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US Lawmakers Move To Counter Putin’s Arctic Ambitions

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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Federal lawmakers have reintroduced legislation March 24 to better coordinate U.S. Arctic policy at a time when both Russia and China are becoming more aggressive in asserting their interests in the region.

Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner and Rick Larsen have introduced legislation to create an “Ambassador at Large for Arctic Affairs” that would be in charge of coordinating the policies of 20 government agencies that deal with the north pole. Lawmakers hope to get the bill passed by the time the U.S. becomes chair of the multinational Arctic Council in April.

“An ambassador-level position is necessary to show the U.S. is serious about being an Arctic nation,” said Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, in a press release March 24. “Russia continues to make claims and China is increasing its Arctic presence. The U.S. should coordinate its Arctic policy to protect our commercial interests and domestic energy supply at the highest level.”

The bill comes on news that Russia is making a massive show of force in the Arctic, conducting military maneuvers in the region that coordinates thousands of troops. On top of that, the Kremlin is rebuilding defunct Soviet air bases in the region and even has plans for nuclear powered icebreaker ships.

Russia is also petitioning the United Nations to expand its Arctic territories. Failing that, Kremlin paranoia about western intervention could push them to act alone and simply annex parts of the north pole. It’s unclear what the international community could even do in a such a situation.

“The constant military presence in the Arctic and a possibility to protect the state’s interests by the military means are regarded as an integral part of the general policy to guarantee national security,” said Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister.

“It’s not a secret that the Arctic is turning into one of the world centers for producing hydrocarbons and is an important junction for transport communications,” he said. “Some developed countries that don’t have direct access to the polar regions obstinately strive for the Arctic, taking certain political and military steps in that direction.”

North pole sea ice coverage has shrunk in recent decades, allowing for more shipping and commercial activity. In particular, it has increased the prospect of harvesting the vast natural resources stored in the Arctic — billions of barrels of oil and natural gas as well as vast amounts of rare earth minerals.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from last year found that the U.S. has no joint strategy on how to handle emerging issues in the Arctic. Indeed, the State Department has made global warming a top priority for when it heads the Arctic Council later this year, but the GAO notes that State “has not established a joint strategy for U.S. participation that outlines a clear direction or specifies necessary resources.”

“Without a joint strategy, key collaborating agencies may continue to face challenges prioritizing the work, delivering unified messages, and consistently participating in the Council,” GAO notes, hence Sensenbrenner and Larsen’s bill.

But more importantly, the GAO stressed that “the U.S. chairmanship will span two presidential administrations, making it particularly important to plan for continuity.” Two different administrations may further bungle Arctic policy — especially if interagency politics gets worse.

“Our country faces a steep opportunity curve when it comes to the Arctic as we prepare to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council,” said Larsen, a Washington Democrat. “That is why I support an ambassador-level position to better manage our many interests in the Arctic and to signal our country’s commitment to international cooperation on Arctic policy.”

Despite the bipartisanship of the Sensenbrenner-Larsen bill, there has been a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats over how to handle the U.S.’s Arctic possessions.

Democrats have focused on wildlife protection and taking actions to lessen the effects of global warming on the native tribes in the region. President Obama has even asked Congress to make the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) a permanent wilderness — putting out of reach for oil and gas development.

The administration has also designated huge swaths of Alaska’s Arctic coast as a critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals and have restricted offshore drilling in parts of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Republicans, however, have criticized the administration’s unwillingness to unlock the natural resource potential of the Arctic — which could hold 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves.

“We are an Arctic nation because of Alaska, but truly the Arctic touches all 50 states and the development of the region must be a national priority,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said during a March hearing.

“We need to shake the notion that the Arctic is nothing but a snowglobe; something that can be watched, studied, and admired from afar,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski joined Maine Independent Sen. Angus King in creating the Senate Arctic Caucus that will focus on the region’s future development. King said “the strategic significance of the region will only grow more important.”

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