Calls for ‘vigilance’ on Russian military buildup in Arctic

Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted an Arctic round-table in the Senate Energy Committee room on Jan. 24, 2019. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski hosted an Arctic round-table in the Senate Energy Committee room on Jan. 24, 2019. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

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.

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.

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