The 21st century has seen significant change in a part of the world that most people would not think of as a strategic territory – the Arctic. Massive changes in the militarization levels, oceanic transportation, and natural resource availability in the region have brought this territory to geopolitical significance. Climate change has significantly increased the navigability of the Arctic Ocean. In 1998, ice covered 12 million square kilometers of the Arctic Ocean. 16 years later, in 2014, the amount of sea ice had shrunk to five million square kilometers. This 58% reduction vastly increased the number of traversable sea lanes, uncovered new resource-rich territories that could be exploited by countries, and brought instability to the Arctic community.
The Arctic is a unique territory, governed by international law rather by any one state. Nations laid claim to territories within the Arctic through the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In 1994, the Arctic Council was formed to increase cooperation within the Arctic and between Arctic nations and serve as an open forum for discussion and communication.
However, with the reduction of sea ice over the past decades, Russia’s territorial claims increased more rapidly than other nations, hoping to own approximately 30% of the worlds untapped natural gas reserves and 13% of the world’s untapped oil reserves that were trapped under ice. In 2008, Russia started moving military units into the Arctic to cement its claims. These actions prompted reciprocal moves by other Western powers, leading to the militarization of the Arctic. With the lack of agreements on countries’ claims to Arctic territories, the risk and possibility of conflict increases.
As the presence of Russian and NATO military forces increase within the Arctic Circle, Russia’s superiority in Arctic military support infrastructure has become apparent. Russia currently has at least 40 icebreakers, ships that make traveling through the region possible. The United States has one operational icebreaker, and the military has requested six more. Congress allocated funding for one, only to later reallocate that funding to the southern U.S. border. Due to the economic advantage of Arctic sea routes, China has three operable icebreakers. Russia has also begun constructing new bases and reopening ones closed after the Cold War, surpassing every other Western nation’s footprint in the region.
U.S. policy towards the Arctic has remained relatively constant for the past 25 years. In 1994, President Clinton issued a presidential directive for Arctic policy, outlining six core principle objectives for the United States within the Arctic. They focused on protecting American national security, managing resources, protecting the environment, strengthening cooperation between the Arctic states, involving indigenous people in legislation, and enhancing the monitoring of research. However, the most important theme was President Clinton’s desire to create a new atmosphere of openness and cooperation with Russia. This policy may have worked in the 1990s, but it is ineffective today.
The next major policy towards the Arctic wasn’t until January 2009. President Bush issued a presidential directive that built off of President Clinton’s, but with some key changes. In fact, Bush’s six core objectives were incredibly similar to Clinton’s objectives, but addressed issues such as international governance, boundary issues, and maritime transportation–problems that came to the forefront of Arctic policy in the last 15 years. It also stated that the United States has significant security interests in the Arctic and would take a more assertive approach to protecting those interests in response to Russia’s aggressive land grabs.
The Obama and Trump administrations briefly mentioned the Arctic in relation to climate change and the National Security Strategy, respectively, but have not made any efforts to further develop the United States’ capabilities in the region.
To combat Russian expansionism in the Arctic, the United States and its allies must utilize a hybrid of military and diplomatic tools. A key aspect to developing a strong presence in the region is the construction of icebreakers, as they are necessary to traverse the Arctic by sea. The U.S. Coast Guard has clearly stated that it requires a minimum of three icebreakers for the U.S. military to conduct missions in the Arctic. Until these ships are constructed, U.S. security operations in the Arctic will be severely hindered relative to Russian military operations. The United States also needs to invest in more shore-based infrastructure such as commissioning the construction of military bases in the Arctic, as the United States’ ability to conduct operations is hindered by the range of its helicopters and the distance of bases from the new Arctic lanes of transit.
Diplomatic issues pertaining to Russian aggression in the Arctic should be brought to the UN. Unsanctioned land grabs pose a risk to all Arctic nations and should be treated seriously. The UN should consider imposing sanctions on Russia in an effort to rein in its behavior.
Activity in the Arctic will only increase in the coming years. Therefore, the United States must make the Arctic a priority and start improving its Arctic infrastructure, to prevent adversarial states from cementing a hegemony in the region.