- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Navy is eyeing a tougher posture in the Arctic to push back against Moscow, and top Pentagon officials said this week that the U.S. could launch “freedom of navigation” operations near Russia’s Arctic coastline.

Such operations would resemble Navy exercises in the South China Sea, an area in which American ships regularly contest growing Chinese territorial claims. Officials believe similar movements may be needed in the Arctic as Russia tries to seize strategically vital sea routes as their own.

“It’s sort of the same situation in the South China Sea that when we look at freedom of navigation operations and the ability to operate in international waters, the United States claims the right to be able to do that,” Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite told the news outlet Breaking Defense on Tuesday.

Mr. Braithwaite’s comments coincided with the release of a major new Navy report on 21st-century Arctic strategy, which concluded that the Navy must “evaluate and modernize existing and future forces to provide manned and unmanned operational presence and patrol options in cold weather and ice-diminished Arctic waters.”

Melting ice in the Arctic has opened up valuable new commercial routes and offered a major economic and geopolitical opportunity for Russia, which boasts an impressive fleet of icebreakers and other assets capable of operating in the frigid waters.

There are already signs that Russia will use its strategic edge to claim Arctic territory as its own, or to restrict other nations’ access to shipping lanes. The Russian military also has a growing footprint in the region, including bases off its northern coasts.

U.S. military officials say one key method of guaranteeing international access to the region could be Pacific-style navigation missions that extend all the way to Russia’s Arctic doorstep.

“That takes us up into the Barents [Sea], and then takes us around the Barents and up towards the Kola Peninsula to be more present in that part of the world. Again, where sea lanes open up in the northern passage becomes navigable, the U.S. Navy is going to guarantee that freedom of navigation exists for our partners,” Mr. Braithwaite said.

The U.S. and British navies last year sailed through the icy Barents Sea for the first time since the Cold War, offering a clue of what the future could hold for the Arctic region.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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