When President Barack Obama on Wednesday becomes the first sitting U.S. president to set foot above the Arctic Circle, he will enter a vast territory undergoing a historic and rapid transformation. Climate change, resource competition and renewed Russian military interest threaten to turn a place marked by cooperation in the decades since the Cold War into a zone of contention.
As the sea ice recedes, Arctic waters, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, are becoming more navigable than at any time in the known past. Yet in the race to stake claims in this newly accessible region, Russia is far ahead of the rest.
Until now, international cooperation in the region has largely been handled through the Arctic Council. Made up of eight nations — the U.S., Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Canada — it aims to work on environmental protection and sustainable development.
The council has had some notable successes. In April it adopted the framework of an agreement to reduce the emissions of methane and black carbon, a dark compound that absorbs heat and accelerates the melting of ice. But since its creation in 1996, the body has largely avoided the most contentious security issues in the region’s increasingly tense geopolitics.
“Nearly 20 years later, the Arctic is beginning to become militarized, and there is no forum or place to discuss security-related issues and to promote greater transparency and confidence,” said a report, “The New Ice Curtain,” released in August by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
“For Russia, the Arctic is an important issue of national identity, as well as enormous economic priority (20 percent of Russia’s GDP is generated in the Arctic) and security necessity where national resources are spent; environmental considerations … are largely an afterthought,” the report reads. “For the United Sates, it is the exact opposite. The United States does not see itself as an Arctic nation, and it prioritizes the environment and scientific research first, with economic development and security a distance second, due to insufficient national resources and political support.”
Russia conducted massive military exercises in March, with more than 45,000 Russian troops, 41 ships and 15 submarines. “New challenges and threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities,” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said at the time. “Special attention must be paid to newly created strategic formations in the north.”
And Russia has reopened Soviet-era military bases across the Arctic.
In a sign of how far behind the U.S. has fallen in the push to exploit an Arctic now less encumbered by ice sheets, Obama — who is visiting Alaska — on Tuesday announced a plan to speed up by two years the building of new icebreaking ships that can help access and navigate routes for sea traffic and resource exploration. Russia has 41 icebreakers. The U.S. fleet contains two, and they are outdated.
The Russian military buildup in the region has come amid a parallel diplomatic effort by several countries to press for more Arctic territory.
“Beyond exploration and ecotourism, there is interest in natural resources that are becoming more exploitable by changing ice patterns,” said Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the head of the U.S. Coast Guard, in his 2015 State of the Coast Guard address in February.
According to a study (PDF) released earlier this year by the National Petroleum Council, the Arctic region contains as much as 25 percent of the world’s remaining undiscovered conventional petroleum resources — much of them in seabed areas that shrinking ice sheets are uncovering.
With Russia relying heavily on fossil fuels to support its economy, which is struggling amid a falling ruble, it is not surprising that Moscow is doing all it can to exploit such resources in a region that accounts for a large part of its maritime territories.
But for the U.S. — with a stronger economy less tied to an oil industry already hit by record-low oil prices and with cheaper forms of fossil fuel production available through fracking operations on land — the relative lack of attention to the Arctic might simply be a matter of economics.
Bureaucratic hurdles may also be a factor. “Arctic fossil fuel development may not … be the panacea sometimes imagined,” Erica Dingman, a senior research fellow at World Policy Institute, wrote last month on her Arctic policy blog for the institute. “In part, this is a result of what drillers consider a complicated regulatory regime in Canada’s Arctic. The extent to which Arctic oil resources are developed remains uncertain.”
For now, however, there is little question that Russia’s footprint is the largest in the rapidly changing region, militarily, economically and commercially.
“The United States really isn’t even in this game,” Zukunft said last month.