Russia's arms race in the Arctic is heating up. How worried should the U.S. be?

Uh oh — is Vladimir Putin coming for Santa?

Run Run Santa
(Image credit: (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy iStock, Getty Images))

Of all those in Russia's "near abroad," who nervously look over their shoulders at Ukraine and wonder who is next, there is one individual with more cause to worry than most: Santa Claus.

Vladimir Putin has, after all, claimed the North Pole as Russian territory, going so far as to plant a flag under the ice and establish a new Arctic military command. For that matter, Canada and Denmark have also declared ownership of the North Pole and are stepping up their polar military presence, as well.

The children of America can relax, however: Santa is not likely to get caught in the crossfire. Only someone with mystical powers could afford a significant year-round military presence at the North Pole right now. There's no actual land there, just snow and ice with more than 13,000 feet of frigid ocean underneath and summer temperatures that barely break 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

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That hasn't stopped the hype, however, about a new arms race in the far north, or a land grab, or a trade war. On the other hand, what's happening in the North Pole will be consequential — just maybe not in the ways grand strategists expect.

If this keen interest in the Arctic seems sudden, in many ways, it is. Much of the recent literature on the subject won't necessarily clear up why that's the case, though. In their article announcing the launch of the new Congressional Arctic Working Group, for example, Representatives Don Young (R-Alaska) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) point to new regional shipping, tourism, and resource extraction opportunities and security challenges, but they gloss over the reason this is happening.

Here is the reason: the sea ice in the Arctic is melting. This is not an opinion; it is an observed phenomenon, documented by satellite imagery. There is variation in the amount of ice from year-to-year, but the last 20 years have seen the most pronounced thawing trend in recorded human history. This is climate change, and it's not just an academic point to score. A better understanding of why the thaw is happening will help us plan for a smarter, safer future.

So, is a melting Arctic an economic opportunity or a military challenge? An entirely new global shipping route, after all, does generate excitement in both camps. The answer to that question could determine just how worried we all should be.

The economic impact of an Arctic that is open for business could be huge. For centuries, explorers have sought a polar shortcut between Asia and Europe, potentially trimming thousands of miles off the journey. Last year, Canada finally recovered the 170 year-old remains of one of those ill-fated expeditions — the same year that as many as 91 ships safely crossed the Northwest and Northeast passages through the Arctic, a new record.

In that context, it looks more sensible than sinister that China, a non-Arctic nation, is now building its second icebreaker and seeking property in the region. China has a strong economic motive, given it reliance on trade. There's also China's increasingly urgent quest to diversify its energy supplies, as its import dependence continues to soar. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 13 percent of the world's remaining oil and 30 percent of its natural gas are in the region, as well as minerals important to today's high tech economy. It's not been technically or economically feasible to confirm what's there, but the surrounding geology and reserves facilitate an educated guess, and the melting ice is starting to make it possible to explore for and produce Arctic resources.

Another sign that this is an economic challenge: Shell, having already spent $6 billion dollars in the Alaskan Arctic, has announced new plans to drill off Alaska's northern coast, despite a mishap in the area last year. Exxon-Mobil is drilling a $3.2 billion test well in the Kara Sea right now, though the future of the project may be at risk due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and U.S. sanctions.

Russia, of course, complicates what appears to be an economic opportunity. With the longest Arctic coastline and a sea route with warmer, faster-thawing waters, Russia has a clear comparative advantage in the region. Part of that advantage is its 38 icebreakers — more than double all the other Arctic countries' fleets combined — and the world's only nuclear icebreaker fleet. But, here's the thing: Although Russia is noisily claiming to be re-establishing its Cold War era polar military presence, most of their actual investments are focused on oil and gas and areas that are clearly Russian territory.

Territorial matters have the potential to be incendiary, however. These new shipping channels run through an almost fully enclosed ocean, ringed by five nations, which in the past have not really needed to iron out competing claims in the largely inaccessible region. As that situation has begun to change, some territorial disagreements have been worked out peacefully. But considering that four of the Arctic nations are NATO members and one is Russia, remaining claims may be harder to resolve these days, and the differences in regional presence are becoming more strategically significant.

In other words, the economic and military interests in the Arctic are not only both important, they are intertwined.

So, what is Uncle Sam to do? As an Arctic and seafaring nation, the United States also has compelling economic and military interests at stake, but not much capacity to promote those interests. And yet President Obama's Arctic Strategy largely vows just to study the matter, in a wait-and-see approach.

Strangely enough, that may well be the best strategy, at least for now. "The challenge," as U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress noted, "is to balance the risk of being late-to-need with the opportunity cost of making premature Arctic investments." Indeed.

The area is still difficult and dangerous to transit and that is likely to be the case for some time to come, and specialized polar equipment is very expensive. Consider Canada's ambitious plans to build a new naval base at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. As those costs ballooned past $200 million, Canada quietly scaled back to a 15-person seasonal outpost with no airstrip. For that matter, the Congressional Arctic Working Group notwithstanding, it remains to be seen if Congress is willing to foot the $1 billion bill for a single polar icebreaker.

But just because it may not pay to be a first mover in Arctic investments does not mean the United States should do nothing at all to get ready for the Arctic spring. The recent appointment of a Special U.S. Representative for the Arctic could help, especially with the U.S. taking its turn as Chair of the Arctic Council next year. As long as it isn't just a stunt appointment to further delay actually doing anything, that is.

In particular, the United States should continue to take action to protect U.S. borders and territory, as well as access to international waterways. The United States, working with Canada, has fairly robust northern missile defense, although it may be in a state of disrepair in places. This obviously is ripe for reinvestment, as are communications and surveillance capabilities in the region, which are sketchy at best. Those particular baseline investments may well be the best response to Russia's bold pronouncements.

As for territory and international waterways, in a pinch, the United States has the means (such as submarines) to protect those claims without a large icebreaker fleet. It would, of course, be a big help if the Senate would just ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, which a radical fringe of the Republican Party has been preventing with oddball proclamations about world government. That is rubbish, given the structure of the treaty, but their instransigence puts the United States at a disadvantage in working out conflicting Arctic claims.

One of the clearest and most present dangers in the Arctic today is actually just the uptick in maritime traffic, raising the risk of accidents. Given the long distances, harsh environment, and lack of suitable equipment, this really is a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed, that alone is a good argument for another heavy icebreaker, which will bring the total in the U.S. inventory to two. It's not as exciting as a trade war or an arms race, but it is a very good reason for regional powers to pool their resources and information.

Finally, and this gets us back to acknowledging why we have this challenge, the United States should set trip wires that trigger additional investment if the situation warrants it. The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projects that the Arctic will see "ice free" summers (i.e, not locked in with solid ice) by mid-century, which means there is time to make the appropriate investments. Or maybe not. In the last few years, the seasonal ice retreat has outstripped projections and it is possible the region could see "ice free" summers within a decade or two.

The question of whether the contest for the Arctic is predominantly economic or military might be somewhat moot in that scenario. Such a profound thaw would likely mean radically accelerating climate change, with pervasive effects on the worldwide availability of freshwater and the volatility of weather patterns. It is a mark of the absurdity of the U.S. polity that some business and government leaders tout the commercial opportunities and security risks of a fully navigable Arctic, without acknowledging what it really means.

They probably want to arm Santa Claus, too. If Putin doesn't get to him first.

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