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Is Obama Finally Waking Up To Reality In The Arctic?

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Jonah Bennett Contributor

President Barack Obama is set to announce a plan Tuesday to build new icebreakers for the Coast Guard, marking an attempt to counteract the activity of nations like Russia in the Arctic region.

Obama’s lack of action in the Arctic has drawn serious criticism, especially when past action has focused much more on issues like climate change, as opposed to mitigating threats posted by other circumpolar countries, The New York Times reports.

In fact, climate change is the impetus behind the president’s three-day excursion up north. Part of his agenda on the trip has been to highlight the damaging effects of rising temperatures on Alaska. That was Monday. Critics of his trip have leveled a charge of hypocrisy because of the Obama administration’s decision to grant Shell a permit to drill for oil in the region.

Tuesday is when he switches his attention to icebreakers, which according to Obama are necessary because climate change is causing ice to decrease, making the region more navigable. This means a coming surge in shipping, tourism, fishing and other activities.

The existing Coast Guard fleet is not robust enough to handle these new challenges given that there are only two fully functional icebreakers remaining.

The total of two icebreakers falls far short of Russia’s fleet of 41 vessels. China fielded an icebreaker in 2012 and is working on one more. Russia meanwhile is building 11 more.

For Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska, this development is concerning. The U.S. should not be pulling back in Alaska, just as Russia and China are stepping up efforts, he argued.

“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Walker said, according to The New York Times. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”

Republican members of Congress in particular have criticized the Obama administration for neglecting its responsibilities in the north, especially given an application earlier this year by Russia to the United Nations for control over 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf. The concern is that if the Coast Guard doesn’t mount an effective response, the United States will lose de facto control over shipping routes, fishing grounds and other areas.

No one was shocked by the land-grab attempt, but most were disappointed in what they deemed a “strategic blunder” by the administration, since with enough attention, Russia would never have dared to submit the proposal.

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