Russian aggression in Ukraine raises security concerns in the Arctic

Army Sgt. David Becker, assigned to 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne), 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, “Spartan Brigade,” retrieves his parachute after completing an airborne deployment at Malemute Drop Zone, Joint Base Elmendorf -Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 5, 2021. U.S. Air Force photo

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dramatically changed the way the seven Western nations in the Arctic Council approach the Far North, putting a new focus on security in the region, a panel of regional diplomatic and security experts said on Tuesday.
“We’re in a new space,” said David Balton, executive director of the Arctic Executive Committee in the Office of Science and Technology. “I’m not sure how the transition from the Russian presidency” of the Council next year will go, he added, noting Russia’s current role as chair of the organisation.

In the past, the council had steered clear of security issues. It focused on regional cooperation in scientific research, particularly in the areas of climate and oceans, responding to natural disasters and emergencies, law enforcement cooperation through a Coast Guard forum, and the 4 million people who live in the Arctic.

Instead of five NATO members in the Council as in 2021, there will soon be seven. Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership after Moscow’s February 24 unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

At the event at the Wilson Center, Gregory Pollock, a senior Pentagon official responsible for Arctic affairs, said “Russia has changed the dynamic” of cooperation that has shaped Arctic affairs in recent years and now peace and stability threatened there and also in Europe.

The United States and its six Western allies and partners “paused” their participation in Council affairs in early March, instead of traveling to Moscow for meetings, to diplomatically give the impression “that business was going on,” Pollock noted. How long the hiatus will last is unknown, as these nations and others continue to send arms and financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and impose ever-tightening economic sanctions on Russian political and business figures and commercial interests.

The State Department noted in March that “we are in an extremely fluid situation.”

The Biden administration, which is taking a tougher stance, recently released its national strategy for the Arctic, saying the invasion has “made government-to-government cooperation with Russia in the Arctic almost impossible.”

Pollock pointed to the first pillar of the strategy, which shows the government there is “adopting a campaign mindset” on security. Their main focus is defending the homeland and exploiting “probably our greatest asset”, allies and partners. He also pointed out that the US and the other six nations have already begun expanding military exercises in the Arctic to understand how to operate in its extreme conditions as the US expands its icebreaker fleet to expand its presence in the Arctic to expand the region.

The report itself calls for increased interoperability between these nations’ armed forces and the sharing of information on security issues. As an example of interoperability, Pollock noted that the seven nations bring several hundred F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters into the security equation.

While the strategy itself calls for a “deeper understanding of the operating environment” and a modernized domain awareness, Pollock declined to say whether the US Navy is considering locating in the region, which would require new fuel facilities and infrastructure.

Devon Brennan, director of maritime and arctic security at the National Security Council, said deepening of Alaska’s Nome harbor has a military component. The port, located about 545 miles northwest of Anchorage, can now safely handle ships with a draft of only 18 feet.

Pollock and Maxine Burkett, the deputy assistant secretary for oceans, fisheries and polar affairs, both cited the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples — with rising sea levels and increasing water salinity with rising temperatures — and security concerns in the future. Sea level rise has already caused some populations to move away from existing communities. Other communities are employing a “managed retreat” from invading shorelines or are testing a “protect-in-place” strategy. Higher salinity affects marine life, including shifting positions of fish stocks.

Addressing specific security concerns related to climate and environmental change, the new strategy states: “We will work to improve observation, mapping and mapping of the Arctic; weather, water and sea ice forecast; sub-seasonal and seasonal forecast; emergency preparedness; and satellite coverage to enable efficient trade and ensure maritime and air safety.”

It also called for expanded broadband access that would enable better emergency response.

Referring to Beijing, Brennan said: “We continue to have concerns [about] what their true ambitions are.” He mentioned mineral exploration, fishing and the development of the polar silk road, and reducing the transportation time and kilometers between China and Europe as potential interests of China.

This is especially true given the expanded cooperation agreement between Beijing and Moscow, including military exercises and security arrangements, that the two countries struck ahead of Ukraine’s invasion, he added.

The Chinese “have legitimate interests in the Arctic,” but apart from their spending in Russia, their investment in the region has declined since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, Balton added. The Chinese have not planned any transits via the North Sea Route for the coming year.

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