As the COVID-19 pandemic distracts much of the world, Russia and China are brazenly encroaching on the melting Arctic. Once-frozen waters are now becoming sea lanes and potential attack routes, creating dramatic new security dangers for North America.
In April, Russian Spetsnaz special forces troops conducted an impressive, high-altitude parachute drop and mock airborne raid on a Russian Arctic island.
Russia has also reopened abandoned Soviet-era military installations, built new military bases and icebreakers, increased troop presence and military drills, and established advanced radar stations in its territory above the Arctic Circle.
Other than Russia, only the United States and Canada have such direct and vital strategic interests in the Arctic. The North American neighbors should overcome minor squabbles and work together to defend this rapidly changing strategic region.
Five other Western countries border on the north polar region to lesser degrees: Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (the last representing Greenland and the Faroe Islands). They too have clear interests in the region.
The combined eight countries comprise the Arctic Council, the international forum intended to manage Arctic issues.
While five Arctic Council states are members of NATO—which should take a much stronger transatlantic leadership role in Arctic defense—in 2021, the Russian Federation will take over the council’s rotating presidency for two years, increasing Russian influence there at a pivotal time.
The United States and Canada have a history of joint defense of North America, having worked together since the 1950s in the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). This proven model should also serve as the framework for working together to defend the Arctic.
Writing in the National Interest, analyst Patricia Shouker says Russia has one ambition: “to reconquer the Arctic.” As part of this goal, the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2019 stood up its first “unified strategic command of the North.”
NORAD’s commander, Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, recently highlighted the need to modernize its aging Cold War–era missile early warning system, cautioning that the United States and Canada have lost their long-standing Arctic military advantage to Russia.
The general also raised concerns over signs of China’s “nascent but growing strategic cooperation” with Russia that included combined bomber patrols this past July. Though China has now begun operating in the polar region, calling itself a “Near Arctic State,” this term is unrecognized by U.S. or international law.
China’s aggressive push and cooperation with Russia, however, only add urgency to the threat. Thankfully, both the United States and Canada have published recent defense plans to deal with the newly changing Arctic domain.
In the United States, the Pentagon and Coast Guard released new Arctic strategies in 2019, while Canada’s military outlined its own Arctic plan in the 2017 “Strong, Secure and Engaged” (SSE) defense policy.
Despite occasionally contentious political rhetoric between Washington and Ottawa—especially regarding access to Arctic resources and freedom of navigation through Canada’s Northwest Passage—there is far more in common than different in the two nations’ actual Arctic strategies.
All three list strengthening the “rules-based order” as an Arctic strategic priority. All also agree on the primacy of the Russian threat, and the emerging Chinese danger to the Arctic.
Considering these shared views and the long history of joint North American defense, the United States and Canada should strive to cooperate as much as possible to protect their shared interests in the Arctic.
But what is the Canadian-U.S. squabble over the Northwest Passage? Canada claims the passage is within Canada’s territorial waters because it runs between Canadian islands. The United States sees it as a shared international jurisdiction.
Behind closed doors, Canadian policymakers say they believe the U.S. claim is intended to avoid setting the precedent, even with a close ally such as Canada, that a major international sea lane could be choked off by countries simply because they have land nearby.
Most also believe the U.S. position should not create a division between the neighbors and that Arctic defense cooperation can be achieved even with this issue unresolved.
One way forward could be joint U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard patrols through the Northwest passage. However, this would require that Canada and the United States maintain their decades-old “gentleman’s agreement” to leave the issue of these disputed Arctic waters unresolved, an agreement that has frayed recently. Joint military Arctic training and deployments also would be key.
Another area of cooperation could be joint ventures between U.S. and Canadian shipbuilders to build more ice breakers for the U.S. Coast Guard. This is critically needed expertise that U.S. shipyards and builders have not maintained.
Strengthening shared values and interests between the United States and Canada should take precedence over relatively minor discord, especially in the face of growing Russian and Chinese threats to the Arctic.