Arctic: Incredibly Important Issue on Russia-US Agenda

The expectations are high that US President-elect Donald Trump will achieve progress in the Middle East, Europe and the Asia Pacific region. Media offer numerous insights into what his policies will be like. But it should not be forgotten that the US is an Arctic nation. Climate changes are making the region more accessible to human activity. Despite that, the Arctic – an area of economic, technological and political competition and protracted geopolitical rivalry - is undeservedly kept out of media spotlight.

Mr. Trump is expected to formulate, articulate and implement sound policy to protect the nation’s interests in the region as global warming melts Arctic ice. No doubt, the Arctic will be among the most pressing issues on the US-Russia agenda when Donald Trump moves into the White House.

In its last months in office, the Obama administration has applied efforts to formulate a new Arctic policy. According to a recent Global Risks Insights report, it is likely to be left incomplete, with final decisions being left for the next administration to consider in 2017.

The policy defines three main objectives: environmental protection, a policy to develop hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic region, and US military presence, including deployment of strategic assets in the region. A relevant legislation should be approved by Congress. With Trump elected President, this policy may go through drastic changes.

The United States stepped up its activities with regard to the Arctic after a report by the US Geological Survey was published in 2009. The paper assessed the potential of Arctic hydrocarbons at 22% of the world’s total reserves. The assessment left out prospective deposits at a depth of more than 3 km. According to the US Geological Survey estimates, 70 per cent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas – some 1,699 trillion cubic feet of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids – lies in the Arctic, most of that in Russia.

The recent US National Strategy for the Arctic Region saw light in 2013. It refers to freedom of the seas as the chief national priority, including the freedom of shipping and air navigation through the Northwest Passage - the sea route by the Arctic Ocean along the North-American northern coast via the Canadian Arctic Archipelago - and the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russia’s Arctic (Siberian) coast.

Russia considers the NSR as a shipping route officially defined by Russian legislation as lying east of Novaya Zemlya and specifically running along the Russian Arctic coast from the Kara Sea, along Siberia, to the Bering Strait. The entire route lies in Arctic waters and within Russia's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This position is in line with Article 234 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

This article on the Arctic grants all littoral states the right, within their exclusive economic zones (200 nautical miles), to pass non-discriminatory laws and regulations concerning navigation in ice-field areas. The US has signed but failed to ratify the Convention. The voices calling for ratification of the document are getting increasingly loud in America. Mr. Trump will have to define his position on this vital problem.

The Arctic is an issue of security agenda. Alaska, the state close to the Arctic Ocean, is used as launching point for Air Force missions across the northern hemisphere. Europe and East Asia can be reached from there without refuelling. A decision has been taken to station two squadrons of F-35 Lightning II fighters in Alaska (Eielson base) starting in 2020. The deployment is expected to provide the US with air superiority across the entire northern hemisphere. US submarines with ballistic and long-range cruise missiles (Tomahawks) on board are frequent visitors to the region. US submarine-launched ballistic missiles can reach Moscow from the Barents Sea in 15 to 16 minutes.

The Arctic is the only location to enable submarine-launched Tomahawks to strike the Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) bases in the Orenburg and Krasnoyarsk regions, as well as the Urals.

In March, the United States Navy held the exercise ICEX-2016 – a five-week training event designed to assess the operational readiness of the submarine force. The recent NATO summit in Warsaw mentioned the region as an area of tensions in the final communiqué. It was the first time the NATO’s role in the Arctic was officially acknowledged.

 Neither the 2010 Strategic Concept, nor the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration mentioned the region. The deterioration of the relations between Russia and the West has spilled over to the Arctic to make it an area of nascent arms race.

Russia is revitalizing its Arctic military presence and boosting its military activities in the region. It has also significantly increased its economic activities in the region, including the construction and expansion of port facilities to oil and gas exploration.

On November 1, the American Security Project hosted a panel to discuss the recently released International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) report on US Arctic policy. The panel, titled «The Arctic: Assessing the geopolitical, economic, military, and environmental drivers of U.S. Arctic policy», pointed out that Russia and the US can cooperate in the Arctic, but worsening relations over the issues of Ukraine and Syria create concern. The panel had been convened before the US November 8 election. It should be noted that President-elect Donald Trump considers Ukraine and Syria as the areas where Russia and the US could make progress.

According to the panel, the US Coast Guard’s efforts have put it in direct cooperation with the Russian military. Opinions on the Russian issue were generally optimistic. The panel concluded that «the US must work to better understand Russian capabilities in the Arctic to avoid miscalculations that can lead to escalation. US-Russian Arctic operations are a source of optimism between the two nations, and this must be continued». The United States must strengthen transparency and confidence building measures to protect its interests and relationships in the region.

The panel stressed that importance of US ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), «which is pivotal for the U.S. to legitimize its Arctic interests». The ratification would make the Convention a legal basis for Russia and the US to go upon in the discussions related to the problems of the Arctic.

Speakers at the Atlantic Council’s Oct. 25 conference suggested that producing this oil and gas could help the federal government finance port construction and other projects to handle tourism and commercial shipping growth as sea ice melts and year-round maritime routes open. To do that, the issues related to security concerns must be tackled with positive results. And that means the discussions with Russia.

Progress is achievable. Suffice it to remember the history of Antarctica. Tensions were running high at the height of the Cold War, but the Soviet Union and the United States signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. It was the first nuclear arms agreement in the world to make nearly 10% of the Earth be used for peaceful purposes only.

It’s rather symbolic that an agreement on science cooperation to include Russia, the United States and other Arctic states is planned to be signed in May of 2017.This is the way to strengthen the bonds of cooperation, building common interests. A search and rescue and marine pollution preparedness and response agreements are already effective.

An agreement on Arctic fisheries is expected to be signed soon. It is aimed at preventing fishery development and unregulated commercial fishing in the high seas area around the North Pole. Security issues can also be covered by agreements.

Russia and the US need a full-fledged dialogue to address security issues related to the Arctic. With Mr. Trump in office, the prospects for launching serious discussions on how to make the Arctic region an area of peace, not confrontation, seem to be an achievable goal. The events in other place should not eclipse this issue. This is an area where progress can and must be achieved.