Russia Aggressively Seizes Power In the Arctic

American Tern and Russian Icebreakers
Start of oil shipping operations at Vorota Arktiki
Start of oil shipping operations at Vorota Arktiki
Vladimir Putin launched, via videoconference, the loading of the first tanker with oil from the Novoportovskoye field at the new Vorota Arktiki (Arctic Gate) terminal.

| Photo: James Faddis | Arctic, Russia, Climate Change, China, Global Warming,

Melting Ice Opens Up New Sea Routes

Powerful political players in Washington doubt or actively resist the evidence of climate change. They believe that premature actions could damage business, especially for petroleum and heavy industry, kill jobs, and lower corporate profits. It might, however, but ignoring the evidence for climate change could also create enormous economic and political costs.

Warming of the Arctic is a frequently cited consequence of climate change. Between 10% and 20% of Arctic ice has melted. New models indicate that the loss of ice is accelerating. Of course, any discussion about melting Arctic ice usually leads to a picture of a starving polar bear floating on a solitary chunk of ice, in the middle of the ocean. I don't want to belittle very real environmental issues, but today we will focus on money rather than memes.

What Lies Below

If it wasn't frozen, the Arctic would be the world's most expensive property. The frozen and very inhospitable far north has been too difficult to exploit, leaving vast amounts of unexploited oil, natural gas, gold, and other resources, but if the temperature rises and permafrost melts, suddenly those riches are accessible.


The Panama Canal is the most efficient route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and back. But now the Canal will compete with Arctic sea routes. As the Arctic melts, sea routes will be navigable for more months of the year.

The Panama Canal has very strict size limits for ships. This "Panamax" size is a critical element when designing ever larger container ships. Arctic sea routes have no such limits. As the earth continues to heat up, more sea lanes will be ice-free all year round. When the ice does close in, a specialized ship keeps the route clear. 

Thin Ice

Icebreakers travel in front of a cargo ship and uses its tough hull to plow a path through frozen waters. The ship behind the icebreaker travels through this open water. The United States Coast Guard has just 3 small icebreakers to patrol the Arctic.

While the US military outspends the next 10 countries combined, Russia has a far larger icebreaker fleet. Russia has 33 conventionally powered icebreakers, with 4 more under construction. Plus 26 non-dedicated icebreakers (patrol and rescue ships), with 5 more under construction. Finally, they have FOUR NUCLEAR ICEBREAKERS (2 more under construction). That's 63 Rusian icebreakers to America's 3. If America plans to rebuild our military, we can start with the yawning gap in the Coast Guard's icebreaker fleet.


Nations that border the Arctic are considered the "owners", at least of the near shores of the Arctic. Further inland, there are competing claims. As the battle for the Arctic heats up, the least developed regions will yield the greatest riches. The next big find in the Arctic will almost surely be in disputed territory. Expect Russia to make extraordinary claims, and back those claims with its military.

Now, consider the MIR1 and MIR2. In 2007, these two Russian research submarines traveled deep into the Arctic and dove to a depth of 4,300 meters. They collected seabed samples from the Lomonosov Ridge, and... planted a titanium Russian flag. It's been some time since nations planted flags on foreign soil. But soon after, Russia appeared in the United Nations to argue their rights to this (and other) Arctic territory.


Interestingly, China has make some rather "iffy" claims to the Arctic. They claim that as a "near Arctic" nation, they should be involved in all future development. As best as I can tell, the nearest Chinese territory is 1,000 miles from the Arctic.

For those familiar with the nine dashes map of the South China Sea, a WWII era map of highly questionable origin, dubious claims to sea routes may sound familiar. This is where the Chinese have turned sandbars into Islands (complete with military airfields), to solidify their claims. Given how important shipping is to the Chinese economy,  we can expect virtually any claims to suddenly arise. Especially if China loses control over the South China Sea.

Then there is China's "One Band, One Road initiative", the world's largest transportation project, estimated to cost $9 trillion and link together 60 nations.  China calls it the "New Silk Road", which will bring goods and foreign investments from around the world. One of those 60 nations is Russia... the nation with the most Arctic sea coast. Russia and China will work together to develop the Far North, creating a formidable combination of economic and political power.


In America, we are barely aware of the conflict in the Arctic. Yet, Russia has been building out its capabilities throughout the Arctic. Norway has been reporting on Russia's military buildup across the Arctic. As the most northern member of NATO, when Russia tests Norway, it may be testing the resolve of all of NATO. Norway is also keenly aware of how Russia has crossed into border nations like Georgia, Ukraine, and Estonia to demonstrate that they are still a world power.

Finland, another Russian (and Arctic) border nation, is scheduled to become a NATO member in 2025. However, Vladimir Putin has stated that this is unacceptable to Russia. Since WWII, Finland has had an agreement with Russia to never be critical of their policies. They are often reminded that Helsinki is closer to Moscow than Moscow is to the Crimea. And Putin was very comfortable with exerting control over Crimea when he felt threatened.

What's Next? 

The U.S. Arctic Research Commission was created to study the Arctic, but its mission is scientific, not economic, military or political. If we look at the Arctic Commission's website, we can see on the homepage... a very thin polar bear on a chunk of ice, in the middle of the sea.

Their research is useful, but this is not the organization that can combat the threat of Russian and Chinese aggression or develop our Arctic policies. We don't need to match Russia's icebreaker fleet ship for ship, but we should have at least as many icebreakers as... Canada (10)?

As Arctic waters warm, mining, fishing and military activity on Arctic routes will skyrocket. With woefully little capacity to protect its interests and few politicians in Washington who even realize we need an Arctic policy, America is about to be frozen out of the richest lands left on earth.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:27 PM EST | More details


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