Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Russia From My House

By Chris Philips, Managing Editor

Comedienne Tina Fey, impersonating then-governor Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, said “I can see Russia from my house.” As a line, it’s a pretty good one, and got her the well-deserved laugh. As an observation on US Arctic policy, it’s not so funny.

The country’s national strategy for the Arctic includes a promise to keep the Arctic region peaceful, stable and free of conflict, but consists mostly of concerns over global warming and efforts to safeguard the world’s climate and fragile ecosystems. US policy further pledges to “…intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed.”

Those of us engaged in trade along the Pacific and Arctic coasts can certainly attest to the need to “intelligently evolve” our Arctic infrastructure, and that idea seems to have bipartisan support from our lawmakers, but so far no hard plans or funding.

Our neighbor to the immediate north, also an Arctic power, is actively engaged in a national shipbuilding effort, which includes a heavy-duty icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker. That ship will be built by Seaspan/Vancouver Shipyards and is expected to be delivered in 2017 for a current price tag of C$1.3 billion.

Meanwhile, our Arctic neighbors across the Pacific aren’t letting the grass grow under their feet, but are actively engaged in Arctic infrastructure development of a different sort.

In March, the Barents Observer reported that Russia had dropped 350 paratroopers over a Siberian island in a show of strength in Arctic conditions. The soldiers, dressed in new, specially designed 7-layer military gear, landed on the island after having undergone an Arctic survival training program.

According to the Observer, the Russian Northern Fleet reopened a shuttered airfield on the northern island in 2013, which included the involvement of three Navy vessels, including the Pyotr Veliky missile cruiser, seven support vessels and four nuclear-powered icebreakers (Russia currently has nine). The story says the newly reopened base will protect offshore oil and gas resources in the region and keep an eye on the growing number of ships sailing along the Northern Sea Route.

Two weeks later, the Barents Observer announced more Russian strategic Arctic military exercises to come in late 2014. The following paragraph from the story deserves to be printed in its entirety:
“Russia has over the last few years strengthened its military presence in the western part of the Arctic. New strategic submarines of the Borey-class were based in Gadzhiyevo naval base on the Kola Peninsula some few months ago. Many more submarines, including multi-purpose subs, are under construction and will be based close to neighboring Norway on the coast of the Barents Sea. The Northern fleet’s sailing along the Northern Sea route included the navy’s nuclear powered battle cruiser Pyotr Veliky last fall and Russian strategic bombers resumed flights both in the Arctic and along Norway’s northern coast a few years back and are now nearly a weekly recurrence.” (Barents Observer, March 28, 2014).

In mid-April, a television moderator for a Russian question and answer show asked Vladimir Putin if he was planning on invading Alaska, and joked that people were calling it “Ice Crimea.” The Russian leader joked that he wouldn’t want it (he also said that about Crimea), and besides, he’d have to pay Russian employees extra to live there.

For the time being, Mr. Putin is too busy in the Ukraine to be distracted by Alaska, but he’ll be holding exercises in the Arctic this fall, and will have a pretty big fleet stationed in Siberia by this time next year. Meanwhile, we’ll try to find the money to reactivate the icebreaker Polar Sea, talk some more about the possibility of developing a new icebreaker program, and hope the former Soviet satellites keep Russian-president-for-life Vladimir Putin busy for a few more years.