THE BLOG
09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Russia's Other Front

While Russian tanks roll through the streets of Georgia's Gori, there is actually another front on Russia's northern border of crucial geostrategic significance that has so far received little attention in Washington. President Bush is right to demand an immediate end to the looting and shooting in Georgia by Russia, but he should also turn his attention to recent aggressive Russian activity in the opening Arctic.

The stakes there are extraordinary; a just released accounting by the USGS estimates the Arctic contains 22% of the world's undiscovered oil and gas reserves. New Arctic seaways will soon become inter-ocean shortcuts shaving thousands of miles off of longer routes through the Panama and Suez Canals. Similar to Georgia's strategic location between the Black and Caspian Seas, the Arctic links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A resurgent Russian bear is also stretching its claws on its northern frontier. The US would be wise to take notice.

Planting a flag at the North Pole seafloor last summer and claiming nearly half of the Arctic's resources as its own, Russia was hardly subtle in exercising a new muscular foreign policy there. The flag planting antics were shortly followed by a renewal of strategic bomber flights up to North American airspace. Russian naval vessels were just dispatched to the disputed waters off of Norway's Svalbard Islands. In addition to beefing up its military presence, Russia is investing on its northern coast and recently established the Murmansk Port Management Company to oversee $7 billion in port improvements. The Shtokman field in Russia's Barents Sea, containing enough natural gas to provide all of the US' electricity for 6 years, is coming online and will help make the Russian energy giant Gazprom soon the largest company in the world. Russia also owns the world's most prolific Arctic fleet, just last year launching a new nuclear powered ship, the "50 Years Since Victory," the most capable icebreaker ever built.

All this new activity is a response to the drastic changes taking place due to global warming. The ice is melting more than three times faster than IPCC models predicted, losing half its thickness near the North Pole in the last six years alone. Scientists give it a 50/50 chance that in a couple of weeks the North Pole will lose all of its ice cover for the first time ever. The fabled Northwest Passage over Canada opened this month. At the current pace, the Arctic will be totally ice-free in summer by 2013.

Russia is not alone in moving to take advantage of the riches unfolding behind the retreating ice. Norway is attempting to protect its claimed fisheries off of the Svalbard Islands. Greenland is pressing ahead on oil and gas development, in discussions with Alcoa to build a 340,000 ton-a-year aluminum smelter, and this November, will even vote on a Danish supported referendum for self-rule. The Canadians, with 40% of their landmass in the high north, are also taking notice, and in addition to investing in Arctic entreprenureal ventures, Ottawa pledges to beef up its northern defenses. At the end of this month, Prime Minister Harper will even hold a cabinet meeting in the Arctic town of Inuvik, not far from the disputed maritime boundary with the US.

While other countries are responding to this literal sea change, the US has largely been silent on Arctic developments. Although it is unlikely President Bush will hold a cabinet meeting in Alaska's Point Barrow to discuss US strategy on our fourth coast (although such an action would hold huge symbolic importance of the US awaking to the strategic implications of climate change), the US should immediately undertake a three-prong strategy in the rapidly thawing Arctic.

First, the president should make a one last push to finally get the Law of the Sea through the Senate. He, like the two presidents before him - and many other maritime interests including the oil and gas industry, environmentalists, and naval leaders - all strongly support US ratification. Joining this treaty will give us a seat at the table of the Arctic continental shelf carve-up and codify our rights as a maritime power, not just in the Arctic but also along the entirety of America's 95,000 miles of coastline.

Secondly, the US needs to unilaterally update its outdated Arctic policy and shore up its Arctic presence. This should include breathing new life into our decrepit icebreakers. The US Coast Guard operates only three, one of which is "operationally challenged" and broken down at a Seattle pier and its sister ship, decades old and our only remaining heavy icebreaker, limps along on parts cannibalized from the other. Given this equipment shortfall the US has recently been forced to contract with foreign icebreakers; we cannot continue outsourcing our sovereignty. Even if Congress immediately appropriates funds to replace the geriatric ships, they will take years to build.

Lastly, the US needs to invest real diplomacy in the Arctic. This hard spadework is required now to avert future conflict. The combination of new shipping routes, trillions of dollars in possible oil and gas resources, and a poorly defined picture of state ownership is a recipe for trouble. One idea is to empower the Arctic Council by creating a security institution for the A5 (the US, Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark) to manage disputes, perhaps giving other parties such as the EU, indigenous communities and industry a seat in the room. The US should especially look to Canada, our largest trading partner and close ally, to create a North American bloc to counter-balance Russia's Arctic rise. Regardless, new American diplomacy could help weave Russia into a future diplomatic framework for the region, avoiding a potential clash with the energy emboldened Russian bear.

Russia's recent actions in Georgia are a bad omen for its future relations with the west. Russia is a huge "winner" from climate change, and perhaps the future arbiter of Arctic activity. In addition to substantive greenhouse gas emissions mitigation efforts, the US needs to formulate a comprehensive climate change adaptation strategy. Doing so would not be caving in by the national security establishment to weak-kneed environmentalists. It would be a realization of the enormous future strategic implications of the warming planet for hard power. Nowhere will this be more true than in the future Arctic.