inability to counter Russia’s activities. Similarly, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Zukunft, expressed concern about “a mounting Russian footprint” in his 2018 State of the Coast Guard address earlier this month.

“Of particular note are Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North. Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined, and is building more with distinctly military capabilities,” stated Admiral Harry Harris, U.S. Navy Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command before the committee on March 15.

General Curtis Scaparrotti, U.S. Army Commander of the U.S. European Command, echoed this sentiment cautioning that Russia is revitalizing its northern fleet and bases in “anticipation of increased military activity,” during testimony given before the panel. He went on to explain that “Russia is increasing its qualitative advantage in Arctic operations, and its military bases will serve to reinforce Russia’s position with the threat of force.”

The officials also warned of the United States’ inability to counter Russia’s expansion in the Arctic. “They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook. If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning,” Zukunft warned.

A change in rhetoric?

Experts agree that these recent comments appear to signal a change in the U.S. attitude towards Russia. “I do think these statements mark a noted increase in rhetoric about Russian activities in the Arctic. I think we see that there has indeed been a decision somewhere in the chain of command to highlight America’s Arctic readiness,” explains Andrew Holland, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project.

“I can definitely see how the rhetoric is changing and how the West is seeing through Russia’s narrative of Arctic cooperation and exceptionalism,” confirms Rob Huebert, associate professor at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Center for Military and Strategic Studies.

Other experts caution that these recent official statements may be aimed less at Russia. Instead they could serve as a “justification for an increase of military budgets for security providence against Russia’s assertive policy,” explains Nadezhda Filimonova, researcher at McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

End of Arctic exceptionalism

Researchers have since the end of the Cold War supported the idea that the Arctic is a peaceful region of cooperation removed from global political dynamics and conflicts. The Arctic Council, a key intergovernmental organization working on the Arctic, was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. However, recently Arctic exceptionalism has been increasingly challenged.

“We have chosen to re-interpret Russian behavior and further the myth of Arctic exceptionalism,” explains Huebert. “It’s an illusion to think that as Putin moves into an even more authoritative regime we can continue working together in the Arctic on a cooperative basis. Authoritative regimes don’t function that way.”

“Call it what you want, but Russia is serious about the militarization, remilitarization, or securitization of the Arctic.” Huebert points out that the revival of air and land bases, officially for search and rescue purposes, also have runway capacities to handle Russia’s bomber and fighter fleets.

Concerns were also voiced by General Scaparrotti with regards to the Northern Sea Route: “Russia also intends to assert sovereignty over the NSR in violation of the provisions of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” He warned “if you look at what they’re putting into place, they would have the capability, in perhaps two or three years, to control the route, if they chose to do so.”

While Russia’s footprint in the Arctic, both economically and militarily, has expanded rapidly, it hardly comes as a surprise, says Huebert. Existing policy and strategy documents clearly lay out Russia’s intentions in the Arctic.

“In its 2008 Arctic Strategy Russia announced its plans to enhance its military presence in the Arctic in order to guarantee the country’s sovereignty and protection of its borders. The re-establishment of Soviet military bases represents a continuation of this policy,” confirms Filimonova.

The U.S. lacks abilities

Despite a change in rhetoric, the facts on the ground remain the same: The U.S. is falling further and further behind in the region, operating a single aging polar-class icebreaker.

“The Arctic is the only theater of operations where the U.S. Navy is outclassed by a peer competitor. Russian surface warships have demonstrated the ability to carry out complex combined operations in the High North, while the American Navy maintains a policy that only submarines operate above the Bering Strait. Are submarines enough of a deterrence? Probably. But I don’t think they provide the real presence needed to assert the U.S.’ rights to the opening Arctic,” Holland explains.

Any reaction by the U.S. to catch up in the Arctic comes about 10 years to late, says Huebert. “Yes, as the current ICEX military exercise shows U.S. submarines have the capability of patrolling the Arctic and surfacing through the ice, but what is lacking are the constabulary capabilities in the form of surface vessels and icebreakers.”

Is the U.S. Waking up?

After more than a decade of lobbying by the U.S. Coast Guard to secure funds to construct a new icebreaker, the agency may finally make progress on this front. Congress’ upcoming appropriations bill is likely to include funding to design and construct a new icebreaker. Still, this falls way short of what would be needed, says Holland. “That is good, but it is late, and there’s no commitment to build the three to five more [icebreakers] that is estimated we’ll need. Nor is there any thought about designing the Navy’s ships of the future so they can operate in the High North.”

Holland hopes that the change in rhetoric marks a newfound seriousness by America’s military leadership about the rapidly growing challenges in the Arctic. This also includes China’s emergence as an Arctic power and its desire to utilize the NSR as its own Polar Silk Road as laid out in its newly-released Arctic strategy.

“These countries have a clear strategic vision for what they want out of the Arctic. As do European Arctic states. It’s time for the U.S. to stand up for its rights and responsibilities as an Arctic nation.”