By Tiberiu Dianu
The meeting between Trump and Putin on Monday, July 16, 2018, in Helsinki, Finland came and ended. The countries the two presidents represent continue to have several unresolved common hot topics, including, but not limited, to: Ukraine, Crimea, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and Russia’s meddling in the U.S. 2016 elections. The two presidents agreed to meet again later this year, and Putin was invited to Washington this fall. Another important topic that should be taken into account during the next meetings between the two presidents is the Arctic issue.
The United States must formulate a long-term strategy for counteracting Russia’s Arctic military expansion that has been taking place for the last half a century. The rich but unclaimed, territory of the Arctic has been an area of U.S.-Russian frictions and incidents that, in a post-Cold War period, can escalate to the level of open conflict. The polar region holds a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources, with American waters covering about 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to create jobs, revenues, and heat for more than 30 years.
It becomes more and more obvious that, in the current geopolitical situation, Putin is not going anywhere. After all, he is in his juvenile sixties, and he’s been around since 1999, as an on/off-off/on prime minister and president (and the charade will go on and on). On the other hand, Trump was elected as the U.S. president in 2016 and may stay as a re-elected president until 2024.
The two world leaders, Trump and Putin, seem attuned to similar psychological patterns, in texture and design. They sound and act alike, they are considered patriots by their fellow citizens (or “populists” by political analysts), and they are trusted by their base.
But let us not forget that Putin outlasted Bill Clinton at the end of his second mandate, then George W. Bush after his two mandates and, finally, Barack Obama after his two mandates.
Therefore, a 10-year forecast of the U.S.-Russia relationship is imperiously necessary.
2. The Arctic Players
The region, located at the northernmost part of Earth, includes, in its subarctic zone, the northern territories of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.
The arctic zone, though, is divided only among five players, alongside a 200-mile demarcation line, with Russia on one side, and the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway on the other.
The increased Russian military presence in the Arctic creates unease amongst these neighboring countries, especially Norway, who has proven very active in promoting NATO’s role in the Arctic, by backing the Western application of sanctions against Russia.
3. Russia’s “Northern Exposure”
In the Putin era, Russia has taken several aggressive steps to mark its territory, by reactivating and renovating its older Soviet military bases, in order to accommodate last generation defense systems (including radar and ground guidance systems), fighter aircrafts, nuclear-powered icebreaker ships and submarines. It also has extended motorized infantry brigades and border patrol guards (in the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, Murmansk and Yamal-Nenets regions, Franz Josef Land, Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt).
In October 2013, Putin vowed never to “surrender” Russia’s Arctic area. In October 2014, Russia announced its intention to submit more requests to the United Nations, seeking to expand its Arctic borders by 1.2 million square kilometers (more than 463,322 square miles). In November 2014, Putin announced to set up the headquarters of a “North” Arctic Command, operational in December the same year.
In December 2015, Putin signed a new military doctrine, according to which the Arctic was officially listed in the Russian sphere of influence.
4. The United States’ Response
Beginning in 2013, the U.S. have developed a national strategy for the Arctic region, consisting of more than 30 specific initiatives in an implementation plan led by the Department of Homeland Security (and supported by other agencies like Commerce, Defense, State, Transportation, and National Science Foundation) “to project a sovereign U.S. maritime presence, support U.S. interests in the polar Regions and facilitate research that advances the fundamental understanding of the Arctic” (see Ronald O’Rourke’s September 14, 2017 report, pp. 8-9).
But the United States have to take a more aggressive approach toward Russia’s militarization of the Arctic. The U.S. Navy should start building more polar icebreakers, in order to prepare for possible Russian aggression. Traditionally, the regional Coast Guard in the area was responsible for this task.
Currently, the U.S. polar icebreaking fleet includes two heavy endurance icebreakers (Polar Star, under technical revisions, and Polar Sea, operational, designed to perform missions in both the Arctic and Antarctic), one medium endurance icebreaker (Healy, used for scientific research in the Arctic), and one ship (Palmer, used for scientific research in the Antarctic).
Plans have been made for five or six more (two or three heavy and three medium) icebreakers, whereas the price tag for one unit tops US$ 1 billion.
By comparison, Russia has 41 icebreakers, and Canada has six (and is currently expanding).
On May 17, 2018, speaking at the Coast Guard Academy commencement in New London, Connecticut, President Trump pledged to build more Coast Guard icebreakers: “I’m proud to say that under my administration, as you just heard, we will be building the first new heavy icebreakers the United States has seen in over 40 years. We’re going to build many of them.” Admiral Paul Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, credited the Trump administration with funding a new heavy icebreaker. “We just freed up money under this administration to finally invest in heavy icebreakers,” the admiral said. “We’re going to build six, but we’re on the fast track to build the first one.”
The time needed to build a new icebreaker can take several years. The Coast Guard included the project in its 2012-2013 budget submission. Through the FY 2016, the project received about $15.6 million. In FY 2017, Congress gave the Coast Guard $25 million to manage the project, and $150 million went to the Navy to start the design and construction process. Currently, actual building is planned to start in 2020 and if all goes according to the plan, the ship will launch in 2023.
5. Toward a New American Arctic Strategy
Building and modernizing a new icebreaker fleet is only part of a more comprehensive Arctic strategy, that the U.S. has to design and implement. The American strategic interests in both polar regions (especially in the bordering Arctic), must be redefined at a national policy level. Therefore, the U.S. Arctic sector must be reconfigured. The Russians have already taken steps in the United Nations in order to expand their Arctic zone.
We have to develop more Arctic military locations: temporary stations and permanent bases alongside Alaska’s coastal areas (Arctic and Pacific), and in the Aleutian archipelago (the Bering Sea), the westernmost part of the U.S. by longitude, bordering Russia (where the U.S. detonated the largest underground nuclear explosion, in 1971).
Also, the United States should start a more intensive Arctic cooperation policy (including implementing bases) with its northern allies: Denmark (in Greenland), and Iceland.
Related to Greenland, the U.S. have been always developing a special geopolitical interest. Between 1941 and 1945 the island has been occupied by the American military, as a response to Denmark being invaded by Nazi Germany. In 1946, the U.S. offered to buy Greenland from Denmark, but the latter refused to sell it.
As for Iceland, the U.S. Naval Air Station at Keflavik, closed in September 2006, is scheduled to reopen, almost ten years after the last forces left the country, due to the local authorities’ concern with the recent Russian activities.
In addition to that, the U.S. should strengthen both NATO and bilateral cooperation with Canada and Norway, and extend a military partnership with the other non-NATO Scandinavian allies (Finland and Sweden).
Thus, an efficient American Arctic strategy would imply a binary component system, with micro (the technical and logistical support) and macro elements (the military arch of Arctic allies). Therefore, the United States should start updating and expanding the micro (where Russia is dominating now), in consonance with solidifying and extending the macro (where Russia is and will always be a solo player, and consequently on its own, due to an absence of Arctic allies).