Adm. James G. Stavridis, USN, commander, U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied commander, speaks during the launch of
the book “Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans” at National Defense University Photo by Rachel Larue.
By James Stavridis (Bloomberg) In the classic Cold War novel (and fine 1965 film) “The Bedford Incident,” a U.S. destroyer on a NATO mission tangles with a Soviet submarine in the frigid waters near the Arctic Circle. Mayhem ensues in a tautly described set of interactions that lead the world to the brink of nuclear war....MORE
Today, as we watch U.S. and Russia continue to confront each other around the world — from Syria to Ukraine to the cyber sphere — the High North is no exception. “Our goal is to make it a truly global and competitive transport route,” Putin said of the Arctic in a March address to the Russian Federal Assembly. China may also be getting into the game: President Xi Jinping recently met with Putin to discuss a collaborating on a kind of “frozen Silk Road.”Clearly, the Arctic is dangerously close to becoming a zone of conflict. How can we achieve what our Canadian allies wistfully call “high north but low tension”?
Let’s begin with the geopolitics, which are tailor-made for competition. Russia enjoys the largest “front porch” along the Arctic Ocean. Across the ice are five NATO nations: Canada, Denmark (by virtue of its Greenland territory), Iceland, Norway and the U.S. Two other very close European friends of the alliance, Sweden and Finland, also have territory abutting the Arctic.
On the NATO side, there are a variety of views as to how to regard the Arctic. Several years ago, as the alliance’s military commander, I was struck by the differing positions among the allies as to NATO’s role in the north — from Canada believing it should avoid any militarization to Norway advocating significant NATO patrols and surveillance in the region.
The other friends and allies fall somewhere between the two views, while the U.S. (after years of essentially ignoring everything except Alaska’s hydrocarbon production) is increasingly focusing on the region, beginning with appropriating funds for long-needed icebreakers and patrolling more aggressively in the air and beneath the polar ice.
Putin has taken an aggressive stance by ramping up the level of forces allocated to the region, adding both land and air units north of the Arctic Circle, while using his large fleet of icebreakers aggressively at sea (Russia has 25-plus while the U.S. today has only a single truly all-year capable vessel). China, while not an Arctic nation by virtue of geography, is building icebreakers and preparing to be deeply engaged — hence the nascent partnership with the Russian Federation....
The Admiral's book title is remarkably similar to that of Captain Mahan's "The Influence of Sea Power upon History". I've read the latter and not the former but if I had to guess, I'd say the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard's thinking is closer to Mahan's than to Admiral Stavridis':
“We need to look differently at what an icebreaker does... We need to reserve space, weight and power if we need to strap a cruise missile package on it... U.S. presence in the Arctic is necessary for more than just power projection; it’s a matter of national security... If they remain unchecked, the Russians will extend their sphere of influence to over five million square miles of Arctic ice and water.”