What if the Arctic Became a New Ukraine?
Alaska is the United States’ 49th state and home to 224 native tribes and ~730,000 U.S. citizens spread out over ~660,000sqm with Canada and Russia as natural neighbors. 3,300 miles away from Washington D.C, Alaska is the U.S. door to the Arctic region and the final frontier in the north for national sovereignty and security.
The Arctic region, home to some four million people, is becoming more contested than ever before. The region is rich in minerals and fish, but also oil and natural gas. Therefore, many countries, organizations, and indigenous groups have legitimate interests up here. Climate change and global warming have a detrimental impact on the ice layer in the Arctic. This creates new security challenges, but also new opportunities for economic development. It will also mean a larger military presence by more actors than ever before.
As a first time visitor and Marshall Memorial Fellow, I was not only struck by the vast territory of Alaska and the beauty of the landscape, but also the immense challenge to ensure and improve human and environmental security for this area.
President Obama issued a national Arctic strategy in mid-2013 and the DoD followed suit later that year with their own, but no formal military doctrine yet exists for the U.S Arctic. Even though the current security challenges are not military in nature, the military capability in the region could be used to support civilian authorities.
The United States and Russia are the two most important actors in the Arctic region. While the West has primarily been focused on Russia’s recent actions in Eastern Europe, Moscow has continued to militarize the Arctic. The ultimate goal for Russia is to deploy an Arctic combined arms force by 2020. That said, it is of course any sovereign nation’s right to place military assets inside its national territory as it wishes. Russia’s main strategic goals for the region are to secure current and potential energy resources located here and to maintain military superiority above the Arctic Circle.
The U.S., on the other hand, has been chronically underfunding its Arctic capability for years. There is currently no permanent infrastructure or operating forces along the Beaufort or Chukchi seas and there are no deep-water ports. However, the U.S. does have a ballistic missile interceptor ground base in Fort Greely. The U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for the U.S. Arctic waters but its closest regional coordination center is nearly 1,100 miles from the North Slope. The Alaskan Command operates out of the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Given this location, it could take an aircraft several hours, and vessels days or even weeks, to reach the Arctic waters.
In the context of Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine and the militarization of the Arctic region, the international community should consider what implications these events may have. Putin has made it clear that Russia must maintain a strategic advantage in the region. Simultaneously, the U.S. is not able to act in isolation in the Arctic. It needs to work closely with its Arctic neighbors.
As the U.S. took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada on April 24 (last time was in 1998), it remains to be seen if such a scenario will be considered and what policy questions will arise from this to help further shape the agenda for the Arctic region to remain “peaceful, stable and free of conflict”.
Rickard Booson, a 2015 Marshall Memorial Fellow, is Vice President of Corporate Development for Airbus Group.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.