On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev warned that Russia and the West are headed toward another Cold War.
He has a strong case. Russian provocations are on the rise both in the West, where Russia threatens the sovereignty of several Eastern European nations, and in the East, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is using his energy resources to shore up relations with China.
But Putin is not merely looking east or west, but north as well. The Arctic is equally critical in his geopolitical calculus.
The war between the United States and Russia over the Arctic and its abundant resources is definitely a cold one, but it’s as real and harmful of a threat as any facing U.S. security today. Whereas Russia is acutely aware of its opportunities in the north, U.S. leaders and officials refuse to acknowledge the critical importance of the Arctic, which could help the United States lower costs and become more independent of Middle Eastern oil.
Over the past several months, Russia has announced plans for a large-scale militarization of the Arctic. Plans include a 6,000-soldier permanent military force in the northwest Murmansk region, new radar and guidance system capabilities and new nuclear-powered submarines and icebreakers. Increased militarization of the region comes as state-owned oil companies advance Arctic oil and natural gas development programs. Their discoveries — which suggest that the Russian Kara Sea could hold some of the world’s largest oil reserves — have only accelerated Russia’s expansion north. This has frustrated U.S. efforts to cooperate in the Arctic.
According to National Journal, fraying U.S.-Russian relations forced the United States this year to suspend joint naval exercises in the Arctic, cancel a bilateral meeting on Coast Guard operations and suspend a submarine rescue partnership.
In October, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel acknowledged at the Washington Ideas Forum that opening waterways in the Arctic and increased commercial activity by Russia presents a challenge to U.S. interests. The Department of Defense and other U.S. agencies have outlined strategies to respond to the changing landscape of the Arctic, but actions to date have been muted.
The U.S. government must demonstrate that it sees the Arctic as a region of significant geopolitical importance and increase U.S. investments in Arctic infrastructure, including developing a fleet of icebreakers. The United States has only one functioning icebreaker, while Russia has five nuclear-powered icebreakers and more in the queue. Efforts to appropriate greater funds for icebreaker development have fallen drastically short: For fiscal 2015, Congress appropriated $8 million to fund a new ocean icebreaker, but each ship typically costs about $1 billion.
The United States must also take steps to better facilitate development of Arctic energy resources. The federal government issued leases to develop prolific oil and natural gas resources in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2005, 2007 and 2008. Since then, companies have been unable to drill to hydrocarbon depth due to a series of legal and regulatory hurdles that the administration has been unable or unwilling to resolve. Companies have invested billions of dollars in lease payments, technology development and scientific research to be able to move forward with exploration programs. As the administration dithers, Russia has accelerated its commercial activity in the Arctic.
Western leaders shouldn’t expect another rapprochement to occur anytime soon. Putin is no Gorbachev, and U.S. leadership on this issue is nonexistent. For the United States, the most effective response to Russia’s increasing influence would be to exert its own. A beefing up of infrastructure and energy development in the Arctic can serve as a one-two punch to Russia. The United States can better defend its territory and resources while diluting the influence of Russian energy. The United States must win this new cold war, but it must first admit that it’s in one.
David Hunt, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a former security adviser to the FBI. He served as counterterrorism coordinator for the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. . Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.