The Slatest

Obama’s Alaska Trip Isn’t Just About Climate Change. It’s Also About Russia.

He can see Obama from his house: Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Arctic cosmodrome in Plesetsk in 2004.

Photo by Maxim Marmur/AFP/Getty Images

Most of President Obama’s trip to the Arctic this week is about highlighting his administration’s agenda on climate change (flawed as it may be), but it’s also about a geopolitics. The Arctic has emerged as a potentially dangerous new area of competition with Russia.

The president proposed funding today for new icebreaker ships for the Coast Guard to navigate in frozen Arctic waters, noting that the U.S. has only three icebreakers in its fleet while Russia has 40, with an additional 11 planned. The announcement highlighted the growing sense that, as a lengthy New York Times feature put it, the U.S. is “playing catch-up with Russia in [the] scramble for the Arctic.”

A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies highlighted Russia’s military buildup in the region, which has included the reopening of 50 previously shuttered Soviet-era military bases. In March, Russia conducted military exercises in the Arctic involving 45,000 troops, 15 submarines, and 41 warships. The Arctic has also been the site of recent incursions by Russian jets into or near NATO airspace. Most importantly, Russia submitted a sovereignty claim to the United Nations in March for a 46,000-square-mile area of Arctic territory, including the North Pole, making official the position it staked back in 2007 when a submersible dramatically planted a Russian flag on the Arctic seabed.

Russia’s newfound interest in the Arctic, which has been compared to the “Red Arctic” development push of the Stalin era, is closely related to the rapid environmental changes taking place in the region. The retreating sea ice opens up new shipping routes between Western Russia and Asia, as well as opportunities to drill for oil, natural gas, and minerals on the newly accessible Arctic seabed. While the Russian government has submitted a plan to reduce carbon emissions ahead of the U.N. Conference on climate change in December, it also likely sees the melting of the Arctic as an opportunity as much as a crisis. Russia notably declined to sign on to a statement on reducing the effects of climate change in the Arctic presented by Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry at an international summit in Anchorage this week, with RT noting that the “upcoming environmental deal brings additional costs to the oil and gas extraction industries.”

The Russian government has vowed that it’s willing to use military force if necessary to protect its Arctic interests, though so far the only semi-violent confrontation has been with the group of Greenpeace activists who scaled an oil platform in 2013. But there’s certainly potential for more conflict. Russia’s Arctic claim, the North Pole in particular, overlaps with area that Canada plans to claim. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is under increasing pressure to respond to Russia’s recent moves and is also moving military resources to the area. Denmark, an Arctic nation thanks to its administration of Greenland, and Norway both have significant Arctic claims as well. Russia’s military exercises in March were partly in response to Norway’s own “Joint Viking” drills involving 5,000 military personnel.

So far, the good news is that despite the military buildup, all parties are calling dibs through legal means, filing territorial claims under the Law of the Sea Treaty to the United Nations, which will adjudicate them, likely several years from now, based on somewhat arbitrary geological criteria.

The U.S., however, is not really in that contest. The United States is an Arctic nation thanks to its decision to purchase Alaska from Russia nearly 150 years ago, but today it’s handicapped in its ability to solidify or expand its territorial claims in the region: Thanks to congressional opposition to almost every international agreement and particularly those involving the U.N., the U.S. has not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty and can’t stake Arctic territorial claims of its own.

Despite Obama’s environmental goals, the U.S. does have interests in Arctic energy resources, as shown by the recent decision to allow Shell to begin drilling off Alaska. More broadly, the U.S. wants to ensure freedom of navigation in newly accessible Arctic waters, contain Russia’s territorial ambitions, and prevent armed conflict on the roof of the world. Doing something to keep the whole place from melting into the sea might also be nice, though whether that’s also a priority will depend on who wins in 2016.