Every autumn for the last seven years, the United States, Canada, and Russia have conducted a military exercise together at the North Pole, near Alaska. During the mock scenario, fighter jets from all three countries intercept a "hijacked" commercial plane passing from Russian to American airspace.
The training won't take place this year, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint aerospace defense organization of U.S. and Canadian forces. It was canceled by the U.S. Defense Department and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper because of Russia's intervention in Ukraine, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports.
The top of the globe has quickly become a mirror for international tensions happening much further south. About this time last year, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was saying the U.S. military was going to strengthen ties with Russia in the Arctic, a plan that did not seem far-fetched. After all, the Arctic region in 2013 was no longer the battlefield of Cold War-era politics.
But this year, strained relations between Washington and Moscow over the Ukraine crisis have quickly frozen U.S.-Russian cooperation in the Arctic. Soon after Russia claimed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea as its own in March, the U.S. suspended joint naval exercises in the Arctic Ocean, canceled a bilateral meeting on Coast Guard operations there, and paused a submarine rescue partnership.
A break in cooperation has not slowed Russia's pursuit of national interests inside the Arctic Circle, however. Russia already has the biggest military footprint there of any Arctic nation, and it's beefing it up at a much faster rate than the U.S. and Canada. The country's Northern Fleet is getting new nuclear attack submarines. Restoration of Soviet-era defense infrastructure is underway. And this week, Russia announced it has begun building a complex of military bases in the region, The Moscow Times reports, the first new facilities in the area since Soviet posts were abandoned at the end of the Cold War.
This latest development has some U.S. lawmakers worried about their country's own interests in the region, like Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose home state of Alaska is not far from Russia's new bases. "While Russia's investment in military infrastructure is not necessarily a precursor to future hostility, it is more evidence that the United States is not appropriately stepping up its activities in the Arctic and investing in a region where commercial and international activities are increasing," Murkowski said in a statement to National Journal. This week, Murkowski attended the Conference of Parliamentarians of the Arctic Region, a semiannual gathering of Arctic state representatives in Canada.
None of the five Arctic nations—the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland)—has laid full claim to the Arctic region, a resource gold mine that is home to 15 percent of the world's oil and a third of its undiscovered natural gas. Russia, however, has tried to extend its sovereignty, which requires an application to the United Nations that shows proof Russia's continental shelf reaches more than 230 miles into the Arctic Ocean. Canada hasconsidered doing the same.
Last year, China, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union, thinking about their own economic opportunities, all applied for a seat at the Arctic Council, a forum of polar nations. Murkowski believes their interest should make the U.S. get serious about its own Arctic policy, she said. "I am concerned that we as a nation are setting ourselves up for another 'Sputnik Moment,' " she said, referring to the space race of the 1960s, "but this time falling behind more than any other country with even non-Arctic nations like China and India investing in icebreakers and acknowledging the value of the region."
The U.S. Coast Guard's icebreakers, ships that are designed to navigate and cut through ice-covered waters, are several years beyond their intended life spans of 30 years and slowly deteriorating. Naval experts predict the country's icebreaking capabilities will run out by 2020.
But the U.S. has taken several actions to bolster its Arctic policy this year, in preparation for its turn as chair of the Arctic Council in 2015. In July, the State Department appointed former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp to be a U.S. representative for the Arctic. In August, Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., and Don Young, R-Alaska, asked environmental, national security, and oil and gas stakeholders to start advising Congress about Arctic issues.
Larsen thinks "it's no surprise" that the Russians are investing heavily in the Arctic. "They recognize the potential and opportunity there," he said in an emailed statement. "The U.S. continues to lag behind.... The Canadians are working on a new navy base and are far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to icebreakers."
Young—who has pushed for an ambassador to the Arctic, not just a special representative—called on the Obama administration to increase investment in Arctic affairs. "Unfortunately, when our nation takes over the chair of the Arctic Council in 2015, we will be leading from behind," the congressman said via email.
The U.S. has not yet ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which means that, unlike Russia and Canada, it cannot file territorial claims in the Arctic. A two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, however, may give Americans greater influence over what the Russians can and can't do at the top of the globe—something it's currently lacking elsewhere.
This article appears in the September 12, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.