THE REAL ARCTIC THREAT

Wall Street Journal on September 1, 2015, published a commentary by Senator John McCain on the present US administration’s lack of interest in the Arctic. Excerpts below:

President Obama is on a three-day visit to Alaska that will include a stop north of the Arctic Circle. The focus of his trip is climate change. Some of my Senate colleagues and I recently returned from the Arctic, and while we saw the challenges of melting polar ice, we also saw a greater and more immediate threat. It is a menace that many assumed was relegated to the past: an aggressive, militarily capable Russian state that is ruled by an anti-American autocrat, hostile to our interests, dismissive of our values, and seeking to challenge the international order that U.S. leaders of both parties have maintained for seven decades.

Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions are clear enough in his attempt to dominate Russia’s neighbors, Ukraine most of all. But his ambitions increasingly extend to the Arctic and Europe’s northern flank. That is where I and my colleagues met with leaders and security officials from Norway, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

As polar ice melts, Russia is rushing to nationalize and control new waterways across the Arctic Ocean that could open not simply to commercial shipping, but also military and intelligence activities. Vast natural resources, including oil and gas, could become available for exploitation, potentially transforming the Arctic into a new theater of geopolitical competition.

Officials from each of the countries I visited expressed the same concern: Russia is threatening the security and prosperity of the Arctic and Northern Europe by assertively deploying its military power, patrolling its neighbors’ coastlines both above and below water, and building or reopening numerous military outposts across the region.

Russian provocations and territorial claims in the Arctic also threaten U.S. national-security interests. Russia’s military expansion in the Arctic and North Atlantic appears to be an attempt to establish de facto control over these vital areas, much as China is seeking to do in the South China Sea. In both cases the U.S. response has so far been feeble. That is alarming, because freedom of the seas is essential to the modern way of life. Any action by Russia that impedes movement in the Arctic may ultimately threaten the peace of the Atlantic and the intercontinental ties between the U.S. and our closest allies and trading partners in Europe.

Defending America’s national interests in the Arctic will require bringing renewed energy to our alliances and partnerships. This year the U.S. assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council for two years. During that time we should make recognition of Mr. Putin’s hegemonic ambitions a top priority and increase cooperation with our Arctic partners to deter Russia from instigating a new “great game” in the Arctic.

We must also provide robust support for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

On September 1 President Obama proposed to start planning for construction of new icebreakers. That’s only modest progress. Without the proper capabilities, the U.S. gives Russia a free pass to establish facts on the ground that will be hard to rebut.

Ultimately, Mr. Putin’s ambitions—from Ukraine and the Baltics to the Arctic and North Atlantic—require the trans-Atlantic community to return to a mission that too many assumed was no longer necessary: deterrence. We must project strength to prevent conflict.

Moscow is waging a Cold War updated for the 21st century, employing modern military tactics and weapons systems, conducting sophisticated information-warfare operations and using advanced cyber and space capabilities.

To be successful, the U.S. must end the arbitrary caps on defense spending imposed by the Budget Control Act and return to a strategy-driven defense budget. America’s European and NATO partners must spend more on defense—at a minimum, meeting the NATO commitment of 2% of gross domestic product.

The good news is that some European countries are responding to the new strategic realities in Europe. Norway continues to be a leading military power in Europe. Sweden, which has suffered brazen Russian incursions into its territorial waters and airspace, is planning a defense-spending increase to improve training and acquire vital military capabilities, including submarines, fighters jets and air defenses.

The Baltic States are stepping up as well. Estonia has developed some of the world’s most advanced cyber capabilities. Latvia plans to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2018. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė tells me that her country is boosting its defense spending by a third next year.

With each of these nations, and other European and NATO allies, the U.S. must encourage greater security cooperation, robust military exchanges and exercises, and improved intelligence capabilities to deter Vladimir Putin’s quest for a new form of Russian empire.

Mr. McCain, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Arizona.

Comment: This article by Senator McCain is a welcome contribution to the increasing focus on the Russian Arctic buildup. The Russian threat has since 2009 been neglected by the present American administration. Not until this year President Obama has at least started thinking about building more US icebreakers for Arctic service. The visit by McCain and colleagues in the Baltic Sea area has greatly contributed to a greater awareness in Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania of the growing Russian activities in the Arctic and the Baltic Sea region. As during the Cold War Russia is in the 21st century worried about geostrategic containment. The Arctic is important to Russia and the bases on the Kola Peninsula are important for Russia’s deployment of naval forces in the Atlantic. The occupation of Crimea is part of Russia’s new global strategy. Crimea in Russian hands is important for Russian naval deployment in the Mediterranean. For Russian naval access to the Pacific Ocean the Kurile chain is of great strategic and economic importance. Here are the chokepoints that control the movements of the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok and one of the most productive fishing grounds in the world. To contain Russia it is from a global geopolitical perspective of great importance to the West to control the rimland of the Eurasian continent.

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