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By Andrew Holland on Nov 20, 2013 with no responses

What is Russia’s Game in the Arctic?

I’ve been writing, researching, and talking a good bit about Arctic issues recently. You can see my piece in Alaska Dispatch, where I claim that the U.S. is “Failing to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Arctic” and I will have forthcoming pieces in the Georgetown Journal of Security Studies and elsewhere.

What comes across is a great disparity in intentions, ambition, and resources devoted to the region between Russia versus the United States. This is most apparent in the status accorded to the security forces.

The US Navy, when asked what they plan to do about an opening Arctic invariably respond by saying “why should we do anything” or “why would we build a new Navy for a new ocean?” They may have a point – there’s not that much up there to protect, and the international regime governing the Arctic is strong: conflict appears highly unlikely.

And yet, the Russians are playing a very different game. Their goals may be closer to 19th Century strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s vision, where “Sea Power” is enough for a country to get its way in unrelated geopolitical problems.

They are reopening air and naval bases across their Arctic littoral and on barren Arctic islands. The video, embedded below, of the Russian Northern fleet traveling from Murmansk in the West to exercises in the Far East is a stunning display.

The Russian Northern Fleet is its largest and most powerful fleet and has conducted extensive exercises in Arctic waters along Russia’s Northern Sea Route. In October 2013, the Russian Air Force re-opened a Cold War-era air base on Kotelny Island, far to the east of the Northern Fleet’s home port of Severomorsk.  In November 2013, Russia’s Minister of Defense announced plans to create a new class of ice-protected vessels to patrol their Arctic coast.

Although the US Navy refuses to play this game in the Arctic, they very clearly believe that Sea Power remains an important factor in projecting power. The Navy’s role in the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf shows this. The 7th Fleet has waved the flag in Vietnam, Singapore, and throughout Asia as a way to support the claims of countries against China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. In the Persian Gulf, the 5th fleet in Bahrain acts to deter aggressors threatening oil production or the sea lanes. These are core national interests of the US.

Because the Navy refuses to play the same game in the Arctic, it seems that there has been a strategic decision that the American Arctic isn’t worth the resources. However, that has not been made explicit. Instead, we have a raft of strategic documents published by seemingly every government agency talking about how important the Arctic is (see: White House, Interior, Coast Guard, Navy), but we don’t see the political will or the resources put in place to back up these claims.

Now, let’s be clear, the stakes for Russia are arguably much greater in the Arctic than they are for the US, Canada, or other NATO allies. Russia has three major rivers, the Lena, the Ob, and the Yenisei flowing north into the Arctic Ocean, each of which is as big as the Mississippi. The Russian Northern Sea Route has been open for travel since early Soviet times. The Russian Arctic already accounts for 10% of their GDP (and more than 20% of their exports). Now they see the opening of the Arctic as their chance to move from being a continental power to being a maritime power. Importantly, too, Gazprom and Russia’s oil companies see the Arctic as their resource base for the 21st century, as on-shore resources dwindle.

However, I am worried that, eventually, an imbalance of power, combined with an unclear expression of American interest, will lead to an imbalance of outcomes in the Arctic. Right now, all the stakeholders in the Arctic seem to work together to common goals in the Arctic Council and any disputes are settled through legal means. However, it’s dangerous to assume that will always be the case;  we don’t make that assumption with the Chinese in the Western Pacific or with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf. What makes Russian aggressiveness in the Arctic any different? Am I missing something?