Category Archives: Arctic

Analysis related to the global polar regions.

Russia’s Arctic Ambitions Held Back by Economic Troubles

The following article was originally featured by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Michael Lambert

During the Cold War, the geographical position of the Arctic and the technology available put the region in the geopolitical spotlight. The Arctic was the shortest flight path for Soviet and American intercontinental bombers between the United States and Soviet Union. Later, with the advent of ballistic missiles, the Arctic’s strategic relevance began to fade – only to be reignited in the 1970s with the arrival of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and strategic bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles.

The United States cooperated closely with Canada to stop the bomber threat coming from Moscow. The end result was a number of early warning radar lines across Canadian territory, most recently the joint Canada-U.S. North Warning System (NWS) built in the late 1980s, as well as significant air defense (and later aerospace) cooperation evident in the bi-national North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). By the 1980s, the U.S. Navy was also increasingly intent on penetrating the Soviet nuclear bastion in the Arctic with its own nuclear attack submarines.

The Soviet Union was itself directly exposed to strategic bombers located in Alaska. Looking at the strategic context until 1991, the USSR gathered a significant number of defense forces in the Soviet Arctic, going from advanced air defense systems in Rogachevo, Amderma, and Alykeland Ugolnye Kopi to submarines able to launch nuclear weapons from the Soviet Far East. The United States and the Soviet Union both conducted military exercises in the Arctic, and eventually had the technological capabilities to destroy each other multiple times. However, it was difficult for the United States to say if Moscow was trying to develop a defensive or offensive policy in that part of the world – although that uncertainty did not prevent the U.S. from moving decisively to try to mitigate this potential threat.

Moscow conducted an impressive number of nuclear experiments in the area. By the end of the 1980s, the USSR Northern Fleet had 172 submarines, including 39 SSBNs, 46 cruise missile submarines and 87 attack submarines, and between 1967 and 1993 Soviet and Russian submarines carried out a total of 4,600 training missions. However, looking at the size of the Arctic, the numbers are less impressive, and it seems difficult to know if the area was considered to be an outpost or a buffer zone, in so far as archives regarding Soviet nuclear weapons are still classified in Russia today.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia inherited almost all Soviet facilities and nuclear equipment, including in the High North. Does the Russian approach toward the Arctic differ from the Soviet one? Under then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, supported by Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s Arctic forces were almost entirely disbanded for economic reasons during the 1990s. The Kremlin did keep its SSBNs to ensure nuclear deterrence and a minimum presence in the area. But it also diminished the number of aircraft and anti-aircraft systems as well, the latter decision largely due to the difficulty with modernizing equipment needed to detect and intercept American bomber aircraft, such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit.

With the return of Moscow on the international stage, Russia’s new nuclear policy in the Arctic has become a major issue for the relationship between the United States, Canada, Northern Europe (NATO and non-NATO members) and Russia after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Indeed, current Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the modernization of Moscow’s strategic nuclear forces and its Northern Fleet to be a state priority.

More than 80 percent of Russia’s strategic maritime nuclear capabilities is located in the Northern Fleet, mostly in the form of its ballistic missile submarine fleet. It is also focused on developing infrastructure needed to operate such capabilities, such as the refurbished military airfields in its northern region that will provide aerial support for its Northern Fleet. In the Russian Military Doctrine of 2014, the Arctic was highlighted as one of the three key regions for military development, alongside Crimea and Kaliningrad. And, since 2008, Russia has reestablished long-range aviation patrols and increased the presence and activity of the Northern Fleet.

Putin’s policy in the Arctic can be interpreted as partly an attempt to protect future economic and military interests of the Russian Federation. After all, Russia has significant economic interests in the Arctic and needs to protect them. More than 20 percent of the country’s GDP is produced in the northern part of Russia, with approximately 75 percent of oil and 95 percent of natural gas reserves located in the area. In addition, it also is a means to put more pressure on Washington and its allies (including Canada) in the context of the ongoing crisis in Eastern Ukraine. As well, it provides an opportunity to threaten (and therefore possibly deter) countries showing a growing interest for NATO membership, such as Sweden and Finland.

Russia has recently unveiled a new military base at Franz Joseph Land in the Arctic Sea, following its initial Northern Clover Arctic base on Kotelny Island, north of Siberia. The Franz Joseph Land archipelago had been abandoned in 1991 but the Russian Air Force decided to reopen Graham Bell Airfield (named the “Arctic Trefoil”) to protect Moscow’s interest in the area. However, Russia’s 150 soldiers are probably not enough to stop any foreign forces and control the 191 islands in this peninsula.

recent article published at the Department of Geography at Laval University also underlines the limitations of Russian Air Force operations in the Arctic, pointing particularly at the relative modest number of air military patrols in the region compared to the significant number of intrusive patrols (bombers and fighters) close to Japan, Northern Europe, and the Baltics.

In that context, it seems difficult to say if Russia is able to conduct any large military exercises in the Arctic, due to the size of the region and the limited number of troops on the ground. A brief look at the equipment available like the Tupolev Tu-160 – a Soviet bomber produced in the USSR between 1984-1991 and upgraded by the Russian Air Force – shows their limited capabilities to conduct an attack against Alaska or Northern Europe from the area, although their development of long-range cruise missile technology could change that calculus.

The Russian Federation is also facing difficulties when it comes to submarines. The Russian Navy cancelled the modernization program for its venerable Typhoon-class vessel in 2012, and most of its newer Borey-class SSBNs are under construction and those vessels earmarked for the Northern Fleet (Knyaz PozharskiyGeneralissimus Suvorov) won’t be ready until 2020. Indeed, the Yury Dolgorukiy is the only submarine located in the Arctic at the moment.

Despite Putin’s stated interest in strengthening the Northern Fleet, this situation should remain the same for the foreseeable future – especially following Moscow’s revised funding scheme for the Arctic. The expected budget approved for the military in the Arctic until 2020 is 17 times lower than the original sum. This arises from Russia’s current economic crisis, brought on not least by international sanctions after its military intervention in Ukraine.

In this context, rather than fixating on Russian activities in the Arctic, the United States and Canada should continue to focus the brunt of their attention on Europe and Syria – where the Russian presence remains far more intrusive, robust, and ultimately destabilizing.

Michael Eric Lambert received a PhD in History of Europe and International Relations from Sorbonne University, France. He is Founder and Director of the Caucasus Initiative, a new independent and unaligned European Policy Center with the mission to analyze contemporary issues related to de facto states and the Black Sea area.

Featured Image: Russian submarine (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The NATO of the New North

From author Ian Birdwell comes The Changing Arctic, a column focusing on the unique security challenges presented by the increasingly permissive environment in the High North. The Changing Arctic examines legal precedents, rival claimants, and possible resolutions for disputes among the Arctic nations, as well as the economic implications of accessing the region’s plentiful resources.

By Ian Birdwell


NATO is justifiably focused on dissuading Russian aggression, especially given the Federation’s aggressive actions over the past two years in the region. However, there is growing concern for NATO’s northern flank: the Arctic Ocean and far northern Atlantic. The warming of global temperatures presents new challenges related to rising sea levels to navies like the United States,’1 but the retreat of ice in the Arctic Ocean poses a new risk as an avenue to exploit NATO’s flank in Europe. Though some budding conversation determining NATO’s role in defending Arctic nations like Norway from new security challenges is occurring,2 NATO’s gaze remains focused on ground threats throughout Eastern Europe. Despite the persistence of NATO’s strategic goals of deterrence and cooperation, a warmer Arctic demands the attention of NATO powers to preserve regional stability. Looking toward the role NATO could play in maintaining an Arctic balance of power into the future, it is important to acknowledge NATO’s regional hurdles and the strategies the alliance could employ to overcome them.
NATO’s goal has always been deterrence through mutual defense and cooperation between member state militaries, but this has never rung quite as clear among its member states as it has since the onset of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis. The crisis, if not instigated by the Russian Federation, certainly advances, exacerbated by the comments of Russian officials and state actions. Since then, Eastern European NATO states have clamored for NATO support in counteracting Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin’s regime regularly draws international ire for their actions moving to exploit Arctic oil resources, the effects those operations may have on surrounding communities, and the measures against those protesting oil exploration.3 For the Russian Federation, the Arctic Ocean represents more than just a birthplace of new oil revenues and potential superpower status, it is one of the only areas of the world were its navy may be able to operate more effectively than NATO.

Russia’s Oil and Gas Activities in the Arctic (Malte Humpert/The Arctic Institute)

The Russian Northern Fleet possesses a slight advantage over NATO forces in several crucial areas, including a slight and recent increase in submarine warfare capabilities,4 a focus on constructing Arctic naval installations,5 and a plethora of icebreakers compared to NATO.6 Russian forces certainly retain a regional upper hand at the moment yet the aged nature of their equipment belays an opportunity for NATO to deter Russian regional aggression if action is swiftly taken. Finally, to accommodate necessary actions to dissuade aggression, the alliance must gather the funding to make readiness plans a reality, which could become a difficult prospect. Most NATO members overlook the requirement to contribute two percent of national GDP towards military operations, leaving other NATO states like the United States to fit the bill.7 With a new American administration critical of NATO’s funding woes, member states may grow concerned NATO capital will go toward the defense of Eastern European states or other areas with higher visibility.8

Arctic Adaptation

NATO possesses the capability to address and overcome the challenges laid before it. A promising step to move NATO toward readiness for Arctic operations would be to expand the frequency of training activities in the High North. While the norm for nations with Arctic waters like Canada,9 Norway, and the United States,10 the inclusion of non-Arctic NATO powers in a variety of training exercises could prove pivotal in deterring aggression within the Arctic. This past summer, NATO held an anti-submarine warfare exercise called Dynamic Mongoose in the Norwegian Sea that included vessels from eight alliance members.11 With other operations planned for later this year,12 increasing the frequency of such operations, the variety of weather conditions faced, and diversifying into other types of exercises such as amphibious assault drills will allow NATO to become acclimated to regional obstacles and gain the flexibility to respond to threats.

The costlier long-term readiness goal involves the expansion of ports close to or within the Arctic Circle to house larger vessels and the construction of new facilities. Accomplishing this task would help close Russia’s geographic and logistical advantages while assisting troops in becoming acclimated to the region’s weather conditions. Moreover, those expanded ports hold the potential to facilitate an increase in commercial traffic, provide a base for scientific research vessels, and contribute to the logistical support of search and rescue operations – all valuable assets for nations wishing to study a changing global climate. For these reasons, the Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. investigated deepening the Port of Nome.13 Dredging and enlarging ports in the region offer a boon to NATO’s defense goals while boosting Arctic infrastructure for other non-military functions.

The last and largest task for NATO powers concerned about Russian Arctic capabilities is providing the funding necessary to meet their NATO obligations. Each NATO nation with Arctic borders proffers in various declarations their preferred method to move forward with Arctic defense is to cooperate with close allies to fill gaps in their defenses.14 If Canada, Denmark, and Norway,15 NATO Arctic powers currently shy of their NATO percentage pledges, increase their military funding closer to the required two percent of national GDP, then it becomes easier for NATO to achieve its overarching security goals within and outside of the Arctic region.


NATO transformed from a tool bolstering European Defense in the early days of the Cold War into an alliance pulled in several directions in the name of collective security. Today NATO faces a familiar sight, a Europe pressured by an aggressive Russia. Yet as NATO reinforces its easternmost borders, the Russian Federation focuses on a new, warming frontier that could provide a new threat axis where Russia enjoys preeminence.

Ian Birdwell holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University.


1. Myers, Meghann “Rising oceans threaten to submerge 128 military bases:report” Navy Times. July 29, 2016

2. Dearden, Lizzie “Norway urges Donald Trump to announce clear policy on Russia amid fears of military activity in Arctic” Independent December 3, 2016

3. Luhn, Alec “Arctic oil rush: Nenet’s livelihood and habitat at risk from oil spills” The Guardian December 23, 2016

4. Sonne, Paul “Russia’s Military sophistication in the Arctic sends echoes of the Cold War” The Wall Street Journal October 4, 2016

5. Einhorn, Catrin, Hannah Fairfield, and Tim Wallace “Russia rearms for a new era” New York Times December 24, 2015

6. Snow, Shawn “Retired 4-Star: US Military ill-prepared for Arctic confrontation” Military Times December 27, 2016

7. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016

8. Frum, David “Trump will inherit the biggest NATO buildup in Europe Since the Cold War” The Atlantic January 10, 2017

9. Pugliese, David “Canadian Forces to expand Nunavut training centre as Russia plans more bases in the Arctic” National Post February 23, 2016

10. Schehl, Matthew L. “Marines hit the arctic for largest winter exercise since the Cold War” Marine Corps Times March 2, 2016

11. North Atlantic Treaty Organization “NATO Launches anti-submarine warfare exercise in Norwegian Sea” June 20, 2016 NATO Press Release

12. Thomassen, Daniel “Norway faces a new era of Russian realpolitik in the Arctic” Center for International Maritime Security July 5, 2016

13. Zak, Annie “Port of Nome sees big growth as traversing the Arctic gets easier” Alaska Dispatch News November 24, 2016

14. Wezeman, Siemon T. “Military Capabilties in the Arctic: A new cold war in the high north?” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute October 2016

15. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Public Diplomacy Division “Defense Expenditures of NATO Countries” North Atlantic Treaty Organization July 4, 2016

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard (Patrick Kelley)

Science Diplomacy in the Arctic


By Jackie Faselt

As icecaps melt and access to natural gas and oil reserves increase, the Arctic rises in importance on the geopolitical stage. In addition to the various groups of indigenous people who reside in the Arctic, eight countries Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Canada, and the United States have claimed interest in the Arctic. Diplomacy between the different groups is required for cooperation and organization in the complicated region. Due to its importance in environmental security, sizable natural resource reserves, and remote location, the Arctic incentivizes cooperation through science diplomacy.

Science diplomacy is defined by the Royal Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science as threefold: “Informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice, facilitating international science cooperation, [and] using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries.”1 Science diplomacy has accomplished much in the past, both between allied nations, and in situations when traditional lines of cooperation were fraught. For example, the warming of relations with China during the Nixon administration and cooperation in the International Space Station both resulted, or were sustained in part due to science diplomacy.2 It should be noted, however, that there are barriers to science diplomacy. Policymakers and scientists alike can be confused about how this type of diplomacy is different from general scientific cooperation and additionally, “after generations of colonialism and geopolitical maneuvering, developing nations may be wary of science engagement with the North.”3 The Arctic region has existing channels of successful science diplomacy, which hopefully can be sustained into the future.

In 1909 Robert Peary, and American explorer, reached the North Pole and claimed it for the President of the United States. Since then, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Canada have all made claims or asserted influence in the region.4 The first international agreement regarding the Arctic came from the United Nations Convention on the Continental Shelf, which was signed in 1958 and allowed for coastal states to explore resources on their continental shelf.5 It was superseded by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which “grants coastal states a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and allows them to assert control over territory beyond that limit if they can prove, geologically, that the seabed is an extension of their continental shelf.”6 However, it is notable that the United States did not sign the agreement until 2013 and still has yet to ratify it.

International agreements and organizations in the Arctic specific to the scientific community began gaining ground over 30 years ago. In 1990, the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) was created, and the following year the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy agreement was adopted by the eight arctic states as well as some indigenous communities.7 These international organizations and agreements provide a base not only for scientific cooperation, but also science diplomacy. For example, the mission statement of the IASC contains all three components of science diplomacy as stated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science: informing policy, promoting cooperation, and using that cooperation to progress international relations. The mission statement includes the following objectives:

  • “Provides objective and independent scientific advice on issues of science in the Arctic and communicates scientific information to the public;
  • Initiates, coordinates and promotes scientific activities at a circumarctic or international level;
  • Promotes international access to all geographic areas and the sharing of knowledge, logistics and other resources;”8

The Arctic Council was formed in 1996 with all the arctic states, as well as six groups of indigenous peoples, serving as members. It houses six scientific working groups: Arctic Contaminants Action Program, The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group, Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group, Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment, and the Sustainable Development Working Group.9 As the Arctic becomes increasingly more important for environmental security, these institutions can act as the foundation for increased science diplomacy.

Global climate change has brought the Arctic closer to the forefront of the international stage. The Arctic Ocean is currently warming at double the rate of any other place on our planet.10 As ice caps melt, the region has become more accessible to both countries and private corporations to drill for oil and gas in large, untouched reserves.11 Both the environmental and the resource importance of the region requires the involvement of scientists and technologists at the Arctic. Due to the remoteness of the region and the harshness of the environment, cooperation has been incentivized for cost sharing of logistic and facility resources.12 There are enough common interests among the Arctic states to incentivize cooperation. These de-facto partnerships can be used as a foundation on which to build further collaboration, through traditional and science diplomacy channels.

While there are existing structures to promote science diplomacy in the Arctic, improvements can be made. Recommendations for improved science diplomacy include increasing partnerships between the government, the private sector, universities, and NGOs, as well as involving youth in scientific diplomacy efforts.13 There has also been efforts to promote, “greater scientific expertise within the Foreign Service and the State Departments,” in order to institutionalize scientific diplomacy channels.14  The countries that have created official positions of Science & Technology Advisors to Foreign Ministers are New Zealand, Oman, Poland, Senegal, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.15 If more Arctic states follow suit, science diplomacy can continue to grow in the Arctic.

The foundation of science diplomacy has been established in the Arctic and can be sustained and expanded if the Arctic states decide to follow the incentives of cooperation that is inherent in the unique region. The Arctic states should capitalize on this opportunity and push for expanded science diplomacy efforts. 

Jackie Faselt is a senior at Tufts University interested in international security and technology policy. On campus, she is involved in Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services (ALLIES), a civil-military relations club. She has interned at the National Defense University in the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, as well as at the Consortium for Gender, Security, and Human Rights.


“About Us – Arctic Council.” Arctic Council, May 23, 2016.

Berkman, Paul. “Stability and Peace in the Arctic Ocean through Science Diplomacy.” Science & Diplomacy 3, no. 2 (June 2014).

McCormick, TY. “Arctic Sovereignty: A Short History.” Foreign Policy, May 7, 2014.

National Research Council (U.S.), and National Research Council (U.S.), eds. U.S. and International Perspectives on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy: Report of a Workshop. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2012.

“New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the Changing Balance of Power.” The Royal Society, January 2010.

“Science & Technology Advisors to Foreign Ministers Panel Dialogue.” Tufts Fletcher School, February 19, 2017.

The International Arctic Science Committee. “About IASC – International Arctic Science Committee.” Accessed March 17, 2017.

“The Power of Science Diplomacy: A View from the South.” NEWSLETTER A PUBLICATION OF THE WORLD ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2014.

“United Nations Convention on the Continental Shelf.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 17, 2017.

1. National Research Council (U.S.), eds., U.S. and International Perspectives on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy: Report of a Workshop (Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 2012), 27.

2. “The Power of Science Diplomacy: A View from the South,” NEWSLETTER A PUBLICATION OF THE WORLD ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, 2014, 2.

3. “The Power of Science Diplomacy: A View from the South”, 7.

4. TY McCormick, “Arctic Sovereignty: A Short History,” Foreign Policy, May 7, 2014,

5. “United Nations Convention on the Continental Shelf,” Council on Foreign Relations, accessed March 17, 2017,

6. TY McCormick

7. Paul Berkman, “Stability and Peace in the Arctic Ocean through Science Diplomacy,” Science & Diplomacy 3, no. 2 (June 2014),

8. The International Arctic Science Committee, “About IASC – International Arctic Science Committee,” accessed March 17, 2017,

9. “About Us – Arctic Council,” Arctic Council, May 23, 2016,

10. Paul Berkman

11. ibid

12. “New Frontiers in Science Diplomacy: Navigating the Changing Balance of Power” (The Royal Society, January 2010),, 25

13. National Research Council (U.S.), eds., U.S. and International Perspectives on Global Science Policy and Science Diplomacy: Report of a Workshop, 38-39.

14. ibid

15. “Science & Technology Advisors to Foreign Ministers Panel Dialogue,” Tufts Fletcher School, February 19, 2017,

Featured Image: ICESCAPE scientist and Clark geography Professor Karen Frey takes optical measurements in a melt pond, with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy in the background. (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Kathryn Hansen)

Arctic Security and Legal Issues in the 21st Century: An Interview with CDR Sean Fahey

By Sally DeBoer

The changing Arctic is a topic of increasing interest to the maritime security community. Rapidly receding sea ice and increasingly navigable waters combined with the promise of rich natural resource deposits have made investment in the Arctic – particularly military and infrastructure investment – a priority for Arctic nations and other parties that stand to benefit from the region. To discuss these issues and more, CIMSEC interviewed Commander Sean Fahey, USCG of the U.S. Naval War College Stockton Center for the Study of International Law for his expert insight on legal and security issues in the High North in the 21st Century. 

SD: CDR Fahey, thank you so much for taking the time to discuss legal and security challenges to the Arctic in the 21st Century. We are honored to have someone with your experience and expertise speak with us! To begin, can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

SF: Great to be with you; thank you for the invitation. I serve as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, at the U.S. Naval War College. In this role, I conduct research and teach global maritime security law. In particular, I focus on the intersection of law and security in the Arctic Ocean. For example, I recently collaborated with Professor James Kraska on a position paper for the U.K. House of Commons Defence Sub-Committee, Defence in the Arctic Inquiry. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies, the Stockton Center’s peer-reviewed law journal, and the oldest journal of international law published in the United States.

By way of background, I am an attorney and commissioned officer in the rank of commander in the United States Coast Guard, and have advised various levels of command on the legal issues impacting maritime security operations, primarily counter-drug, fisheries enforcement, migrant interdiction and environmental law enforcement. I have also served as a Trial Attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as a legal advisor in the operational law division of USAFRICOM, where my focus was on maritime security operations, namely counter-piracy and maritime law enforcement support, and counter-terrorism.

SD: Can you characterize the United States’ current position in the Arctic? Is the U.S. prepared – materially and strategically – for challenges ahead in the Arctic?

SF: The United States is an Arctic nation, and the region is of significant strategic, economic and environmental importance to us. Some of the challenges we face in the region, for example, energy and mineral exploitation, are future challenges, but many, such as preserving freedom of navigation and overflight, are immediate. Climate change – whatever the cause – promises to be a major factor in how we prioritize our responses to those challenges, but it is not the only factor. Our strategy is influenced by the actions and priorities of the other Arctic nations as well, and in some areas the United States is not in the lead.

Strategically, we have comprehensive guidance on how to structure our approach to the region. American priorities are set forth in National Security Presidential Directive-66/Homeland Security Directive-25 and the “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” and the accompanying Implementation Plan. Broadly, U.S. strategy is to advance U.S. security interests, pursue responsible Arctic stewardship, and strengthen international cooperation in the region. Each of those priorities has several detailed lines of effort. For example, the U.S. has four primary lines of effort to promote security: (1) preservation of freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the Arctic region; (2) enhancement of Arctic regional domain awareness and presence; (3) development of future U.S. energy security; and (4) evolve Arctic strategic capabilities, military force structure, and civilian infrastructure to be able to best respond to challenges unique to the region.

Many of the federal departments and agencies tasked with taking the lead on a particular line of effort within the national policy further refine the National strategy with additional guidance documents, among them the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense. So, in response to the second part of your question – is the United States prepared for future challenges in the Arctic? Strategically we are. We know the priorities and we know who is responsible for advancing them. Materially, however, the United States is not in the best position it could be to advance its strategic priorities. The most pressing example of this lacuna is the requirement for icebreakers.

One of two USCG Polar Icebreakers (Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst/Coast Guard)

Enhanced icebreaking capabilities are vital to properly support U.S. security interests in the Arctic. You cannot be present if you cannot get there. Virtual presence is actual absence. A persistent presence in the Arctic region is a condition precedent for the effective exercise of law enforcement jurisdiction and improved domain awareness. Currently, the U.S. has two icebreakers. The Russian Federation has 37. A fleet of at least six heavy icebreakers would provide one full-time U.S. presence within the Arctic Ocean in both the east and west, while also allowing enough hulls for training, work-ups, and post-deployment maintenance. This requirement is supported by the Pentagon, and is the single most important capability for the U.S. to pursue in the Arctic. Only a robust ice-breaking capability allows the U.S. to respond to all threats and all hazards in the region.

SD: The United States is in a time of flux, politically – how do you think a U.S. position that is perhaps less invested in preventing the effects of climate change might affect the security situation in the Arctic and the role of the U.S. as an Arctic leader?

We certainly are in a time of flux, but it is too early to say how the administration will address the challenges posed by climate change. Time will tell. That said, the data on the environmental changes occurring in the Arctic are alarming. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is directly supported by NASA and NOAA, the minimum Arctic sea ice extent has reduced by 40 percent since 1978. Last year the maximum (wintertime) sea ice extent was at a record low for a second year in a row. Additionally, NASA reports that global surface temperatures – to include in the Arctic – were at record highs in 2016. In short, the data indicate that the melt will not only continue, but will likely accelerate.

Trends in sea ice thickness/volume are another important indicator of Arctic climate change. While sea ice thickness observations are sparse, this figure utilizes the ocean and sea ice model, PIOMAS (Zhang and Rothrock, 2003), to visualize October sea ice thickness from 1979 to 2017. Sea ice less than 1.5 meters is masked out (black) to emphasize the loss of thicker, older ice. Updated through January 2017. (Zachary Michael Labe, Ph.D. Student, Department of Earth System Science, The University of California, Irvine)

Responsible regional stewardship – over the Arctic and its resources – is one of the pillars of our national strategy. It would be unfortunate if the United States were forced to effectively abdicate its leadership position in the Arctic due to a perceived lack of credibility on this issue by other Arctic nations. If we abdicate our leadership position, we abdicate our ability to shape regional security issues, and other Arctic nations may be reluctant to partner with us.

SD: Can you speak to some of the impacts that climate change has had on the Arctic security situation?

SF: The changing Arctic climate has already had a recognizable impact on the regional security landscape. Less ice means greater access and more activity. Some of the impacts may be positive. For example, the Arctic has enormous importance for long-term U.S. energy security. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves (90 billion barrels) are in the Arctic. This estimate is in addition to more than 240 billion barrels of petroleum reserves that have already been discovered. The USGS estimates that one-third of this oil is in the circum-Arctic region of Alaska and the Alaskan Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). Responsibly and safely developing new domestic energy sources strengthens U.S. energy security by reducing U.S. reliance on imported oil, some of which, as you know, travels vast distances from extremely unstable regions before entering the national supply.

That said, competition for energy resources in disputed areas of the Arctic could destabilize the regional security balance. I am confident however, that the United States and the other Arctic nations will resolve their boundary disputes peacefully. We have seen evidence of this already with the Russian Federation and Norway resolving a long-standing maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea.

The more immediate impact of climate change on the Arctic security situation will be on freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Broadly speaking, freedom of navigation and overflight are critical for the U.S. to be able to support peacetime and wartime contingencies across the globe. If the Arctic ice melt continues at its current pace, the Northwest Passage, the shipping route along the Canadian Arctic coastline, and the Northern Sea Route, the shipping route along the Russian Arctic coastline, will be accessible for longer periods of time, possibly year round.

Strategic mobility throughout the Arctic could become critical to support strategic sealift for U.S. contingency operations worldwide, and the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route could serve as waterways to support such contingency operations. Portions of both shipping routes cross areas where the respective coastal state has made, in the opinion of the U.S., an excessive maritime claim, and these claims threaten the ability of naval forces to exercise their navigational and overflight rights. Preserving these rights is a central tenet of the National Arctic strategy. The U.S. Department of State, the lead agency for this strategic priority, is actively engaged with Canada and Russia on this issue, but it may be prudent for the United States to conduct freedom of navigation operations – the peaceful exercise of international legal rights in disputed sea areas – in areas of the Arctic Ocean that are subject to unlawful maritime claims.

SD: Many of our readers may not be aware of the pivotal role the U.S. and international Coast Guards have in maritime operations, specifically on operations in the high north. What improvements could the United States make to its infrastructure to be more prepared for operations in the Arctic?

At the risk of sounding redundant, I think greater icebreaking capability, and the shore-based infrastructure required to support icebreakers, is absolutely critical for the U.S. to achieve its maritime security goals in the Arctic. In order to respond to regional threats and hazards, U.S. surface forces need to be able to safely navigate the Arctic Ocean.

In the same vein, the U.S. should also commit to constructing ice-strengthened patrol ships for its seas services, similar to the Arctic Offshore Patrol ships being commissioned by the Royal Canadian Navy. The increased security presence in the region that greater icebreaking capability and ice-strengthened patrol ships would enable will help further deter conventional and unconventional maritime security threats and also ensure that U.S. near-shore and offshore oil and gas industry infrastructure is properly safeguarded. Search and rescue (SAR) also requires both ships and aircraft that are capable of operating in extreme climate. The United States has inadequate force structure to meet SAR contingencies.

Additionally, the U.S. needs to strengthen is pollution response capabilities and infrastructure in the Arctic. Needless to say, as the energy sector expands in the Arctic, so too does the risk of pollution. Given the remoteness of the region, sufficient pollution response capabilities and infrastructure need to be in place and accessible in order to ensure a timely response.

Finally, as the region becomes more accessible to year-round commercial navigation, the U.S. needs to ensure we have the sufficient infrastructure to support safe and secure maritime commerce. This could include harbor and dock improvements, aids to navigation, management systems for high risk vessel traffic areas,  search and rescue capabilities, and effective communications networks. Some of these are in place, some just need to be enhanced, and some need to be created.

SD: As you are a legal scholar, we’d like your insight on competing maritime claims in the region. First, what legal foundation, if any, does Canada have for its claim over the Northwest Passage? We know this is a controversial topic; what does the letter of the law dictate on the matter?

The Northwest Passage Route (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.)

Canada asserts they have complete sovereignty over the waterways that comprise the Northwest Passage. Their legal argument for doing so is that the waters comprising the Northwest Passage lie within either Canadian internal waters or its territorial sea, and are thus subject to their jurisdiction and control. The United States and the European Commission have rejected Canada’s claims, and consider the Northwest Passage, a strait used for international navigation, open to navigation without coastal state interference.

Canada’s internal waters claim is predicated on straight baselines and the assertion of historic title to the waters of the Northwest Passage. Though the normal baseline used to measure the extent of a nation’s territorial sea is the low-water mark along their coast, UNCLOS does permit nations to draw “straight baselines” if certain criteria are met. Once a legal baseline has been drawn, waters seaward of the baseline, up to twelve nautical miles, are considered territorial sea; waters landward of the baseline are considered internal waters, subject to absolute coastal state sovereignty and jurisdiction. In short, Canada claims that, through its application of straight baselines, the entire waterway of the Northwest Passage became part of its territorial sea or internal waters, and is subject to its exclusive control. Remember though, that the Northwest Passage is some 100 nm wide in many areas, and Canada may not claim these areas as internal waters or territorial sea.

The U.S. position is that Canada’s application of straight baselines along the Northwest Passage is excessive and constitutes an unlawful interpretation of the criteria for establishing straight baselines under UNCLOS. Straight baselines may be used in the case of fringing islands or a coastline that is deeply indented and cut into. But even in these cases, the coastal state must draw the baselines narrowly. Under Article 8(2) of UNCLOS, even if countries accepted the limits of coastal state jurisdiction, then vessels from any nation would be completely free to traverse the area in innocent passage.

Consequently, even if nations accepted Canada’s straight baseline claims on their face, the ships of all nations would still be entitled to “innocent passage” through these “internal waters.” UNCLOS is clear on this issue; when the application of straight baselines have the effect of enclosing as internal waters areas which had not previously been considered as such – as is the case in with the Northwest Passage – the right of innocent passage still exists. Canada asserts that – the UNCLOS provisions about straight baseline enclosures notwithstanding – they have a historic claim to the Northwest Passage as well, one that precedes its straight baseline application. One of the weaknesses with that argument, however, is that a claim of historic title to internal waters requires, among other things, the acquiescence of foreign nations to that claim. The United States have never acquiesced to Canada’s claim, but have, instead, openly protested it, and continue to do so.

As you indicate though, it is a controversial matter, and much stronger legal scholars than I have written at length on the issue, but I think the position of the United States and European Commission is the legally correct one; the Northwest Passage is an international strait. Various legal characterizations aside, I am confident that the dispute over the Northwest Passage will be resolved amicably. Canada is a longstanding and indispensable ally of the United States – one that we have the deepest respect for – and an invaluable partner in the Arctic. The U.S. shares the same interests as the Canadians in ensuring a safe, secure, and environmentally protected Arctic, and many of the systems employed and contemplated by Canada to protect its interests – ship reporting, designating sea lines, vessel traffic separation schemes – do not require absolute sovereignty to affect. A diplomatic solution will be found.

SD: Can you provide some context for Russia’s extensive maritime claims? Can they reasonably expect a favorable ruling on their extension of their continental shelf?

The Russian Federation has several maritime claims of interest, particularly their claims regarding the Northern Sea Route and, as you note, their claim to an extended continental shelf. The Northern Sea Route claims need to be looked at closely from a maritime security perspective, as they have the potential to adversely impact maritime mobility.

As you know, the Russian Federation enacted national legislation establishing a state institution (the Northern Sea Route Administration or “NSRA”) with a mandate to “organize navigation in the water area of the Northern Sea Route.” This national legislation also defined “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route to include the Russian Arctic internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and – notably – their exclusive economic zone. Shortly after its establishment, the NSRA published their “Rules of Navigation on the Water Area of the Northern Sea Route,” which contains several provisions that adversely impact freedom of navigation and may not be consistent with international law, chief among them the unilateral requirement that all ships must request advance permission from the NSRA to enter “the water area” of the Northern Sea Route.

The potential impacts of this provision alone to maritime mobility could be significant; the regulation is arguably an attempt to unilaterally bypass vital high seas freedoms and navigational rights, such as innocent passage and transit passage that ships would otherwise be entitled to, in order to assert greater control over the shipping channel. Though UNCLOS (Article 234) provides for limited legislative and enforcement rights in “ice covered areas” of a coastal state’s EEZ, any coastal state legislation adopted under this limited authority must have “due regard to navigation.” As such, the Russian Federation’s reliance on Article 234 as the international legal basis for its regulation requiring ships to request permission to enter the water areas of the Northern Sea Route is overreaching. The impacts to navigation of this provision are severe.

Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik, Sergey Eshenko)

With respect to whether the Russian Federation can expect a favorable ruling from the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on their extended continental shelf claim, I would say that the Russians are certainly doing everything in their power to see that they do. And if they do not receive a favorable ruling, I fully expect them to continue conducting research into the Arctic seabed, compiling data, and submitting revised claims, much like they did in 2015 after their 2001 application was rejected and the Commission requested additional scientific evidence from the Russians to support their claim. The natural resources potentially at stake are too valuable for Russia to simply walk away.

SD: The PRC’s response to the arbitration ruling on claims in the SCS indicated a disregard for international law – can you see such a reaction leading to similar reactions when it comes to Arctic rulings?

There’s always the potential for it and, in fact, already some evidence of it. In 2013, the Russian Federation refused to directly participate in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea proceedings in the Arctic Sunrise case, the dispute between Russia and the Netherlands over law enforcement actions taken by Russia in their Exclusive Economic Zone against a Netherlands-flagged Greenpeace vessel protesting against Russian oil exploration in Arctic waters. To be fair, the Russian Federation did, however, submit several position papers to the arbitral tribunal about various aspects of the case, to include protesting the jurisdiction of the tribunal, but ultimately Russia rejected the tribunal’s ruling.

More generally though, any given nation’s strategic priorities may not always be in perfect alignment with what international law requires. Ideally though, in such a situation, nations will recognize that short-term national “gains” may ultimately compromise their standing within the international community, and erode their ability to partner with other nations. My concern is that as energy resources become less plentiful in other regions and more accessible in the Arctic, particularly in the disputed areas, we may see some nations more inclined to act solely in their own national self-interest, even if their actions are in direct conflict with international law.

To date, however, many of the challenges facing the Arctic have been addressed collectively. There appears to be a genuine spirit of international cooperation in the region. We’ve seen this in the Ottawa Declaration establishing the Arctic Council as a forum for intergovernmental cooperation in the region, the commitment to the Law of the Sea as the legal framework to govern the Arctic Ocean made by the Arctic coastal states in the Ilulissat Declaration, the participation of the Arctic coastal states in the formation of the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, and the successful development of a binding multilateral search and rescue agreement between all of the Arctic nations, governing the entire region. There are many examples of international collaboration in the Arctic, and I am cautiously optimistic that nations will respect collective interests – such as adherence to international law – even when there may be some short-term national advantage to be gained by disregarding them. The Arctic is not a region where you can “go it alone.”

SD: Let’s discuss militarization in the Arctic – do you foresee a trend toward greater military presence in the Arctic and what possible implications of this movement might you caution?

I do, and it is a trend that cannot be solely attributed to any one nation. Many of the Arctic countries are increasing their military footprints in the region, which of course has a ripple effect. As you know, the Russian Federation recently stood up a Joint Strategic Command for the Arctic. The entirety of Russia’s Northern Fleet was completely absorbed into this new Arctic Command, and the land component is comprised of two brigades, with plans for a third, as well as specially trained Arctic coastal defense divisions. Fourteen airfields and sixteen deepwater ports are in various stages of development along the Northern Sea Route. Russian submarine patrols across the North Atlantic rose by nearly 50 percent last year. These capabilities and this infrastructure positions Russia to have a dominant military presence in the Arctic for the foreseeable future.

Despite this escalation, however, I think the potential for a large-scale, conventional conflict in the region is low. Perhaps that’s naïve, but there is little evidence that the Arctic nations will abandon diplomacy as the preferred dispute resolution tool in favor of force. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary. I think what is more likely is another “Black Sea Bumping Incident” type scenario between an Arctic coastal state, defending what they believe their territorial integrity, and a foreign naval vessel, exercising freedom of navigation, perhaps along the Northern Sea Route. Of course, this kind of scenario can – in and of itself – lead to an escalation.

SD: How would you answer those who feel UNCLOS is insufficient when considering legal issues in the High North?

I agree with the wisdom of the signatories to the Illulissat Declaration. The Arctic is primarily a maritime region, and the Law of the Sea is the appropriate international legal regime. Many of the future challenges in the Arctic – delineating the outer limits of the continental shelf, which will hopefully resolve many of the potential resource disputes in the region; ensuring freedom of navigation along shipping routes that may become increasingly more accessible with the changing climate; ensuring comprehensive, but fair, environmental stewardship – are challenges that the Law of the Sea already addresses. Bilateral and multilateral treaties on specific issues – for example, the Arctic Search and Rescue Treaty – can help fill most of the gaps not directly addressed by the Law of the Sea. In terms of a governing body of law, however, the Law of the Sea, to include UNCLOS, is more than sufficient.

Commander Sean Fahey, United States Coast Guard, is currently assigned as the Associate Director for the Law of Maritime Operations at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of International Law Studies. He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed here are presented in a personal and unofficial capacity. They are not to be construed as official policy or reflecting the views of the United States Coast Guard or any other U.S. government agency. 

Sally DeBoer is currently serving as the President of CIMSEC for 2016-2017. She can be reached at

Featured Image: Russian nuclear icebreaker NS 50 Let Pobedy (Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich)