On Sept. 30, Britain’s Secretary of State for Defense, Gavin Williamson, announced that 800 British commandos would be sent to the Arctic for a joint military exercise with Norway next year to help stop Russia’s Arctic land grab.
According to a report in The Sun newspaper, Mr. Williamson said, “Beyond the High North and Arctic we must be ready, and must show that we are ready, to deal with threats as they emerge.”
With the greatest respect for our British allies, the temporary deployment of a few hundred troops for a joint British-Norwegian exercise will not accomplish any such thing. It will do precisely nothing to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to control vast portions of the Arctic and the oil and gas beneath it by military force. The Arctic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, holds about 20 percent of the world’s untapped reserves, worth some $20 trillion.
In 2002, Russia made a claim to a U.N. commission for a vast part of the Arctic region. It was rejected. In 2007, a team of Russian submariners planted the Russian flag directly under the North Pole at a depth of 14,000 feet. Then-Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay sniffed, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say ‘We’re claiming this territory’.” Mr. Putin obviously doesn’t share Mr. MacKay’s view.
In 2015, Russia renewed its claim at the U.N. to include about 463,000 square miles of the Arctic. The U.N. commission that supposedly arbitrates such claims hasn’t yet ruled on it.
Under the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea — a treaty which the United States has never ratified — nations can claim exclusive economic rights up to 200 miles from their coasts. Russia claims that the “Lemononsov Ridge” and “Mendeleev Ridge” areas are extensions of its continental shelf, reaching out 350 miles from its coastline.
Denmark has made a similar claim to a roughly equal amount of the Arctic. Canada, Norway and the United States all have legitimate claims to the Arctic.
To emphasize Russia’s claim, in March 2017 Mr. Putin visited Franz Joseph Land, an archipelago above the Arctic Circle on which Russia is building — and has substantially completed — a series of military bases including runways for military aircraft. While there, Mr. Putin said, “Natural resources, which are of paramount importance for the Russian economy, are concentrated in this region.” Mr. Putin’s commitment to gaining and maintaining control over those resources by military occupation is too clear to misjudge.
Since this column raised the problem of Russia’s Arctic expansion 11 months ago, there’s been nary a peep about it from the White House or the Pentagon. Congressional thinking — if there is such a thing — is contrary to asserting any American influence in the Arctic. It’s all about icebreakers.
Aircraft can operate in the Arctic, but weather frequently prevents them from doing so. Large numbers of people and quantities of equipment thus have to be moved by ship.
An icebreaker’s engines drive its bow up over the ice, the ship’s weight crashing down to break the ice, over and over again to slowly create a path for the ship. Though rising Arctic temperatures in summer months are opening new cross-Arctic shipping channels, year-round Arctic operations depend on icebreakers.
The U.S. Coast Guard operates our only heavy icebreaker, the Polar Star, which is 40 years old. The Russians have 41 such vessels (some of which are nuclear-powered) and are building at least eight more, with many more to follow. The Coast Guard’s request for funds to begin building a second heavy icebreaker has foundered amid congressional wrangling over funding for White House priorities such as the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
We’re not going to beat the Russians in a race to build icebreakers. If the U.N. commission rules against Russia’s 2015 claim to the Arctic, Russia will ignore it. Thus, our response needs to be both direct and asymmetric.
First, the joint British-Norwegian military exercises next year should become an annual event in which a substantial force of U.S. troops, aircraft and ships participate. To sustain this effort, the Pentagon should quickly award contracts to develop and manufacture the tools of war — everything from rifles to computers and vehicles — that can function in the extreme cold of the Arctic winter.
Our asymmetric responses should be directed at Mr. Putin’s increasing use of hybrid warfare to destabilize European governments and Russia’s inherently weak economy.
For example, Poland wants a permanent U.S. military base. We should establish one and equip it with our best anti-missile systems, which Mr. Putin would see as a threat. President Trump has given Ukraine the military aid that former President Obama denied it. That aid should be expanded to include armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missile batteries.
Russia knows that our ballistic missile defenses are imperfect. If we placed an anti-missile system in space, modernized from the “Brilliant Pebbles” proposal of the 1980s, Russia would feel compelled to spend hundreds of billions of rubles to try to create a means to defeat it.
Those are only a few of the many options we have to improve our national security and, at the same time, weaken Russia’s expansionism and aggression in the Arctic, the Middle East and elsewhere. There are many more and we should implement them all.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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