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Climate Change

The New Arms Race in the Arctic

by Ambassador Tom Loftus

Global warming has created a new ocean in the Arctic, and that poses challenges for the Pentagon in the geopolitical battle with Russia and other nations.

Russia claims the right to regulate Arctic waters in excess of the authority permitted under international law.

Department of Defense Arctic Strategy Report, June 2019

This rather ominous statement is from the 2019 Defense Department report to Congress outlining a new Arctic policy. 

Global warming has created a new ocean in the Arctic, and that poses challenges for the Pentagon in the geopolitical battle with Russia and other nations. A recent Defense Department report to Congress on the military’s Arctic strategy said that the DoD must address “the Joint Force’s eroding competitive edge against China and Russia."

“The Arctic’s physical environment continues to change, including through diminished sea ice coverage, declining snow cover, and melting ice sheets,” the DoD says in the report “Temperatures across the Arctic region are increasing more than twice as fast as global average temperatures, accompanied by thawing permafrost and loss of sea ice and glacier mass.”

The DoD cites climate change reports by NOAA and the U.S. Global Change Research Program as the source of these statements – and goes on to describe the Arctic as “a potential avenue for expanded great power competition and aggression …”

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Temperatures across the Arctic region are increasing more than twice as fast as global average temperatures, accompanied by thawing permafrost and loss of sea ice and glacier mass.

Department of Defense Arctic Strategy, June 2019

So in essence, the military is using climate change as the justification for a military buildup in the Arctic. And in that same report, the DoD describes a growing Russian military presence in the region: “Russia views itself as a polar great power and is the largest Arctic nation by landmass, population, and military presence above the Arctic Circle.” In recent years, the report says, “Russia has gradually strengthened its presence by creating new Arctic units, refurbishing old airfields and infrastructure in the Arctic, and establishing new military bases along its Arctic coastline.”

Nowhere in this report is there any talk of cooperation. In fact, it’s likely that the U.S. military will use the report as a justification for more military spending in the region, including on nuclear submarines.

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In a speech in Finland in May, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed the confrontational approach, describing the Arctic region as an arena for power and competition.
 
“On the security side,” he said, “partly in response to Russia’s destabilizing activities, we are hosting military exercises, strengthening our force presence, rebuilding our icebreaker fleet, expanding Coast Guard funding, and creating a new senior military post for Arctic Affairs inside of our own military.”
 
As someone who served our country in an Arctic nation as the U.S. ambassador to Norway from 1993-1997, I find the military buildup in the region to be troubling. During the post-Cold War spring, I worked for five years to nurture cooperation between the U.S. and Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hard as it is to envision now, at the time there was a lot of cooperation between the two nations and a host of nuclear dismantling projects. There was little danger of nuclear war during this time.

A fleet of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers escort ships through the new northern sea route opened due to rapidly retreating sea ice due to climate change.

A fleet of Russian nuclear-powered icebreakers escort ships through the new northern sea route opened due to rapidly retreating sea ice due to climate change.

Courtesy: Rosatom

Of course, there are a lot of reasons that relations between the two 20th Century adversaries have eroded since then, not least of which is the rise to power in Russia of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. But one key factor has often been overlooked: the acceleration of climate change since 1995. The melting ice in the Arctic has opened up new lanes for ships, especially for Russia Now, it has a sea route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which could act as a new Suez Canal, with the potential to dramatically reduce the time to ship goods between Europe and China.

Russia claims it controls this seaway, but the ice is melting so fast you will soon see an international seaway.

The Northern Sea Route would allow countries to bypass the longer Suez Canal Route.

The Northern Sea Route would allow countries to bypass the longer Suez Canal Route.

Adapted from Wikimedia

Even though climate change has been a factor in deterioration in relations, it’s geopolitical decisions by humans that are driving it. We don’t have to be going down this path of confrontation. The alternative is a cooperative agreement to make this new sea lane is open to all, relying on diplomacy and the Arctic Council, which works to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic nations.

Climate change presents enormous challenges but also new opportunities. In this case, the changing landscape of the Arctic offers the best place to reset relations with Russia.

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