U.S. experts call for ‘vigilance’ on Russian military buildup in Arctic

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Experts said the U.S. needs to be aware of Russia’s rising military presence in the Arctic, at the Senate Arctic roundtable, last week. (iStock)
Moscow has been building its military presence in the Arctic and one Russia scholar says she’s grown increasingly concerned. While Russia’s Arctic ambitions worry regional experts, so do the lack of ambitions on the part of the United States.

Heather Conley is Europe program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She brought satellite photos to a forum at the U.S. Senate, to show a remote Russian island, three hundred miles from Alaska’s northwest coast.

“You’re seeing the images of a new naval base on Wrangel Island,” she told the senators, “and you’re looking at pictures of the Sopka-2 radar installation.”

Conley, a State Department official, in the George W. Bush administration, said it’s just one of the ways Russia has expanded its military footprint in the high North. Russian submarines are also more active, which she called “Cold War-esque.”

“What we’ve seen over the last several years is runway extensions that can take MiGs that could carry both conventional and potentially nuclear capable missiles. We’re seeing special forces,” Conley said. “That is not search and rescue. That is not for what I would say for their economic ambitions in the Arctic.”

The Arctic is sometimes called a zone of peace and cooperation, but Conley said Russia has shown in recent years that it’s willing to use military force to achieve political objectives.

“The exercises, the advanced weaponry that Russia is introducing into the Arctic is not necessarily compatible, I would argue with a zone of peace,” she said. “So, vigilance. I am not worried. I have great confidence. But we need to have our eyes wide open.”

And, Conley said, the U.S. needs to “up its game” on its northern border.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska, hosted an Arctic round-table in the Senate Energy Committee room. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)
Russia reclaims ‘Arctic heritage’

Malte Humpert at the Arctic Institute shares many of Conley’s concerns, but he said Alaskans shouldn’t worry about imminent attack. Humpert said the military buildup is in part about domestic politics for President Putin.

“Russian leadership wants to project a strong image of, you know, Russia reclaiming its Arctic heritage,” he said.

Russia views the Arctic Ocean as key to asserting power in the world, Humpert said. So does China. And the U.S., Humpert said, is essentially giving Russia the upper hand.

“The Arctic Ocean is really the only ocean in the world where the Navy’s capabilities, the U.S.’s Navy’s capabilities, lack behind what the Russians have,” he said.

At the Senate Arctic roundtable, several participants said America needs clear Arctic strategies, in diplomacy, science and security. And they wished for one official whose sole job was to pursue them.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Canada’s defence minister says military upgrades part of plan to strengthen Arctic sovereignty, CBC News

Finland: Finnish Defence Minister tells party leaders shrinking fighter fleet would be “irresponsible”, Yle News

Norway: NATO’s Arctic dilemma: Two visions of the Arctic collide as NATO and Russia flex muscles, Eye on the Arctic special report

Russia: Russia’s new Arctic naval base built in 6 months, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Faced with Trump’s wavering support for NATO, Nordic nations stick together, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Climate change a threat to bases across the U.S., Defense Dept. says, Alaska Public Media

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Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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