Visiting Alaska and becoming the first U.S. President to enter the Arctic Circle, Obama vowed Tuesday he would speed the process of developing and purchasing icebreakers to help the U.S. Coast Guard navigate the Arctic region, in which China and Russia have been showing their growing interest recently.
The U.S. only has two working icebreakers, while Russia has as many as 41 and is planning to build a dozen more. Obama announced he would speed up efforts to purchase icebreakers, but noted that they wouldn’t be ready for use until 2020.
The announcement is considered to be a yet another demonstration of power in the Arctic north, the region where there is a growing race for resources. As it was estimated by experts, 40 percent of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves lie under the Arctic.
U.S. concerns over the region come as a response to Russia’s snap full-combat military drills in Russia’s Arctic north last March. The exercise involved 40,000 Russian troops and dozens of warships and submarines.
The drills were seen by the Pentagon as a preparation for more serious actions in the region, with some experts suggesting that it was a preparation for an ‘Ice War’.
Russia is also planning to build something similar to Suez Canal in the Arctic, which Russian President Vladimir Putin would control.
It was back in 2007 when the U.S. took note of Russia’s growing threat in the Arctic, when Putin’s country planted its flag on the seabed under the North Pole for the first time.
U.S. is behind Russia in the Arctic
Having modernized Soviet-era military bases in the Arctic, Russia is actively building a number of search-and-rescue stations along its Arctic shores. The potential in the Arctic is enormous, with vast mineral resources, transportation, fish and sea products, as well as bio-resources, Russia’s economic minister Alexey Ulyukaev said in April.
However, a more exact reason why Russia and other countries are making territorial claims in the Arctic is global warming. As a result of global warming, the Arctic has become more accessible – countries have stepped up their activity in the region, searching for oil and gas fields and establishing new shipping routes, which would reduce sea transit time between continents, as well as routes for extreme tourism.
The U.S. is already behind Russia in the Arctic, due to Moscow’s large-scale works in the region as well as the fact that it has 41 functioning icebreakers (against two of the U.S.), according to the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Russia has one-eighth the gross domestic product of the United States. Clearly the Arctic is a priority for Russia,” Adm. Paul Zukunft said in February during a ‘State of the Coast Guard’ speech. “There’s a new ocean opening. Coast Guard authorities mandate our presence wherever U.S. national interests require people and ships to operate.”
It also does not bode well for the U.S. Army that Washington is cutting military budget and plans to withdraw 3,000 troops from Alaska. Such moves would thus put the U.S. further behind Russia in the Arctic.
Yet another Obama’s failed foreign policy
However, the U.S. is not the only one concerned over Russia’s growing presence in the Arctic. Putin’s annexation of Crimea has put Russia’s neighbors in the Arctic at unease.
Many experts call Russia’s recent claim to expand its territory in the Arctic Ocean as an aggressive ‘land grab’ and a yet another evidence of the Obama administration’s failed foreign policy as well as the establishment of a base for the new Cold War.
However, it’s not only about Barack Obama, it’s also about Vladimir Putin and his attempts to strengthen his power within his country. The level of life in Russia is plummeting, while budget undergoes constant cuts – all thanks to isolation of the country, which Russia brought upon itself after it had annexed Crimea.
That is the reason why the Kremlin has been engaged in confronting the West through various ways, trying to distract attention of Russia’s population from worsening social and economic issues.
However, it is unlikely for Russia to succeed in its territorial claims. Russia is just one of the few Arctic countries that have claimed their rights on territories as well as natural resources in the region.
In December last year, Denmark made a claim in the UN, and it is expected that Canada will do the same soon. The Kremlin made the claim back in 2002, but the UN declined it due to the lack of scientific evidence.
Apart from that, China, on whom Russia counts on, is unlikely to be an economic savior of Russia, which would thus decrease Russia’s chances to develop an effective ‘land grabbing’ campaign in the Arctic.
How can U.S. counter Russia’s Arctic threat?
It must also be noted that Russia’s claims on Arctic territories is just one of the tools in the Kremlin’s arsenal to counter the West. All other Arctic countries are pro-Western and they have been united in imposing sanctions against Russia.
Which is why Arctic territorial claims is a foolproof move for Russia – if the UN approves Russia’s claims, Moscow will see it as a win of Putin’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, if the West declines the claim, Russia will see it as a yet another example of Western efforts to weaken Moscow.
Instead of paying attention to how Russia projects its intentions, the U.S. must focus on efforts to resolve its main task – to become the most powerful Arctic country, and Obama’s Tuesday announcement to speed up the purchase of modern icebreakers could be one of these efforts.