- US and Russian officials underscored the importance of cooperation at a recent Arctic Council meeting.
- Their comments came as their countries’ militaries increase activity in the more accessible Arctic.
- That hasn’t precluded other ways to solve disputes, but without dialogue, they may run out of options.
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Russia assumed the Arctic Council chairmanship on May 20, and while the council’s mandate “explicitly excludes military security”, growing military activity in the increasingly accessible region loomed over the summit.
While a thawing Arctic means Russia is losing its northern buffer, it also means economic opportunity, particularly the Northern Sea Route, which Russia says runs through its waters but the US and others say is in international waters.
The US and its NATO allies have also increased their Arctic presence. Their surface ships, including a US aircraft carrier, have returned to the region, and in recent months US submarines have made unusually public appearances in Norway, which has granted the US expanded use of its naval and air bases.
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, told a House Appropriations subcommittee in April that the Navy had done “about 20 different exercises and operations in the high north and the Arctic” over the previous 18 months.
Russia has bristled at that activity, as senior officials made clear in the days before the summit.
Adm. Alexander Moiseyev, head of Russia’s Arctic-based Northern Fleet, told reporters in mid-May that US military assets in Norway have led to an “increase of the conflict potential in the Arctic.”
At May 17 press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected criticism of Russian military activity in the Arctic, calling it “our territory, our land.”
“We are in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe,” Lavrov said. “Everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal. When NATO tries to justify its ‘offensive’ in the Arctic, it’s a slightly different situation.”
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a US Defense Department spokesman, told Insider that the US “does not seek conflict or escalatory actions in the Arctic” and that Russia “is continuing to strengthen” its military presence there.
“Russia claims the right to regulate Arctic waters in excess of the authority permitted under international law,” he said. “The US does not recognize this overstep of authority.”
‘We are starting to press our luck’
The summit itself passed without the fireworks of the 2019 meeting, where then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the region had become “an arena for power and for competition” and referred to a “pattern” of “aggressive behavior” from both Russia and China.
The council, established in 1996, is meant to promote cooperation on issues affecting Arctic countries and communities, and Pompeo’s sharp language shook the meeting.
Speaking ahead of their meeting on the sidelines of the summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US sought “a predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” while Lavrov said, “Our task is to make the best of the diplomatic opportunities we have” – sentiments both echoed in speeches during the summit.
Nonetheless, both officials were repeatedly asked about military tensions in the region.
At a press conference with his Icelandic counterpart, Blinken said their countries had “concerns” about “increased military activities” in the Arctic that have also increased the danger of “accidents” and “miscalculations.”
Lavrov said more than once during the summit that meetings of Arctic countries’ military staffs, halted after Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, should resume so those militaries’ capabilities can “tackle day-to-day matters” such as disaster relief and search-and-rescue operations.
US officials, including Blinken, have rejected that resumption.
“The Arctic meetings with Russia were halted for a reason,” Semelroth told Insider, saying there could be “no return to business as usual in our defense relationship” until Moscow adhered to agreements to end fighting in Ukraine and returned Crimea to Kyiv.
In the days since the council meeting, military activity in and around the Arctic has continued.
On May 20, NATO forces began the first phase of Steadfast Defender, an exercise focused on transatlantic reinforcement. It is taking place off of Portugal but is influenced by events farther north.
“My interest is … throughout the Atlantic but also up into the Arctic, and if you understand the geography through the [Greenland, Iceland, UK] Gap … into the Arctic and all the changes that are going forward with the Arctic, there is quite a sense of urgency,” Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, commander of the exercise and of the US Navy’s 2nd Fleet, told Insider during a briefing for the exercise.
NATO exercise Formidable Shield also began last week, taking place off of Scotland before moving to Andoya Space Defense Range in the Norwegian Arctic.
Officials involved in Formidable Shield described it as “the most complex” air- and missile-defense exercise “ever conducted at sea” but stressed that it wasn’t directed at an individual threat.
Russia has a longstanding concern about aerospace defense but is likely less concerned about Formidable Shield than about “manpower intensive” exercises like Trident Juncture, which involved a US aircraft carrier strike group operating off of Norway’s coast in 2018, or “the much larger sorties” by NATO navies into its “near sea zone” in the Barents Sea, said Michael Kofman, senior research scientist in the Russia Studies Program at the CNA think tank.
Speaking to lawmakers last month, Gilday said the Navy had just concluded “a four-month anti-submarine-warfare operation” with “key partners in the north” and has more planned.
“We are on the cusp of two more exercises, one in the high north and the Norwegian Sea with an amphibious ready group … along with a carrier strike group, if we can get it up there,” Gilday said.
Russia’s military presence in the Arctic hasn’t risen to Soviet-era levels but it is increasing.
Moiseyev said last week that the Northern Fleet will conduct sea trials on 13 new ships this year, which will join the roughly 50 it has in service. The fleet recently practiced hunting submarines and “underwater saboteurs” in the Barents Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that threats around the world, “including in the immediate vicinity of our borders,” continue to demand “constant high combat readiness” by Russia’s military.
US and Russian officials say their countries can cooperate on issues of mutual concern in the Arctic, and the current military dimension there “does not limit the ability to productively work towards solutions to other challenges the region faces,” such as climate change, said Marisol Maddox, an Arctic analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank.
“However, we are starting to press our luck by increasing military operations without having sufficient dialogue with Russia about military matters so as to reduce risk in the event of a misinterpretation or accident,” Maddox said.