Staunton, February 15 – Moscow is now acting in the Arctic the way Beijing is in the South China Sea, a Russian move that challenges the US and the West even more than Chinese actions, French commentator Jean-Michel Bezat writes in Le Monde; and Washington in the minds of many needs “to show the Kremlin ‘an Arctic fist.’”
In an article published four days ago, Bezat says that the retreat of the Arctic Sea’s ice cover has awakened “predatory instincts” especially among Russians who see the region not only as a source of wealth but as a place to reassert Russia’s lost greatness by projecting power (lemonde.fr/idees/article/2017/02/11/arctique-poutine-ne-perd-pas-le-nord_5078171_3232.html; in Russian at inopressa.ru/article/13Feb2017/lemonde/arctic.html).
Vladimir Putin announced a new Russian Arctic strategy shortly before he invaded Ukraine, Bezat continues, a move that many at the time saw as a logical development but that now looks more like aggression. He adds that many US conservatives are alarmed “Trump isn’t doing anything” despite his tough talk about Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea.
Last week, for example, the French commentator writes, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) published an article in which he suggested that the Kremlin is moving fast in the high north in order to present Washington with a fait accompli in much the same way that Beijing has elsewhere.
Today, Anton Mardasov of the Svobodnaya pressa portal discusses this issue and its importance given that in the view of some, including Canadian professor Robert Hubert, the Arctic has the potential to become “’a new Middle East’” and thus a place of conflict between the great powers (svpressa.ru/war21/article/166329/).
Western analysts are concerned by Russia’s efforts to claim its rights to the surface area, the continental shelf, and the natural resources of both and also by its moves to “militarize its territory in the region,” Mardasov says, worries that are only exacerbated by Moscow’s announcement last week that it will officially file its claims with the UN under the terms of the Law of the Sea Treaty, something the US has not ratified.
Vladimir Batyuk, a specialist on the arctic at the Moscow Institute for the USA and Canada, points out that the last two US presidents have each articulated an Arctic policy in response to Russia’s moves but that there are big doubts that it has the capacity to do so, given that it has only two aging diesel-powered icebreakers and only one of those is in service.
That compares with a Russian fleet of six atomic-powered icebreakers and more than a dozen diesel-powered ones. Moreover, he continues, Russia has other advantages and is using them: a longer coastline in the Arctic and recent moves to restore and expand military facilities in the high north.
Few Russian or Western analysts believe there is going to be a military clash in the Arctic anytime soon, Batyuk says, but he adds there is a “but” in such conclusions. If oil and gas fields there open up, there could be a real fight over access to them, especially if prices go up and control of them makes the region more important for the US than it now is.
The Moscow researcher points out that Trump said “practically nothing” about the Arctic in his election campaign, largely because Alaska “is not the most important state” in American elections. As a result, the Arctic doesn’t have for the US president the same importance that it has for the leaders of Canada, Norway or Denmark.
“But sooner or later the new administration will have to develop an approach to the Arctic problem,” Batyuk says, likely by this summer.
A second Moscow commentator, Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Moscow Institue for Political and Military Analysis says that “Le Monde’s comparison of Russian actions in the Arctic with Chinese moves in the South China Sea is completely incorrect,” as China has moved to take things that belong to others while Russia has simply reclaimed its own.
Moreover, although Moscow has strengthened its military presence in the north in response to Western moves, Russia does not have sufficient forces there to represent a threat to anyone. Most of its forces are concentrated in the western Arctic, and Moscow simply doesn’t have enough money to counter the American submarine fleet that routinely sails there.
Khramchikhin agrees with Batyuk that the US doesn’t have the same interest in the Arctic that is allies do, adding that if Washington tries to project power on its own in that region, it will find itself in conflict not only with Russia but with its allies, the Canadians and the Scandinavians.
Although Mardasov and his colleagues don’t mention it, Russia has its own problems: They are of a financial type. The Barents Observer reports today that the Russian navy is now going to have to pay the operators of the icebreakers who make way for its ships, something that it hadn’t been forced to do in the past (thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2017/02/no-more-free-navy-sailing-northern-sea-route).