The Russian President honored a scientist in 2008 for piloting a small submersible to the Arctic seabed. As a result, he planted a titanium version of the Russian flag and proclaimed, “The Arctic is Russian.”
It had been mainly ignored that the frozen Arctic Ocean, half the size of the United States, would be militarized by Putin, which, combined with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, convinced Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Seven of the eight Arctic nations now belong to NATO, and Washington is increasing surveillance and defense systems in Canada and Alaska to protect the northern perimeter of North America. The Arctic is critical to Putin.
At the top of the world, trade and resources are being fought for hegemony. The Northern Sea Route, also known as the Arctic Silk Road, provides a shipping link between Europe and Asia, bypassing the Suez and Panama Canals. In the summer, parts of the Russian Sea Route, which hugs the Siberian coastline, are ice-free. Developing a Northwest Passage through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago and along Alaska’s coast is not viable or possible.
Its government has blocked the development of its massive Arctic oil and gas reserves discovered in the 1980s, leaving Canada’s north empty. In contrast, Russia’s Siberian coastline is populated with settlements, a floating nuclear reactor, and navigational, rescue, and icebreaking capabilities. The route could cut 20 days off the Europe-China journey and bypass the Suez or Panama Canals. There were only 86 transits in 2021, and it’s years away from viable.
Russia, however, has militarized the region, building as many as 50 defensive outposts from the Barents Sea to Alaska. In the Kola Peninsula, for instance, which abuts Finland and Norway, nuclear power is prevalent. Two-thirds of Russia’s second-strike maritime nuclear capabilities are based there, along with the headquarters for the Northern Fleet.
Vladivostok, near Alaska, is home to one-third of Russia’s nuclear-equipped warships and submarines.
The U.S. took over surveillance from Canada in 2021 under NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, after then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put Russia on notice. In the Arctic, Canada’s navy lacks polar icebreakers, making it smaller than Norway’s.
On the other hand, America has 12,000 troops in its Arctic airborne division in Alaska and conducts Arctic maneuvers with Nordic nations, Great Britain, and other Arctic Council members. There are now more advanced fighter jets in Alaska than anywhere else in the world, according to the Pentagon. It is planned to build six new icebreaker ships and develop a northern satellite and radar monitoring security system to reach Alaska to Europe.
The cost of Russia’s war with NATO over Ukraine and Western sanctions will hinder its Arctic ambitions. In 1991, eight nations with frontage on the Arctic Ocean formed the Arctic Council as a high-level intergovernmental forum. In addition to environmental issues, resource extraction, shipping, and sovereignty claims, these nations regularly convene to address these issues. Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States are the eight nations involved in the Arctic Council.
Currently, Russia chairs the council, but on March 3, 2022, the other seven declared they would not attend meetings in Russia because it invaded Ukraine.
In the 20 years that the council has existed, Moscow has made outrageous land claims and engaged in aggressive oil exploration in the region, encroaching on territory owned by Canada and others. According to Moscow, the undersea continental shelf of its country extends beneath most of the Arctic Ocean. Evidence corroborates these submissions, but a negotiation between disputing nation-states rarely leads to settlements.
In response to American sanctions, a Russian politician recently said that Russia should take Alaska. One U.S. politician responded, “Hell will freeze over” when that happens. It should be noted that the threat was made for a reason. As global warming melts ice sheets in the north, the possibility of new sea routes becomes available; then there is the oil that Alaska produces.
The threat Russia poses is not just for Ukraine or other former Soviet States, but for the Artic and all the seven countries with a shoreline along the Arctic Ocean.