The race for the Arctic’s vast natural resources is on, but political tensions between Russia and the U.S. could complicate things, according to Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Murkowski said political tensions between the former Cold War nemeses could make things difficult when the multinational Arctic council meets in about eight days. The U.S. is set to lead the council this year as Russia continues beefing up of its military presence in the North Pole.
“I do think there are opportunities where we can be working together,” Murkowski told an audience Friday at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“I’m also very cautious in recognizing that the political tensions [between Russia and the U.S.] perhaps erode a little bit of the desire for greater reliance and cooperation,” Murkowski added.
“All the other Arctic nations have been very willing to work with us,” she said, adding that Russia has been “closed” when it comes to working with the U.S.
Murkowski comments amid news reports of Russia holding massive war games in the Arctic and reopening Soviet-era air bases in a bid to solidify their control over portions of the North Pole. These war games were announced as NATO troops were preparing military exercises in Eastern Europe with former Soviet satellite countries.
Russia has even said it plans on building a “self-sufficient” Arctic military force by 2018. Justifying the build-up, Russian defense minister said “threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities.” He added that “[s]pecial attention must be paid to newly created strategic formations in the north.”
The senator’s concern of Russian aggression in the Arctic is nothing new. Military experts have been warning for some time that Russia is up to something in the Arctic.
“A chill has returned,” Heather Conley, senior vice president for Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Washington Post. “It’s not a full blown Cold War but we are starting to see some new and troubling signs of Russian aggression.”
“Immediately following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and in the subsequent months, we’ve seen a real uptick in Russian air incursions and maritime incursions,” Conley said.
“Yes, nations periodically perform exercises and test things. That’s normal. But the numbers that we have seen just in this 12-month period [are not normal],” she warned. “Some of the air incursions have doubled. They are coming into airspace, or coming extremely close to airspace.”
Could this mean an annexation of the Arctic? It’s unclear, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has been eyeing the region for some time because of its vast resource potential. Analysts have estimated there are billions of barrels of oil and natural gas off Siberia’s northern coast along with minerals.
But could Putin try and exert control over resources held by Greenland or Norway? Conley notes Russian aircraft have been harassing air forces in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Finland has also worried it could be a target for another Crimea-like annexation.
“I think we need a more robust assessment of Russia’s capabilities, modernization and intent in the Arctic,” Conley said. “And we need to send some very clear messages privately and publicly to the Kremlin that we all want the Arctic to remain a place of international cooperation.”