Why the U.S. still has no Arctic ambassador, a year after this Alaskan was nominated for the job

Mike Sfraga, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission and a scientist with experience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. (U.S. Arctic Research Commission)

Michael Sfraga, an Arctic policy expert from Fairbanks, is President Biden’s nominee to be the nation’s first Arctic ambassador. But a year after he was named, he remains unconfirmed.

The reason for the hold-up became clear at a hearing last week: Republicans say he’s too close to America’s adversaries.

“Mr. Sfraga traveled extensively to Russia and China, and negotiated multiple MOUs (memoranda of understanding) with Chinese institutions tied to the government defense and intelligence services, and appeared on a panel — appeared on a panel! — with Russians who were sanctioned by the United States government,” said the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. James Risch of Idaho, to explain why he’s placing a hold on Sfraga’s confirmation.

Sfraga didn’t respond to interview requests this week. At the hearing, he fended off accusations about his engagements with Russia, and his roughly 200 conference presentations and publications.

“It’s hard to ignore half of the Arctic, which is Russia, and in the North, it is a big neighborhood, but a small community, and you must engage,” Sfraga said. “And indeed, at one of those conferences, President Putin did provide a keynote address, but I had no interaction with President Putin at all.”

A White House official says Sfraga never served on a panel with Russians who were under U.S. sanctions at the time.

Sfraga is one of five State Department nominees that Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee are blocking. He’s been affiliated with UAF for many years and is the chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

The saying around the Arctic Council and other multinational confabs used to be that the Arctic “is a zone of peace.” Some of Sfraga’s writings reflect that stance. But as Russia became more aggressive in Europe, Sfraga sounded more wary of the country.

Consider this video from 2021, when Sfraga led the polar program at the Wilson Center, a D.C. think tank:

TRANSCRIPT: “If both nations, especially the United States, are looking for places to actually cooperate with the Russians like we do in the international space station and trying to find a path towards some amount of productive engagement, I would argue that the Arctic may provide for us at least a few of those pathways to a more predictable and stable relationship between these two countries.”

That was after Russia annexed Crimea but before its war with Ukraine.

At the Senate hearing, Sfraga said Arctic geopolitics are undergoing profound change.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine has rendered cooperation virtually impossible with Russia, including in the Arctic,” he said. “The PRC (China) is attempting to reshape the global aid rules based system in its favor, and increasingly working with Moscow to elevate and advance its presence and its influence in the Arctic in ways that threaten our interests.”

Sfraga, said if confirmed, he’d work to rein in the Arctic ambitions of Russia and the People’s Republic of China.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski recommended Sfraga to the Biden administration and she defended him to the committee.

“If there is any challenge that you have as a committee, it’s that his expertise in the Arctic is so voluminous,” she said. “It takes a while to wade through all of it.”

Among the Republican accusations against Sfraga is that the list he gave the committee of his international trips and presentations was incomplete and he had to amend it three times. His defenders say that’s normal.

Murkowski tried to light a fire under the committee. She said the U.S. is the only Arctic country without a regional ambassador.

“Even some of the non-Arctic countries, like Singapore, have an Arctic ambassador,” she said. “We need this position because we need to elevate our diplomacy to the region to show that we’re not just an indifferent bystander, but we’re an active and we’re a strategic leader in the Arctic.”

Risch sounded unmoved.

“I continue to strongly oppose this nomination, and it’s unfortunate we have him here today,” he said.

Just one senator can block a confirmation vote for weeks, so Sfraga’s nomination is in limbo, still stuck in committee.

Alaska Public Media

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