The once-inaccessible Arctic has become the site of a major Russian military build-up and a key piece of Vladimir Putin’s 21st-century economic strategy, a top U.S. diplomat warned Tuesday, vowing that the Trump administration will fiercely defend its interests as the region opens up.
In an online forum hosted by the Hudson Institute, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands said Washington’s partnership with Copenhagen is an important cornerstone in a much broader diplomatic and national security strategy to ramp up American engagement in the Arctic.
The administration over the past three years has overhauled the U.S. approach to the Arctic amid rising Russian and Chinese ambitions; in just the past several weeks, the White House announced plans to open a consulate in Greenland for the first time in decades and to fast-track plans for new icebreaker ships capable of operating in frigid Arctic waters.
Other nations, including China, are scrambling their own claims, but Mr. Putin has taken an especially aggressive tack in asserting the Kremlin’s economic, security and diplomatic interests.
“The tensions are new. The Arctic has historically been a low-tension zone and we all liked it that way. However, one country has militarized its coast, and that’s Russia,” Amb. Sands said. “We can see they’ve now militarized the area with missiles and all kinds of capabilities they didn’t have in the past. They’ve even put missiles on their icebreakers, if you can imagine. We are very concerned about this. It’s not good for the region.”
The ambassador said U.S. officials have identified at least “470 points of militarization” along the Russian coastal areas in the Arctic, including shuttered Cold War-era bases that are being reactivated.
It’s part of a broader plan by Moscow to gain leverage over the region in the hopes of developing and controlling new shipping routes, constructing and operating new infrastructure such as ports, and exploiting untapped energy reserves.
Mr. Putin has made no secret of that strategy, boasting last year that his country has a “well-calculated” plan to expand control of the Northern Sea route and take other steps to increase its hold in the region.
“It’s the outlier in the Arctic region,” Amb. Sands said of Moscow, adding that unlike Russia, the U.S. and other Arctic nations are trying to work cooperatively.
The White House, Pentagon and State Department have launched a concerted effort to push back against that Russian expansionism. In a clear signal to Moscow last month, U.S. Navy ships sailed through the Barents Sea for the first time since the Cold War.
Last week, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to build a new icebreaker fleet by the end of the decade to compete with the dozens of Russian ships capable of operating on Arctic waters. The U.S. has just two icebreakers. The president also said the U.S. must identify two domestic and two international bases for the icebreaker fleet, signaling a long-term American commitment to its new Arctic strategy.
Also last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the reopening of the U.S. consulate in Nuuk, Greenland, which came on the heels of the administration’s $12.1 million economic aid package to the country.
Amb. Sands said the coordinated moves reflect the rising priority the Arctic has in U.S. strategic thinking.
“It is really whole-of-mission — our entire embassy, plus the Trump administration, the State Department and Congress have been very, very supportive of our increased engagement” with Denmark, she said.
While part of the objective is to ward off greater Russian influence, the administration also is wary of China’s efforts to gain an economic foothold in the Arctic as well. Beijing two years ago announced its plans for a “Polar Silk Road” economic corridor that would see unprecedented Chinese investments in Arctic infrastructure in Denmark and elsewhere.
Ms. Sands said the U.S. supports foreign investments in the region but only if they’re fair, transparent and result in quality products — conditions which have not always applied to China’s work in other parts of the world.
“As long as it’s transparent and according to the rule of law that the work that’s done is good work, not substandard work … I think that’s encouraging to have that interest and that development,” she said.