On August 2, 2007, a pair of Russian submarines carrying crewmen, scientists, and politicians embarked upon an expedition to reinforce Russia’s disputed territorial claims in the Arctic Circle. In a highly choreographed event, broadcasted live on state-run television, crew-members planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed more than two miles beneath the North Pole. Though some of the televised footage turned out to be pirated material from the 1997 film Titanic, the event provoked a groundswell of Russian nationalism and strengthened the nation’s expansionist approach in the Arctic. “This isn’t the 15th century,” responded Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, “You can’t just go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’” Unfortunately, that is exactly what Russia continues to do, and the United States needs a comprehensive Arctic strategy to stop it.
Arctic Exceptionalism in the Era of Climate Change
As disappearing sea ice makes the region more accessible, states are scrambling to enforce their territorial sovereignty and take advantage of the Arctic’s bountiful resources. Scholars and theorists once spoke of “Arctic Exceptionalism,” the notion whereby polar environments were thought to be immune from traditional strategic concerns. However, as a result of climate change, the region is emerging as an arena of future conflict. According to some estimates, the Arctic contains as much as 90 billion barrels of oil, 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids. In addition to vast energy resources, the warming environment allows for new maritime shipping routes, commercial fishing opportunities, underwater mining ventures, and even adventure tourism.
U.S. Arctic Strategy
The United States, by virtue of Alaska, is an Arctic nation with a diverse set of interests in the region. The 2013 U.S. National Strategy for the Arctic observed that “the melting of Arctic ice has the potential to transform global climate and ecosystems as well as global shipping, energy markets, and other commercial interests.” Unfortunately, successive U.S. presidential administrations have not taken adequate steps to achieve the objectives put forth in the strategy to advance U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation. The Trump Administration should implement priority actions to strengthen the country’s porous Arctic operational capabilities, increase collaboration with the Arctic Council, and actively counter Russia’s extrajudicial territorial claims.
Staking an Arctic Presence
Maintaining an Arctic presence is no easy feat. The region poses unique operational challenges, including its remoteness, extended periods of frigid darkness, and hurricane-strength storms. The Coast Guard is the sole provider and operator of the U.S. polar capable fleet, yet even they admit that they lack the capabilities to assure an at-will presence. The United States has more than one million square miles of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Arctic. Per international law, territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from a nation’s sovereign territory, while an EEZ comprises the waters 200 miles from the coastline which the claimant nation has sole authority to explore and extract resources.
The United States can increase domain awareness over this territory through a myriad of means, but perhaps no single issue characterizes the weak U.S. Arctic presence like the shortage of functional ice-breaking vessels. These vessels, which the United States calls Polar Security Cutters, are outfitted with special equipment and technology to navigate through ice-bound conditions. Icebreakers are necessary to assert an Arctic presence, and are the only vessels capable of traversing the region’s remotest areas. The United States has two; Russia has 41.
Advancing International Cooperation
Given its membership in NATO and the Arctic Council, the United States is well-positioned to protect its regional interests through joint effort and shared responsibility. Created in 1996, the Arctic Council serves as “a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States.” The council has been successful in facilitating international agreements, especially in regards to environmental protection and maritime safety. Of the eight council members, the United States included, five of them are full-fledged NATO members, while another two of them (Sweden and Finland) are NATO partners. Thus, the United States has a competitive advantage vis-a-vis Russia to assert its interests.
The United States should advocate for more NATO involvement in Arctic affairs. NATO forces would bring a modicum of stability to the region, while diplomatic vehicles such as the NATO-Russia Council would help foster dialogue and avert conflict. The United States should also increase collaboration with the Arctic Council, which has sadly deteriorated in recent years. During the annual summit in 2019, the United States spent much of the meeting engaged in a territorial dispute with Canada. For its finale, the U.S. delegation effectively blew up the summit by blocking a joint declaration because it referenced climate change. These charades damage member cohesion and distract from more pressing problem sets.
Countering a Revisionist Russia
Lastly, the United States should take the overdue step of ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS forms the basis of international maritime law, and defines an array of legal issues including territorial rights, freedom of navigation, environmental protection, and resource extraction in the world’s oceans. Russia openly flaunts international law in the Arctic by asserting territorial sovereignty beyond established limits, disrupting freedom of navigation, and ignoring environmental standards. The United States largely adheres to UNCLOS, yet refuses to ratify it for political reasons. This contradiction begs the question over whether it is better to abide by UNCLOS as a nonsignatory (United States), or disregard its statutes as a signatory (Russia). Either way, if the United States wants to stand up to Russia in the Arctic, it can greatly enhance its credibility by becoming a signatory to UNCLOS.
The opening of the Arctic presents a new frontier full of lucrative opportunities yet pressing challenges. The United States needs an Arctic Strategy worthy of the moment. A strategy based upon increasing domain awareness, engaging partners and allies, and countering Russian revisionism strikes the right balance. U.S. Arctic Strategy should not revolve around preparing for war, but rather preparing for a future characterized by state competition and limited resources.
Jonathan Coleman is an M.A. candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs with a concentration in transnational security and countering organized crimes. He holds a B.A. in History from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His professional experience includes five years as a law enforcement officer.