Russia Expands Arctic Influence as U.S. Military Rushes to Meet Challenge

Russia has set a new record for the number of maritime trips passing along its Northern Sea Route through the Arctic Circle, where melting sea ice—a result of manmade global warming—has set off a new strategic contest between the world's largest military powers.

Reuters reported this week that there were 62 transits through the Northern Sea Route—controlled by Russia and central to the Kremlin's regional ambitions—this year up to December 9, compared with 37 transits in 2019. The data came from the Centre for High North Logistics at Norway's Nord University Business School.

The new record comes as lawmakers push the U.S. military to make its troops Arctic-ready, and as President-Elect Joe Biden prepares to take office and face a belligerent Russia that loomed over his two terms as vice president in President Barack Obama's administration.

CHNL data showed that faster than expected ice melt facilitated this year's record, with 331 vessels in the year to date using the route compared with 277 for all of 2019. Sergey Balmasov told Reuters: "This year is considered to be the highest number of the full transit voyages... We see favorable ice conditions in this navigation season as one of the reasons for the growth."

Increased trade in commodities is currently the main driver behind increasing Arctic activity. Shipments of liquified natural gas, iron ore and oil are particularly important. This has raised concerns that increased shipping will damage the Arctic ecosystem, even with a United Nations ban on the use of heavy fuel oil in the region.

The U.S., Russia and China are all among the nations keen to expand influence in the Arctic, and secure access to trillions of dollars worth of untapped oil, natural gas and other resources. The military and strategic elements of Arctic presence are also important, and none of these three nations want to lose the edge to their rivals.

Russia and the U.S. are part of the Arctic Council, along with Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. China is not, but has declared itself a "near-Arctic" state in a bid to press its interests on the region. President Donald Trump said last year he would not allow China to gain a foothold in the Arctic.

Moscow is seen to be leading the race for influence in the Arctic, helped by the fact that almost half of all Arctic coastline is in Russian territory. President Vladimir Putin is pushing ahead with investment to establish new military bases and infrastructure in the country's far north in support of Moscow's Arctic goals.

The Northern Sea Route is central to the Kremlin's strategy. Putin has said he wants to quadruple annual shipments on the route from 20 million metric tons in 2018 to 80 million tons in 2024.

Ice breakers are vital in the Arctic, used to open up frozen sea lanes for commercial or military shipping. Russia is also ahead in this field, with more than 40 operational icebreakers compared to America's two—one of which is not in operation. By 2035, Putin wants Russia to be operating at least 13 heavy-duty icebreakers of which nine will be nuclear-powered.

The U.S. is investing to catch up but is struggling to close the gap. The Polar Security Cutter program will expand America's icebreaker fleet, but so far funds have only been secured for one additional vessel. Eventually the plan aims to procure three heavy and three medium vessels, which while marking a significant expansion in capability still leaves the U.S. far behind Russia.

These vessels will all also be diesel-electric powered, whereas Russia plans to float multiple nuclear powered ships. Observers have also criticized Washington's choice to base the PSC design on the German RV Polarstern rather than creating its own.

Lawmakers are also pushing the Pentagon to better outfit the U.S. Army, making it ready for expanded Arctic operations. The fiscal 2021 defense spending bill released on November 10 called on Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy "to pursue equipment and vehicles necessary for Arctic and cold weather environments."

The Senate Appropriations Committee defense subpanel moved to add $8.25 million to Trump's 2021 defense budget request to cover a family of cold weather vehicles, Defense News reported.

Meanwhile, troops are training to operate in the cold and inhospitable Arctic circle. This year, the Pentagon released a series of Arctic combat strategy documents detailing how it will meet the challenge, while U.S. Marine Corps units conducted the Exercise Reindeer II Arctic combat training drills alongside Norwegian allies.

A battalion of the 6th Marine Regiment will return to Norway in January for a follow-on deployment consisting of around 1,000 Marines and sailors, the National Interest reported.

Russia ice breaker arctic competition US nuclear
This file photo shows Russia's nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika in Saint Petersburg on September 22 before its maiden voyage to its future home port of Murmansk in northwestern Russia. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images/Getty