America Still Making The Wrong Moves In Arctic Chess Game With Russia

David Hunt President, DAR Inc.
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Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said that he doesn’t want his grandkids “not to be able to climb a mountain and see a glacier because we didn’t do something about it.”

The way things are unfolding, unless we do something fast, his grandkids might see something far more disturbing: a platoon of belligerent Russian troops, armed and ready, claiming that the Arctic is theirs and theirs alone.

While the Obama administration continues to implement policies in a way that does not adequately address and further America’s security and economic interests, the Russian military continues to jeopardize our national security by pulling off one headline-grabbing strategic ploy after another in one of the world’s most important geopolitical hotspots: the Arctic.

Recently, Russia submitted a claim to the United Nations for 1.2 million square kilometers of Arctic sea shelf, including the North Pole. The territory could hold about 5 billion tons of oil and gas resources. Above its northern coastline, they’ve also asserted ownership of the emerging Northern Sea Route, the Arctic’s fastest-growing shipping route.

This comes after Russia spent years militarizing the region unabated and without challenge. Not only have the Russians placed a flag via submarine on the seabed of the North Pole and rehabilitated a Soviet-era military base, they’ve also launched a full-alert combat readiness exercise with 38,000 troops, 110 aircraft, 41 ships, and 15 submarines. They’ve added a 6,000-soldier permanent military force in the Arctic’s northwest Murmansk region, equipped with new radar and guidance system capabilities and coastal defense missile systems. Russia currently has a fleet of six nuclear-powered icebreakers and at least a dozen diesel-powered icebreakers, and three more nuclear-powered icebreakers will be added by decade’s end.

These moves show that Russia sees the Arctic as a resources-rich geopolitical chessboard, positioning its pieces for checkmate. There are already warning signs. Last year, Russian heavy bombers flew more out-of-area patrols than any year since the Cold War, in some instances skirting dangerously close to U.S. airspace. Six Russian aircraft were intercepted near Alaskan airspace last September. In July, a pair of Russian bombers was intercepted by the United States off the coast of Alaska.

“We are seeing more complexity in flight activity,” Col. Patrick Carpentier says, and with Russia building an additional 13 airfields, 10 air-defense radar systems, 16 deep-water ports, and 10 search-and-rescue stations in the Arctic, matters may only worsen.

In this new Cold War-like environment, “we’re not even in the same league as Russia right now,” Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft recently said — and he’s right. The 1990s saw major drawdowns, including withdrawals from Forward Operating Bases at Galena and King Salmon, deactivation of the Army’s primary Arctic warfare division, and closure of the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare base on Adak Island. The U.S. Army also plans to cut troop levels by 2,600 at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and by 75 at Fort Wainwright – all while Russia sends in troops by the thousands.

In testimony before Congress earlier this year, commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command Adm. William Gortney warned that if Russian military trends continue on the present course “NORAD will face increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian air, maritime, and cruise missile threats.” 

In other words, checkmate.

As Russia moves to exert its influence in the region, the United States continues to send mixed signals. While green-lighting the initiation of exploration drilling in the U.S. Arctic, the federal government this year has also taken steps to block commercial access to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and millions of offshore acres in U.S. Arctic waters, and projects on federal lands in Alaska continue to face uncertain and lengthy permitting and regulatory processes that discourage investment in the region.

Make no mistake. It’s not too late to flip the board and counter Russia’s advancement in this vitally important and strategic region. It starts with increasing our commitment to securing and defending our Arctic territory in Alaska and making the investments necessary to establish our long-term presence in the region. That includes the construction of new infrastructure such as icebreakers and deepwater ports and the enactment of sound policies that facilitate economic activities in the U.S. Arctic like energy and shipping. It will also require a strategic focus on the region, and stepped-up training exercises to help counter Russia’s antics and show that the U.S. is not willing to cede its influence and security to foreign rivals. 

Our new and emerging Cold War with Russia, while playing out all over the world, is most vividly reflected in the Arctic. The unfolding situation represents a legitimate and escalating threat to our national and economic security. It is now time for our president to directly face this threat and show some real leadership by protecting and furthering America’s interests in the Arctic.

David Hunt is a retired U.S. Army colonel and a former security adviser to the FBI. He served as counterterrorism coordinator for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul.