Capstones: Cold War in a Cold Place

By Alan W. Dowd, 7.30.18

NATO’s recent summit in Brussels served as a reminder of just how much the alliance has on its plate: standing up two new commands that will help keep a revisionist Russia at bay, implementing the “four 30s” initiative, bringing the Republic of North Macedonia into the fold, trying to steer Turkey back toward liberal democracy, developing ways to detect and block Moscow’s influence operations, and convincing a transactional U.S. president that every member is sharing the burden. But there’s one more item NATO’s leaders need to add to their growing to-do list: securing alliance interests in the Arctic.

Those interests—which include territorial integrity, sovereignty, resource exploration and development, trade and freedom of navigation—are under threat because of Russia’s actions.

Russia has laid claim to half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole—some 463,000 square miles of Artic sea shelf. Like Beijing in the South China Sea, Moscow has underlined its claims in a brazen military context: In 2008, for example, a Russian general revealed plans to train “troops that could be engaged in Arctic combat,” ominously adding, “Wars these days are won and lost well before they are launched.”

Toward that end, the Russian military has reactivated six military bases and 13 military airfields; opened 14 new military airfields; and conducted airborne-assault exercises, amphibious landings and large-scale wargames across the Arctic. A 2015 Russian exercise in the Arctic involved 80,000 troops, 220 aircraft, 41 ships and 15 submarines.

Why is Russia committing so many military assets to the Arctic? The region represents a treasure trove of oil, natural gas and potential shipping revenues. As the ice in the Arctic continues to melt, there will be $35 trillion worth of untapped oil and minerals up for grabs. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 90 billion barrels of oil, equaling 30 percent of technically recoverable global reserves of oil and 13 percent of gas. (About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.)

A report by the Wilson Center explains that Russia needs new Arctic oilfields “to offset declines in production at its conventional, legacy fields and to maintain production at a level of at least 10 million bpd beyond 2020.” Oil and gas account for more than 40 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue, and as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin explains, “Natural resources, which are of paramount importance for the Russian economy, are concentrated in this region.” Thus, to keep his economy going—and keep his oligarchs happy—“Russia must make huge investments in exploring and recovering oil from…the east Siberian region and the Arctic shelf,”  as an AEI study concludes.

These resources will be increasingly recoverable and transportable because the Northwest Passage, once frozen throughout most of the year and navigable only by heavy-duty icebreakers, is thawing. An ice-free Northwest Passage will slash some 4,000 miles from existing Europe-to-Asia shipping routes.

Add it all up, and Russia appears to be employing a strategy by which claims will justify possession, and possession will justify claims.

“It looks eerily familiar to what we’re seeing in the East and South China Sea,” former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft warns.  

Speaking of China, although Russia is currently the leader in Arctic development (with $300 billion in infrastructure projects completed or in progress), Beijing is buying its way into the Arctic with financing and development projects in several Arctic states, as CNBC reports. China has unveiled plans for a “Polar Silk Road development initiative.” Chinese vessels have begun transiting Arctic passageways.  And China is building heavy-duty icebreakers. Beijing justifies its unwelcome appearance in the region by calling itself a “near Arctic state.” (By that logic, the U.S. is a near-Asian state.) In any event, it doesn’t take a Kissinger to conclude that Beijing and Moscow are coordinating their efforts to maximize their Arctic reach.

In response, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland—NATO members all—should develop an Arctic partnership under NATO auspices that ensures a common approach to Arctic security, shared burdens and shared goals. As they learned during the Cold War, they can achieve more by pooling their assets, identifying and pursuing common interests, and coordinating plans and deployments than they can by going it alone.

Quite unlike Moscow’s means and ends, the aim of any NATO effort in the Arctic would not be to seize Arctic territory, but rather to ensure that the Arctic’s bounty is developed in a transparent manner governed by the rule of law, legal exploration efforts and sound trade practices.

There are many approaches the alliance can take to coordinate its actions and defend its interests in the Arctic: a NATO working group or committee dedicated to Arctic issues, a partnership model enfolding like-minded states with legitimate Arctic interests (such as Sweden), even a full-fledged Allied Command Arctic.

However, none of this will happen without American leadership.

Regrettably, President Trump seems more interested in browbeating America’s NATO allies than leading them. Consider his public scolding of NATO, Germany and Britain’s Teresa May, as well as his view that NATO’s all-for-one Article V commitment is somehow conditional on what allies spend on defense.

Moreover, the U.S. is not well postured to defend its Arctic interests. As Defense Secretary James Mattis recently observed, “America has got to up its game in the Arctic.”

For example, the U.S. has only two operational icebreakers—one of which is a medium-duty vessel tasked largely to scientific missions and the other of which has exceeded its 30-year lifespan.

The good news is that Congress has allocated resources for construction of new Arctic icebreakers, with plans to procure as many as six of the $700-million behemoths. The nation’s seafaring services (Navy and Coast Guard) want to take delivery of the first icebreaker by 2023. The bad news is that Russia has 40 icebreakers, with another 11 in production.

Canada and Sweden have six icebreakers each, which underscores the benefit of pooling allied resources to match Moscow’s immense material advantages, as NATO did during Cold War.

If the United States and its Arctic allies can combine their capabilities and play niche roles in the Arctic, they can deal with Moscow from a posture of strength and deter aggression. If not, as former NATO Commander Adm. James Stavridis has warned, the Arctic could become a “a zone of conflict.” What Churchill said of his Russian counterparts is true of Putin and his generals: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” 

The groundwork for a NATO Arctic partnership is in place:

  • Norway has moved its military headquarters above the Arctic Circle, transferred “a substantial part of its operational forces to the north” and based its largest active army unit above the Arctic Circle, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
  • Denmark is standing up an Arctic military command, beefing up its military presence in Greenland, deploying an Arctic Response Force and earmarking $180 million for “Arctic-specific defense investments.”
  • Canada’s military has conducted annual exercises in the Arctic since 2007 to assert its sovereignty, test Arctic capabilities and readiness, and ensure interoperability with allies.
  • Sweden plans to double its military endstrength, regularly holds Arctic war games and hosted U.S. Special Operations units for Arctic training this year.
  • The Pentagon unveiled its first-ever Arctic strategy in 2013. In 2015, for only the second time in 52 years, Marines deployed to the Army’s Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska. Marines are also training alongside Norwegian troops and British commandos inside the Arctic Circle. In 2016, U.S. submarines spearheaded Arctic military exercises designed to “evaluate operational capabilities in the region.” F-22s have been deployed to Alaska, as have F-35s. In fact, several squadrons of America’s newest stealth fighter-bomber will be based in Alaska. U.S. anti-submarine planes are deploying to Iceland. And U.S. Navy and Coast Guard units have joined Norway, Denmark and Canada for Arctic maneuvers.


Those who say this is an overreaction may point to Russia’s signature on a 2017 agreement with other Arctic nations committing itself to “maintaining peace, stability and constructive cooperation in the Arctic.”

However, it pays to recall that Russia also signed agreements committing to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, vowing not to change borders in Europe by force, pledging not to develop certain kinds of weapons, and promising not to deploy intermediate-range nuclear weapons or conventional forces in certain parts of Europe. In short, Vladimir Putin’s words are worthless.

When dealing with Putin, what matters is actions—his and ours. If NATO doesn’t start pivoting to the Arctic, Putin will quite literally divide and conquer. If, on the other hand, the allies forge a coordinated response within NATO, they can play to their strengths, block another Putin landgrab and promote a rules-based order in the Arctic.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. Research assistant Tyler Peddicord contributed to this essay. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.