“It Would Be a Mistake to Underestimate Russia”: The New Cold War That’s Emerging in the Arctic

The Arctic is a dangerous and unforgiving place. Freezing temperatures. Nothing but unimaginably formidable tracts of water, ice, and air. Few resources to count on when disaster strikes.

That potential disaster steals Alaska Air National Guard Col. Matthew Komatsu’s sleep: What if a plane crashes or a cruise ship runs aground? What if he and his troops must respond to a mass casualty event, which is difficult in any case but nightmarish when combined with the cold and the barren?

“The longer we go without an incident like that,” he says, “the higher people’s risk tolerance becomes.”

Komatsu commands the 176th Mission Support Group, based out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Despite getting what he needs to carry out his mission—supplanted by creative uses of civilian resources—Komatsu tells The War Horse search-and-rescue resources are spread thin between the Alaska Air National Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard. “In such a dangerous and unforgiving place, there just isn’t a lot of capability we can throw at a problem like a mass casualty event.”

But those are peacetime nightmares, and Komatsu is far from the only one to lie awake as the floes crack: As Arctic ice continues to shrink, and as sea routes in the region become easier to traverse for much more of the year, a struggle for control of the Arctic looms.
In June 2019, the Pentagon released its Arctic Strategy. It makes clear that America’s “desired end-state for the Arctic” is a secure and stable region in which “U.S. national security interests are safeguarded, the U.S. homeland is defended, and nations work cooperatively to address shared challenges.”

U.S. Army Sgt. Didante Maxey, a paratrooper assigned to 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne) proceeds to the rally point after landing on Malemute Drop Zone during airborne training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 22, 2020. As part of the only American airborne brigade in the Pacific, soldiers assigned to 4-25 maintain mission readiness by training to retain qualifications in an arctic environment. Photo by Airman 1st Class Emily Farnsworth, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

U.S. Army Sgt. Didante Maxey, a paratrooper assigned to 1st Squadron, 40th Cavalry Regiment (Airborne) proceeds to the rally point after landing on Malemute Drop Zone during airborne training at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 22, 2020. As part of the only American airborne brigade in the Pacific, soldiers assigned to 4-25 maintain mission readiness by training to retain qualifications in an arctic environment. Photo by Airman 1st Class Emily Farnsworth, courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Despite having published a short stack of strategy documents and security plans, the Pentagon has so far failed to persuade lawmakers to invest in the infrastructure needed to exert more control in the Arctic. The department’s plans do little more than provide a vision for the future; they provide nothing resembling a road map on how to get there. And while our military resources are stretched thinner and thinner, Russia has positioned itself as the Arctic nation of the world. The logical end of this power struggle could prove disastrous for American national security.

The Arctic could become an “icy slope” toward conflict

Fourteen thousand feet below the North Pole, back in the late summer of 2007, a black robotic arm extending from a miniature submarine gripped a short titanium pole with its metal claw of a hand. Affixed to the pole, illuminated by one of the sub’s lights, was a stiff white-, blue-, and red-striped flag. By planting its national flag like the land-grabbers of 19th-century America, the Russian Federation was laying the groundwork to later claim ownership of more than 463,000 square miles of the Arctic and its yet-to-be-discovered oil and gas reserves. Russia based its claim, which has no legal standing yet, on evidence it said it had collected that proved the seabed under the North Pole is an extension of Russia’s continental shelf.

Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Kayla Hocker, courtesy of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).

At the time, many saw the Russian expedition as nothing more than a publicity stunt. In the years since, however, as Arctic ice has continued to melt and as President Vladimir Putin flexed his country’s militaristic muscles in the region, Western military planners saw the 2007 expedition for what it was: the resurgence of a great-power struggle with dangerously high stakes.

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Sailing the Atlantic Ocean – 2005

If the world’s leaders cannot ensure peace in the region, Admiral James G. Stavridis warned in 2010, the Arctic could become an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

Three years after Stavridis’s warning, the Pentagon released its first-ever “Arctic Strategy” document, thus committing the Department of Defense to safeguarding American security interests in the region. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of the challenges and opportunities in the Arctic at an international security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. To reduce the risk of conflict in the Arctic, Hagel said, nations needed to work together to address economic, political, and security issues—like governmental instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict—that arise elsewhere around the world. Absent such multinational cooperation, he continued, these other sorts of issues could heighten tensions among Arctic nations and those that want a seat at the table, including China.

Hagel’s pronouncement proved prophetic. Three months after the Pentagon released its Arctic Strategy, on Feb. 20, 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, throwing international relations into a tailspin. Soon after, civil war broke out in Eastern Ukraine between pro-European Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists. With this new conflict, cooperation in the Arctic between Russia and the rest of the Arctic nations all but ended. Russia and the West have also complicated their relations with near constant saber-rattling over the last half decade (see timeline below).

Does it matter if America lags Russia in the Arctic?

By 2019, Russia’s military spending reached $65.1 billion, a 175% increase from what it spent in 2000, the year Russia elected Vladimir Putin to the presidency, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. By comparison, the United States spent more than 10 times that amount in 2019, though Russia has prioritized its spending in the Arctic while the United States has not. Specifically, Russia has committed itself to strengthening its Northern Fleet with submarines armed with nuclear warheads; expanding its fleet of icebreakers; constructing a string of bases and search-and-rescue stations along its Arctic shore; and reopening and refurbishing long-shuttered Soviet-era military facilities, like naval bases and airstrips on the New Siberian Islands, which lie across the Chukchi and East Siberian seas from Alaska.

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Some military planners have argued that America must match Russia in Arctic investment and military preparation. In 2015, for example, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, who was then the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, told The New York Times he had for some time insisted to anyone who would listen that the United States lacked the “capacity to sustain any meaningful presence in the Arctic.” That same year, the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, retired Admiral Robert J. Papp Jr., said of Russia, “Some of the things I see them doing—in terms of building up bases, telecommunications, search and rescue capabilities—are things I wish the United States was doing as well.” Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska told the Times, “The Russians are playing chess in the Arctic and our administration still seems to think it’s tic-tac-toe.”

A Special Forces communication sergeant (with 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)) sets up an antenna for high-frequency transmission during an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. The training focused on arctic, alpine, and glacier movement; crevasse rescue; and long-range high-frequency communications. Photo courtesy of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).

A Special Forces communication sergeant (with 1st Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne)) sets up an antenna for high-frequency transmission during an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. The training focused on arctic, alpine, and glacier movement; crevasse rescue; and long-range high-frequency communications. Photo courtesy of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).

Others have argued that an arms race in the Arctic is unnecessary—that Russia’s economy won’t be able to sustain such expensive efforts. Pavel K. Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo put it this way in 2015: “It is rather difficult to find rationale for this very pronounced priority in the allocation of increasingly scarce resources.” Along the same lines, the head of the Department of Defense’s Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, Admiral William E. Gortney, told The New York Times that Russia’s investments in the Arctic had not yet become threatening. “We’re seeing activity in the Arctic, but it hasn’t manifested in significant change at this point,” he said.

“It is not surprising,” The New York Times’ editorial board wrote in 2015 of Russian investment in the Arctic, “that a country with the longest Arctic coastline should want to strengthen its northern defenses as the region opens up to shipping and economic exploitation. And it would be understandable for the United States and Canada to want to do the same. But an arms race is not the answer to the Arctic’s future.”

In 1996, the United States and Russia, along with Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and several groups representing indigenous peoples living in the region, established the Arctic Council to serve as an international forum for ensuring the sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic. There were concerns at the time whether the Council could also help maintain the peace among Arctic nations, though those concerns were never addressed.

At the end of the 20th century, the region was mostly an impregnable and deadly wilderness characterized by subzero temperatures, vast distances, and limited support infrastructure. In the quarter century since the Council was established, however, shrinking polar ice has opened the Northern Sea Route near Russia and the Northwest Passage near Alaska and through the Canadian archipelago to widespread use by commercial and military vessels.

U.S. Marines deploy to Norway

As part of a bilateral agreement between the United States and Norway, 330 Marines from Camp Lejeune deployed to a garrison in central Norway to bolster European defenses against Russia. “Although they’ll be about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) from the border,” CNN reported, “the plan is for them to bolster the readiness of new ‘pre-positioned’ tanks and weaponry stored throughout the year in underground caves.” Despite the assurance of Norway’s then-Defense Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, that the Russians had no reason to be alarmed by the deployment, a deputy chairperson of Russia’s defense and security committee in the upper chamber of Parliament told Norway’s TV2 that Moscow viewed the Marines in Norway as a “direct military threat that demands a reaction” and that Russia may now have to add Norway to “the list of targets for our strategic weapons.”

Six months after the Marines arrived in Norway, The New York Times reported on a new sophisticated radar system—known as Globus 3—that Norway began constructing on a tiny island near the Kola Peninsula, a slab of frozen ground dominated by high-security Russian naval bases and restricted military zones. The U.S. government funded the construction of the radar system, which will monitor Russia’s resurgent fleet of nuclear submarines armed with ballistic missiles in the Barents Sea. “Russia wants to look into our secrets,” Lasse Haughom told the Times, “and the United States and Norway want to look into their business.” Haughom was once the mayor of the town where the radar system was built. He is also a veteran of Norway’s military intelligence service. “That is the way the game is played,” he added.

Col. Matthew Komatsu, director of plans and strategy on the Alaska National Guard Joint Staff, helps his son, Finnegan, pin his new rank on his beret during a Sept. 4, 2019, promotion ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Photo by Pfc. Grace Nechanicky, courtesy of the U.S. Army National Guard. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Pfc. Grace Nechanicky/Released)

Col. Matthew Komatsu, director of plans and strategy on the Alaska National Guard Joint Staff, helps his son, Finnegan, pin his new rank on his beret during a Sept. 4, 2019, promotion ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Photo by Pfc. Grace Nechanicky, courtesy of the U.S. Army National Guard.

Moscow reacted to the news of the new radar system with disdain and more threats. “Norway has to understand,” the Russian ambassador to Norway said, “that after becoming an outpost of NATO, it will have to face head-on Russia and Russian military might.” The ambassador continues, “Therefore, there will be no peaceful Arctic anymore.”

In early August, the Norwegian Armed Forces announced that beginning in the late fall, the U.S. Marines who had been permanently stationed in Norway were going to withdraw and that American military personnel would visit Norway only in “connection with exercises.” This reduced presence of U.S. troops in Norway will be “warmly welcomed in Moscow,” the Barents Observer reported after the announcement was made.

One of the greatest risks, according to Niklas Granholm, is that the Arctic region will undergo a “Balkanization” like what occurred in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. Granholm is the deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, and he points to the Faroe Islands calling for self-rule from Denmark, Scotland clamoring for independence from the United Kingdom after Brexit, and the resurgence of troubles in Northern Ireland as indicators that more fragmentation and political division in the Arctic could lead to less cooperation or even hostility. Paired with the great-power competition among the United States, Russia, and China, any Balkanization of the region would, in Granholm’s words, be a “double whammy” and could make the Arctic much more combustible.

“Whatever happens in the Arctic won’t stay there,” he said. “It will escalate.”

Is this the beginning of a new Cold War?

The new Norwegian radar system undermines Russia’s ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike from its submarine fleet in the Arctic, New York Times reported, and that bothers Russia, according to Lt. Col. Tormod Heier, a faculty adviser at the Norwegian Defense University College. Because it upsets the strategic nuclear balance between the United States and Russia, the new radar system establishes a blow to Russia’s last indisputable claim to great-power status.

“There is a new Cold War,” Heier told the Times, adding that the risk of nuclear war was much higher now than in the old Cold War “because Russia is so much weaker, and because of that much more dangerous and unpredictable.”

In recognition of the threats posed by a new Cold War, the Pentagon released an updated National Defense Strategy in January 2018. While the document makes no specific mention of the Arctic, it recognizes the threats posed by great-power competition (especially as it relates to America’s eroding competitive edge) and clarifies that potential conflict with Russia and China had supplanted terrorism as the biggest threat to American national security.

Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Kayla Hocker, courtesy of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).

Green Berets with 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) practice self-recovery from a glacial crevasse during an arctic warfare training exercise in Seward, Alaska. Photo by Kayla Hocker, courtesy of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).

To achieve this end state, the United States must confront three risks that, if they materialized, would stand in the way. First, bad actors could use the Arctic as a staging ground for an attack on the U.S. homeland. Second, states like Russia and China could challenge the rules-based international order in the Arctic in ways that could lead to conflict. Third, but not least, tensions, competition, and conflict in other parts of the world could spill over into the Arctic.

Three months later, the U.S. Coast Guard released its own strategy for the Arctic, which called for funding to upgrade ships, aircraft, and unmanned systems operating in the region. Admiral Karl Schultz, the Coast Guard’s commandant, told the Washington Post that the goal should be to return the Arctic to a “peaceful place where we work to cross international lines here with partner nations that share interests in a transparent fashion.” Projecting sovereignty, he continued, will help expedite that return.

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But all these plans have failed to persuade decision makers to establish new organizational structures designed to address changes in the Arctic wrought by climate change and the rush to exploit the region’s natural resources. The plans do not include any substantive plans to guide the construction of infrastructure needed in the region, nor do they detail how resources will need to be reallocated to mitigate risks and help the United States reach its desired end state. They provide a vision for the future, but they do not provide a road map on how to get there.

Russia won’t back down

In late August 2019, a Russian submarine emerged from the icy waters near the North Pole and fired a Sineva-type intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. That same day, another Russian submarine in the Arctic Circle launched a Bulava-type intercontinental ballistic missile from beneath the surface of the Barents Sea. One missile hit a remote corner of Russia’s Pacific coast, and the other landed on the Kanin Peninsula. Twelve years after Russia planted its flag on the seabed below the North Pole, this demonstration of its military capabilities in the Arctic can be seen as its latest attempt to assert its sovereignty in the region. Against a broader backdrop of distrust and diminished communication across the U.S.-Russia divide, there exists a risk that relatively minor miscalculations or misinterpretations could escalate into broader conflict.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate Russia,” Niklas Granholm warns. “Norway has been neighbors with Russia for some 700 years, and in all that time we’ve learned that absolute security for the Russians means absolute insecurity for everyone else. That should be totally unacceptable.”

Arctic Defense Timeline

 

DateDevelopment Affecting the United States’ Arctic Defense Strategy
Sept 19, 1996The United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark formed the Arctic Council, “the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination, and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic indigenous communities, and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”

 

Sept 8, 2006The United States closed Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland. Once home to 5,000 troops, Keflavik served as a strategic way station for planes flying personnel, equipment, and supplies to Europe during World War II and the Cold War.

 

Aug 2, 2007Russia sent two mini-submarines to place a titanium Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole, two and a half miles underwater, to lay claim to the floor of the Arctic Ocean and the oil resources contained within it.

 

May 28, 2008The five coastal states of the Arctic Ocean—the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia—issued the Ilulissat Declaration, which laid out the jurisdictional rights in the Arctic, as well as a commitment to “promote safety of life at sea” and strengthen cooperative efforts, based on “mutual trust and transparency.”

 

Jan 9, 2009The outgoing Bush administration issued an Arctic Policy Directive stating the United States has “broad and fundamental national security interests in the Arctic region and is prepared to operate either independently or in conjunction with other states to safeguard these interests.” In carrying out this policy, the directive continued, the United States would “develop greater capabilities and capacity” to protect U.S. borders in the Arctic and “project a sovereign United States maritime presence in the Arctic,” among other things.

 

Oct 19, 2009The U.S. Energy Information Administration released a report on “Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Potential.” Citing a 2008 U.S. Geological Survey, the authors reported that 13% of all the unexploited oil and 30% of the world’s remaining natural gas are located in the Arctic.

 

Oct 11, 2010NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, Admiral James G. Stavridis of the U.S. Navy, warned that climate change in the Arctic could lead to conflict as countries race to lay claim to the region’s natural resources. “The cascading interests and broad implications stemming from the effects of climate change should cause today’s global leaders to take stock,” he wrote in a foreword to a paper calling for cooperation, “and unify their efforts to ensure the Arctic remains a zone of co-operation—rather than proceed down the icy slope towards a zone of competition, or worse a zone of conflict.”

 

Dec 1, 2011The Government Accountability Office released a report that stated of the U.S. Coast Guard’s 11 mission areas, nine were expected to experience expanded demand—and strain—as the Arctic region continues to open. Meeting this evolving demand in such harsh and remote conditions will be challenging, GAO claimed in testimony before the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, because of gaps in the Coast Guard’s communications capabilities, deficiencies in available information on weather and sea ice coverage, and a lack of polar icebreaking capacity.

 

Jul 2, 2012China sent a refurbished icebreaker—Xuelong, or Snow Dragon—across Artic waters for the first time.

 

Mar 12, 2013The New York Times reported that China had proposed building a[BK1] [DC2]  “tourist paradise” in northeastern Iceland—a signal to Arctic Council member countries that China was interested in establishing a foothold in the region. 

 

May 10, 2013President Obama released his administration’s national strategy for the Arctic region. In addition to laying out the challenges and opportunities created by diminishing sea ice, the strategy laid out the three top U.S. priorities: “Advanced U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic Region stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation.”

 

Nov 2013The Department of Defense issued its first Arctic Strategy, which committed the Pentagon safeguarding American security interests and the region’s environment through detection, deterrence, prevention, and defeat of threats. Speaking at an international security forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that “a flood of interest in energy exploration has the potential to heighten tensions over other issues.” Multilateral security cooperation will be a priority, he added, as “this will ultimately help reduce the risk of conflict.”

 

2014The Royal Norwegian Air Force scrambled F-16 fighters to intercept 74 Russian warplanes that were flying near the NATO ally’s coast, according to The New York Times. In 2004, only 11 Russian warplanes had to be intercepted.

 

Russia also increased the number of “snap military exercises” it conducted—a violation of established procedure that prohibits nations from announcing training maneuvers at the last minute or keeping them secret. One such exercise was used to cover Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

 

Russian warplanes also flew close to the coast of Alaska, prompting American and Canadian jets to intercept them.

 

Feb 2014The U.S. Navy published its Arctic Roadmap for 2014-2030, calling for the review of requirements needed to improve platforms, sensors, and weapons systems that facilitate operations in the Arctic region. “In the near-term,” the road map states, “there will be low demand for additional naval involvement in the region. Current Navy capabilities are sufficient to meet near-term operational needs. As opposed to combat-related missions, Navy forces are far more likely to be employed in the Arctic Region in support of Coast Guard search and rescue, disaster relief, law enforcement, and other civil emergency/civil support operations.” In the far-term, however, “increased periods of ice-free conditions could require the Navy to expand this support on a more routine basis.”

 

Feb 20, 2014Russia annexed Crimea. Relations between Russia and NATO in general and the Nordic region in particular have been tense ever since. Moreover, cooperation in the Arctic Council all but ended as Russia continued to back pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.

 

Oct 17, 2014An unidentified vessel was spotted off the Stockholm archipelago. Sweden, in turn, mobilized minesweepers, helicopters, and ships for a weeklong search that turned up nothing. Swedish news reports claimed Russia was using the vessel to spy. The Kremlin denied the reports and accused Stockholm of scaremongering.

 

Jan 23, 2015President Obama established the Arctic Executive Steering Committee to prioritize the demands for ships, equipment, and personnel in the Arctic to meet opportunities and challenges there.

 

Jan 29, 2015Two Russian Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bombers crossed the English Channel with their transponders turned off, playing havoc with civilian aircraft and prompting the Royal Air Force to scramble. A British government source told Reuters they viewed the incident as “a significant escalation.”

 

Feb 2015Norwegian fighter jets intercepted six Russian aircraft that were flying off the northern tip of Norway.

 

Mar 2015Russia held a military exercise The New York Times described as one of the largest ever in the far north, near its northern border with Norway, a week after Norwegian forces held their own exercise, which Norway had announced two years in advance. The Russian exercise involved 45,000 troops and dozens of ships and submarines, including those used in Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.

 

The Russian ambassador in Copenhagen warned that [BK3] [DC4] Danish warships “will be targets for Russia’s nuclear weapons” if the Danes join NATO’s missile defense program.

 

Apr 2015After spotting an underwater vessel, the Finnish Navy fired depth charges—the first such warning in more than a decade. It remains unclear whether Russia, which shares a long border with Finland, played any role. “We have seen more Russian activity in the Baltic area,” Max Arhippainen, a spokesman for the Finish Ministry of Defense, told The New York Times soon after the incident. “To some degree, people are more worried than before.”

 

Aug 31, 2015President Obama became the first sitting president to travel above the Arctic Circle, where he shined a light on the effects of climate change in the region.

 

Aug 4, 2015Russia resubmitted a claim to a vast area of the Arctic Ocean (over 463,000 square miles) and its mineral rights to the United Nations based on the geological extension of Russia’s continental shelf. “Russia submitted a similar claim in 2002, but the United Nations rejected it for lack of scientific support.” If the United Nations accepts the claim, Russia would oversee activities like oil drilling in the seabed, though it would not have sovereignty over the water or the ice, according to The New York Times.

 

Dec 2015The U.S. Coast Guard published its Arctic Strategy Implementation Plan, which laid out its three strategic objectives over the next 10 years: (1) Improving surveillance and monitoring capabilities, (2) modernizing Arctic governance to ensure maritime sovereignty and the protection of natural resources, and (3) broadening partnerships across the public and private sectors.

 

Jan 2017To buttress Norwegian defenses against Russia, the United States deployed 330 Marines to a garrison in Vaernes—the first time foreign forces have deployed to Norway since World War II.

 

Lithuania announced it will begin constructing an 80-mile fence on its border with Russia’s highly militarized Kaliningrad exclave.

 

Jun 2017Norway began constructing a new radar system, using American funds, on an island near Russia’s Kola Peninsula, where several high-security naval bases and restricted military zones are located. According to Lt. Col. Tormod Heier, a faculty adviser at the Norwegian Defense University College, Russia considers this new system a high-value target. “In a crisis it will be one of the first places to be blown up,” he told The New York Times.

 

Jan 2018Navy officials told Stars and Stripes that while the U.S. Navy was spending $36 million to refurbish facilities at the deactivated Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland to accommodate its submarine-hunting P-8A Poseidon jets, that does not mean “a return of stationing U.S. troops in the strategically vital nation.”

 

Jan 19, 2018The Department of Defense released its National Defense Strategy, which was designed to help restore America’s ability to deter Russia and China. It makes no specific mention of the Arctic, despite wide recognition that heightened tensions in the region could lead to conflict among the three nations.

 

May 2018The U.S. Navy declared its intention to reestablish the 2nd Fleet to counter a more active Russian Navy and keep pace with increasing military competition across the world.

 

Jan 2019The U.S. Air Force is exploring ways to modernize more than 50 radars that cross the top of North America and training and equipping troops for cold weather operations, according to Secretary Heather Wilson and General David Goldfein. The Air Force also upgraded critical space-surveillance assets in Greenland.

 

Feb 2019Russian special forces are training for a potential conflict in the Arctic, a top Russian lawmaker told a state-run news agency, according to The New York Times.[BK5] [DC6] 

 

Mar  2019Hundreds of troops from NATO countries joined Canadian troops for the Nanook-Nunalivut exercises to improve military readiness for extreme-cold climates. The United States sent observers but no troops, according to The New York Times.

 

Russia showed off its new anti-ship missile launchers from its Arctic base on Kotelny Island by firing shots at practice targets.

 

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. Navy sailed an aircraft carrier above the Arctic Circle for the first time in decades, and the Department of Defense added more fighter jets to Alaska and had made plans to send submarine-hunting reconnaissance places to Iceland.

 

Apr 2019Russian President Vladimir V. Putin detailed his country’s plans to build new ports and infrastructure in the Arctic region at a meeting of the International Arctic Forum. “We don’t see a single matter that requires NATO’s attention” in the Arctic, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said at the same event.

 

The U.S. Coast Guard released its Arctic Strategic Outlook, which called for upgrades to its ships, aircraft, and unmanned systems in the region so the United States could project sovereignty. As of April 2019, the Coast Guard had only “two surface ships capable of sailing in icy parts of the Arctic,” according to the Washington Post, “and the Navy has none. President Trump and Congress approved $655 million to begin building the first of what the Coast Guard sees as a new fleet of up to six polar security cutters, but the service also highlights a variety of other needs it sees in the region, especially improving limited communications networks.”

 

Jun 6, 2019The Department of Defense released its Arctic Strategy, which focuses on great-power competition with China and Russia as “the principal challenge to long-term U.S. security and prosperity.” The strategy lists three primary risks to U.S. national security interests in the Arctic: (1) The use of the Arctic as a staging ground for an attack on the United States, (2) the challenge by China and Russia to a rules-based international order, and (3) spillover in the Arctic of competition or conflict in other parts of the world.

 

Jul 1, 2019A deep-diving Russian submarine—known as the Losharik—caught fire, resulting in the deaths of 14 sailors, including some of the most decorated officers in the Russian submarine corps. The fire broke out 60 nautical miles east of Norway, which raised concerns among NATO member states that the Losharik may have been testing it ability to destroy the endless miles of fiber-optic cables that crisscross the seafloor of the North Atlantic and carry much of the world’s internet traffic, according to The New York Times.

 

Aug 24, 2019Russia launched a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon from a submarine to the North Pole.

 

July 2020China’s first domestically built icebreaker—Xuelong 2, or Snow Dragon 2—set sail for a two-month-long expedition to the Arctic. According to China’s state media, the purpose of the expedition is to research Arctic biodiversity and ecosystems in order to better understand the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

 

The USS Roosevelt, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed to 75 degrees North and spent nearly a month above the Arctic Circle.

 

Aug 2020Beginning this year, the Norwegian Armed Forces announced, U.S. Marines who had been permanently stationed in Norway since 2017 would begin pulling out, signaling a major shift in U.S. relations with Norway.

 

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David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger

David Chrisinger is the director of writing seminars for The War Horse. In 2016, he edited an essay collection—See Me for Who I Am—that bridges the cultural gap that divides veterans from the American people who have not served.

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