Arctic may be next frontier for Russia

The world’s next hot spot theoretically could be its coldest. Atop the globe, the Arctic expanse is a new frontier for the United States and friends to fortify against an aggressive, ambitious Russia.

The West used to rely on the polar cap as a trusty, ice-covered moat to keep the Russians at bay. But climate change is slowly melting that cap. As ice sheets shrink, Russia’s assertiveness in the Arctic grows. Moscow has reopened military bases in its Arctic regions that closed down when the Cold War ended, The New York Times recently reported. Russia has ramped up its fleet of icebreaker ships, and has Arctic-based anti-ship missile launchers and air defense systems at the ready.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said he isn’t done beefing up Russia’s presence in the Arctic, announcing a plan to establish new ports along the northern coastline and build more icebreakers.

So a very different “Cold War” is brewing where only polar bears, narwhals and walruses venture. It’s not just a tussle over ice floes. It is believed that at least a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas is locked underneath the Arctic Ocean. And as Arctic ice melts, those new sources of energy will be ripe for exploration, and new shipping lanes will become accessible.

Putin has known this for some time, which is why, in 2007, the Kremlin sent a couple of submersibles to the seabed underneath the North Pole to plant a titanium Russian flag and claim the Pole in the name of Mother Russia. At the time, it was derided as a stunt. Today, Russia’s growing military presence in the Arctic is a concern.

The U.S. and its allies cannot afford to cede the Arctic to the Kremlin. NATO recently conducted military exercises in northern Canada aimed at training alliance troops to deploy and fight in extreme cold. Troops from Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland and France took part — the U.S. sent observers. The troops made igloos, fought off frostbite and snowmobiled in minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not that we should expect something like a sequel to “Ice Station Zebra” breaking out anytime soon. But if the U.S. has learned anything in the time that Putin has ruled over Russia, it’s that Washington cannot let its guard down while the ex-KGB spy’s in power. Crimea, Syria, assassinations, U.S. presidential election meddling — the Putin-led Kremlin’s list of gambits is long. Putin relishes the prospect of a dominant presence in the Arctic: a day when the region’s energy wealth and strategic value are firmly in Russia’s grasp.

Fortunately, the U.S. has been thinking about this. The Pentagon’s strategy includes ramping up the number of fighter jets stationed in Alaska, conducting more extreme-cold training for troops and upgrading its military radar network on the Aleutian Islands. “Certainly America’s got to up its game in the Arctic. There’s no doubt about that,” Jim Mattis told reporters in Alaska last summer when he was still Defense secretary.

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Mattis was right. Global warming is setting up the day when the Arctic becomes a shipping superhighway, and reveals the world’s next trove of natural resources wealth. The last thing the U.S. and its allies want to see is an Arctic expanse studded with Russian flags.

— Chicago Tribune

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