Obama’s Alaska Trip: Do We Have a Climate Change Problem or a Russia Problem?

by Marlo Lewis on September 1, 2015

in Blog

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Is the glass half empty or half full? If you listen to climate activists, melting polar ice can only mean trouble, with competition for previously inaccessible resources setting the stage for great power conflict, a return to Cold War tensions, or worse.

Yet, as noted in a previous post, activists also warn that climate change will promote conflict by making resources scarcer. The Arctic contains 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. If Arctic ice melt leads to greater global energy supply, opens the fabled Northwest Passage, and facilitates trade, it could also foster cooperation and peace.

Here’s my two cents. Whatever happens to the polar ice cap in coming decades, nations are more likely to cooperate and resolve disputes peacefully if the United States possesses the capability and will to deter aggression. As factors determining national security risk, potential adversaries’ longstanding geopolitical ambitions and evolving capabilities are likely to matter more than climate change.

The Obama administration, it seems, is worried about Russia’s expanding presence in the Arctic, but wants the public to think we have a climate change problem rather than a Russia problem. Staring down a melting glacier is just so much easier than standing up to Vladimir Putin.

Today is the second day of the President’s three-day trip to Alaska “to shine a spotlight on the impacts of climate change.” As reported in the New York Times by Julie Herschfeld Davis, Obama will “propose speeding the acquisition and building of new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the nation’s polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.” 

Russia is far ahead of us in ice breakers, and the “gap” is growing:

The aging Coast Guard fleet is not keeping pace with the challenge, the administration acknowledged, noting that the service has the equivalent of just two “fully functional” heavy icebreakers at its disposal, down from seven during World War II. Russia, by contrast, has 41 of the vessels, with plans for 11 more. China unveiled a refurbished icebreaker in 2012 and is building another.  

Russia is also building military bases. Davis quotes Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, who traveled with the President on Air Force One yesterday:

“It’s the biggest buildup of the Russian military since the Cold War,” Mr. Walker said, noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. “They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable.”

Constructing new ice breakers and “evaluating the feasibility” of extending the port in Nome, Alaska, don’t seem like much of a strategy to counter the Russian military buildup, and the White House is not describing them as such.

The map below, from an Aug. 31 NYT article by Stephen Lee Meyers, shows the Arctic areas with a >50% chance of large undiscovered oil and gas reserves, each country’s exclusive economic zone, international waters (“high seas”), and Arctic waters under Russian control.

Arctic Exclusive Economic Zones






Portions of the region are still in dispute, Wikipedia reports:

Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States all regard parts of the Arctic seas as national waters (territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles (22 km)) or internal waters. There also are disputes regarding what passages constitute international seaways and rights to passage along them.

Russia, for example, views the Northern Sea Route (NSR) stretching from the Bering Sea to the North Atlantic “as internal waters, and thus subject to transit fees, while the international community views the NSR as an international passage,” note Heather Conley and Carolyn Rohloff of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Meyers of the NYT paints a vivid picture of “Russia’s scramble for the Arctic.” Some excerpts:

Russia, by contrast, is building 10 new search-and-rescue stations, strung like a necklace of pearls at ports along half of the Arctic shoreline. More provocatively, it has also significantly increased its military presence, reopening bases abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. . . .

What kind of frontier the Arctic will be — an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is now the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition. An increasing divergence over the answer has deeply divided the United States and its allies on one side and Russia on the other.

Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, President Vladimir V. Putin has sought to restore Russia’s pre-eminence in its northern reaches — economically and militarily — with zeal that a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies compared to the Soviet Union’s efforts to establish a “Red Arctic” in the 1930s. The report’s title echoed the rising tensions caused by Russia’s actions in the Arctic: “The New Ice Curtain.”

Decades of cooperation in the Arctic Council, which includes Russia, the United States and six other Arctic states, all but ended with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the continuing war in eastern Ukraine. In March, Russia conducted an unannounced military exercise that was one of the largest ever in the far north. It involved 45,000 troops, as well as dozens of ships and submarines, including those in its strategic nuclear arsenal, from the Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk.

The first of two new army brigades — each expected to grow to more than 3,600 soldiers — deployed to a military base only 30 miles from the Finnish border. The other will be deployed on the Yamal Peninsula, where many of Russia’s new investments in energy resources on shore are. . . .

In Washington and other NATO capitals, Russia’s military moves are seen as provocative — and potentially destabilizing.

In the wake of the conflict in Ukraine, Russia has intensified air patrols probing NATO’s borders, including in the Arctic. In February, Norwegian fighter jets intercepted six Russian aircraft off Norway’s northern tip. Similar Russian flights occurred last year off Alaska and in the Beaufort Sea, prompting American and Canadian jets to intercept them. Russia’s naval forces have also increased patrols, venturing farther into Arctic waters. Of particular concern, officials said, has been Russia’s deployment of air defenses in the far north, including surface-to-air missiles whose main purpose is to counter aerial incursions that only the United States or NATO members could conceivably carry out in the Arctic. 

“We see the Arctic as a global commons,” a senior Obama administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss matters of national security. “It’s not apparent the Russians see it the same way we do.”

I will close with an excerpt from the CSIS report. You decide whether we’re primarily facing a climate change problem or a Russia problem.

Russia’s nationalistic rhetoric has become part of its new Arctic narrative. Russia’s historical Arctic narrative — both one of man conquering the forces of  nature and the relentless focus to achieve military and industrial progress — is a source of national pride and identity that is exploited for domestic purposes. In the chilling words of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who chairs Russia’s new Arctic Commission and who foreshadowed “serious economic collisions in the twenty-first century” in the Arctic . . .: “It is our territory, it is our shelf, and we’ll provide its security. And we will make money there. . . .They [the West] will put us on a sanctions list — but tanks do not need visas.”

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