Warming North Opens Arctic Arms Race

March 28, 2022

New York Times:

 After parachuting into the frigid Alaska interior, Capt. Weston Iannone and his soldiers navigated miles through deep snow, finally setting up a temporary outpost on a ridgeline next to a grove of lanky spruce trees that were also struggling to survive.

Darkness was setting in, the temperature had fallen below zero, and the 120 men and women who had gathered as part of a major combat training exercise in subarctic Alaska had not yet erected tents. The supply line for fuel, essential to keep warm through the long night ahead, was lagging behind.

“Everything is a challenge, from water, fuel, food, moving people, keeping them comfortable,” said Captain Iannone, the 27-year-old company commander, as his soldiers shoveled deeper into the snow in search of a solid foundation to put up their sleeping quarters. “This is inherent training — understanding how far we can push physically and mentally.”

The first-of-its-kind exercise this month, involving some 8,000 troops outside of Fairbanks, was planned long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but was driven in part by Russia’s aggressive moves in recent years to militarize the Arctic — a part of the world where the United States and Russia share a lengthy maritime boundary.

Tensions have been growing in the region for years, as nations stake claims to shipping routes and energy reserves that are opening up as a result of climate change. Now, with the geopolitical order shifting after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the competition over sovereignty and resources in the Arctic could intensify.

On the West Coast of Alaska, the federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the port at Nome, which could transform into a deepwater hub servicing Coast Guard and Navy vessels navigating into the Arctic Circle. The Coast Guard expects to deploy three new icebreakers — although Russia already has more than 50 in operation.

And while the United States has denounced Russia’s aggressive military expansion in the Arctic, the Pentagon has its own plans to increase its presence and capabilities, working to rebuild cold-weather skills neglected during two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force has transferred dozens of F-35 fighter jets to Alaska, announcing that the state will host “more advanced fighters than any other location in the world.” The Army last year released its first strategic plan for “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”

The Navy, which this month conducted exercises above and below the sea ice inside the Arctic Circle, also has developed a plan for protecting American interests in the region, warning that weakness there would mean that “peace and prosperity will be increasingly challenged by Russia and China, whose interests and values differ dramatically from ours.”

The preparations are costly in both resources and personnel. While Captain Iannone’s company was able to finish setting up tents before midnight and survived the night without incident, other companies did not fare so well: Eight soldiers suffered cold-weather injuries, and four soldiers were taken to a hospital after a fire inside a personnel carrier.

Meanwhile, at another recent cold-weather exercise, in Norway, four U.S. Marines died when their aircraft crashed.

Russia, whose eastern mainland lies just 55 miles across the Bering Strait from the coast of Alaska, for years has prioritized an expanded Arctic presence by refurbishing airfields, adding bases, training troops and developing a network of military defense systems on the northern frontier.

With a warming climate shrinking sea ice in the region, valuable fish stocks are moving northward, while rare minerals and the Arctic’s substantial reserves of fossil fuels are becoming a growing target for exploration. Boat traffic is poised to increase from both trade and tourism.

Two years ago, Moscow brought its own war games barreling through the Bering Sea, with Russian commanders testing weapons and demanding that American fishing boats operating in U.S. fishing waters get out of the way — an order the U.S. Coast Guard advised them to comply with. Russia has repeatedly sent military aircraft to the edge of U.S. airspace, leading U.S. jets to scramble to intercept them and warn them away.

This month, in response to escalating international sanctions against Russia, a member of the Russian parliament demanded that Alaska, purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867, be returned to Russian control — a possibly rhetorical gesture that nonetheless reflected the deteriorating relationship between the two world powers.

For centuries, the vast waters of the offshore Arctic were largely a no man’s land locked in by ice whose exact territorial boundaries — claimed by the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Iceland — remained unsettled. But as melting sea ice has opened new shipping pathways and as nations have eyed the vast hydrocarbon and mineral reserves below the Arctic sea floor, the complicated treaties, claims and boundary zones that govern the region have been opened to fresh disputes.

Canada and the United States have never reached agreement on the status of the Northwest Passage between the North Atlantic and the Beaufort Sea. China, too, has been working to establish a foothold, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and partnering with Russia to promote “sustainable” development and expanded use of Arctic trade routes.

Russia has made it clear it intends to control the so-called Northern Sea Route off its northern shore, a route that significantly shortens the shipping distance between China and Northern Europe. U.S. officials have complained that Russia is illegally demanding that other nations seek permission to pass and threatening to use military force to sink vessels that do not comply.

“We are stuck with a pretty tense situation there,” said Troy Bouffard, director of the Center of Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Either we acquiesce to Russia, to their extreme control of surface waters, or we elevate or escalate the issue.”

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