Russia’s military dominance over Arctic grows while US treads water, security experts tell Senate panel

Three icebreakers: Russia’s Yamal, Canada’s Louis St. Laurent and the U.S. Coast Guard’s Polar Sea, in 1994. The Polar Sea has been inoperable for a decade, leaving the U.S. with just one heavy ice breaker. Photo by Steve Wheeler/USCG

WASHINGTON – Russia and China stepped up their game in the Arctic this year while the United States is just waking to the strategic power competition in the region.

That’s what Heather Conley, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and other witnesses told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday. Conley said perhaps the year’s most troubling news was about Russian missiles.

“Four days ago, the announcement by the Russian military (was) that they are placing S400s at each of their military units across the Russian Arctic, calling it a de facto anti-missile dome,” Conley said. “So today we are already potentially losing access to the Arctic because of Russia’s growing military footprint.”

Congress has finally agreed to allow the Coast Guard to begin building six new icebreakers, after a decade of talking about it. Conley said Congress needs to fund an ongoing Arctic initiative so it doesn’t wait another decade to build other necessities, like an Arctic port.

Conley says Russia and China are able to assert themselves in the Arctic now because they committed to their strategic initiatives years ago.

“We continue to believe that we can just hold this minimalist position, do the bare minimum, and it’s going to be OK, and I want to challenge that notion,” Conley said.

Sherri Goodman, a senior strategist at the Center for Climate and Security, said Russia is increasing its control over the Northern Sea Route and becoming more aggressive with U.S. allies in the Arctic.

“Just last month, Russia tested a hyper-sonic missile for the first time in the Arctic and plans to launch their first weaponized icebreaker by 2023,” Goodman said.

Showing how far America lags behind, Sen. Dan Sullivan asked the hearing witnesses if the United States is able to assert its presence to counter foreign overreach in Arctic waters.

“Does the U.S. military have the capability to do a freedom of navigation operation in the Arctic?” he asked.

The U.S. conducts freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, by sailing in international waters to assert its rights and counter any disputed territorial claims.

Conley answered definitively: “No, neither the Navy nor the Coast Guard could do a freedom of navigation operation in the Arctic today.”

No one disagreed.

The hearing was in the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Security, which Sullivan chairs.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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