The Coldest War: Militarization of the Arctic

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Over a century ago, exploring the Arctic was seen as conquering a final frontier. The region inspired the likes of Robert Peary to traverse the region in hopes of finding the North Pole. The United States realized the importance of the region to the security of the nation and during the Cold War, the region was host to heightened tensions between the United States and the former USSR. Both states deployed nuclear ballistic missile submarines which could deliver their devastating payload at a moment’s notice.

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, the Arctic became less of an arena of great-power competition but instead a region which provided untapped economic potential and an opportunity to spur cooperation. This newfound vision for intrastate cooperation was realized in 1996 when the multilateral Arctic Council through the Ottawa Declaration. As this organization was focused upon the development of the region it refrained from any mention of security interests of the member states. Through this directive, the organization served as the primary forum for diplomacy between the Arctic nations.

However, there has been a vast set of external conditions which have changed the landscape of the Arctic drastically. Principle among them has been that climate change has greatly reduced the permafrost levels in the Arctic. As a result, natural resources which were previously inaccessible have become available to the nations who can claim them within their territorial boundaries. The melting of sea ice has also opened sea lanes in which great powers may once again have submarines and other sea craft, capable of carrying a nuclear payload, traverse the sea lanes. In a bid to protect its Arctic interests, the Russian Federation has embarked on a campaign of modernizing its military. Furthermore, by claiming newly available sea lanes, they lessen the impact that Western sanctions can have upon their economy.

In order for the United States to make an informed Arctic foreign policy, it must fully understand the strategic capabilities of Russia. In the event of a potential conflict with NATO states, Russia has deployed air defense systems within the strategic central Arctic to deter any Western state from challenging their claims. Much like the Chinese in the South China Sea, the Russians have learned that the construction of military infrastructure by a major power to solidify claims will likely go unchallenged without credible deterrence from another power. In addition, Russia also has placed importance on the training of their ground troops in Arctic warfare. Although the United States still has recognizable naval superiority, the recent testing of Russian hypersonic missiles presents a clear and prescient threat to Arctic-based NATO seacraft.

While the Russians are posturing for a potential conflict, one must only look to their official policy regarding the Arctic. In their official policy, the Russian Federation seeks both a reinforcement of their sovereignty and the support of cooperation in the region. Though they claim to support cooperation, it is clear that they seek to use their hard power to gain a favorable slice of the Arctic while using the Arctic Council as a guise to pursue their true interests. Given these developments, the United States should work with its allies to counter Russian influence in the region to return the non-partisan nature of the institution. The pressing issues which the Arctic states face, such as climate change, require a multilateral response which trump the economic interests of any power. Equally important is the further development of the U.S. Navy to provide for stability within the Arctic and to open up a path for engagement for all stakeholders to discuss their differences of opinion in a constructive manner.

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