Russia flexing its muscles, outflanking US as Arctic heats up

In 2020, temperatures in parts of the Arctic were an unbelievable 14 to 18 degrees above normal, with the region recording its second-highest yearly average since 1900. Readings were so extreme that a Siberian heat wave caused wildfires on the tundra, a biome that is normally too wet or too frozen to burn. Extraordinarily high temperatures and melting ice in the Arctic Ocean have disrupted the food chain, wreaking havoc not only on native wildlife but on indigenous communities as well. At the same time, the ice melt has revealed oil and mineral riches on the ocean floor and has opened shipping routes that have been frozen and impassible for millennia. As these new opportunities emerge, the six countries that border the North Pole — Russia, the United States, Canada, Greenland (actually a territory of Denmark), Iceland and Norway — have each been staking out claims in the region. One in particular, our Arctic neighbor Russia, has become increasingly strident about flexing its nationalistic muscles.

On a quiet Sunday late in the 2020 season, the U.S.-flag Bering Sea fleet was working the Alaska pollock fishery in calm seas and pleasant weather. All of a sudden, in an aggressive show of force, 50 Russian warships, a Russian nuclear submarine and 40 Russian military planes began harassing them and disrupting their operations — all of this despite the fact that the American ships were working in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and had a legal right to be there. The appearance of the Russian armada completely took the Americans by surprise, prompting some of the mariners to ask, “Are we being invaded?”

Luckily, it wasn’t a Russian invasion but an unannounced exercise simulating a battle in the Bering Sea. A colleague of mine was a crewmember on F/V Blue North, one of the ships working the area that day. He told me how frightening the experience was, especially when the warships and warplanes began issuing warnings about the imminent firing of missiles and ordering U.S. citizens to leave immediately. John Anderson, the captain of Blue North, radioed the U.S. Coast Guard asking how he should respond to the Russian military demands. The reply was, “Just do what they want.”

American mariners, politicians and military officials were dismayed at how brazenly the Russians obtruded on U.S. commercial activities on the Bering Sea, but they were not surprised. Ever since 2007, when Russia infamously placed its flag on the North Pole seabed, it has been pushing its way around — most recently claiming 463,000 square miles of the oil- and gas-rich Arctic continental shelf for itself. To support and defend its claims, Russia has been undertaking the biggest military buildup in the Arctic since the Cold War, refurbishing dozens of old military bases along the Northern Sea Route and the Bering Sea — including the full-service port of Provideniya, just 200 nautical miles from Nome, Alaska.

During the past year, a Russian nuclear submarine was deployed to the North Pole, Russian paratroopers were dropped in the Arctic for battle training, and Su-35 fighter jets tauntingly flew to the edge of U.S. airspace in Alaska – all part of President Vladimir Putin’s stated goal of furthering his country’s Arctic claims. In March 2020, Putin announced an ambitious 15-year plan to build 40 ice-class military and commercial ships, including several large dedicated icebreakers. Russia obviously means business when it comes to establishing sovereignty in the Arctic. Unfortunately, the United States government hasn’t shown the same level of commitment.

On Dec. 4, my wife and I boarded the Washington state ferry Salish in Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula and headed up to the passenger deck to enjoy the trip. A few minutes after getting underway, I walked over to the starboard side to see if any Military Sealift Command ships were loading munitions at Indian Island, and I caught a glimpse of a vessel in the outbound traffic lane off of Marrowstone Point. As we got closer, I realized that it was the famous Coast Guard heavy icebreaker Polar Star. Usually down in Antarctica during the winter, the ship was sent to the Arctic instead in 2020 in response to Russia’s military and political maneuvering. Capt. William Woitrya, master of Polar Star, said that sending the icebreaker north would give the United States the chance to “tell the world that the Arctic is important to us, and that we’re going to pay attention to it.”

Unfortunately, words alone cannot remedy the long-standing governmental neglect of our Arctic interests. We haven’t been establishing new bases nor refurbishing any old ones. Even worse, compared with Russia’s nearly 50 icebreaking vessels, it is pathetic that the only operational heavy icebreaker the United States has is Polar Star – a 45-year-old workhorse that has been plagued by breakdowns and unexpected repairs for years. It is disconcerting to think that if Polar Star were to break down in thick Arctic ice during its mission this season, in all likelihood the U.S. would have to rely on Canadian icebreakers to rescue it.

One recent piece of good news regarding American interests in the Arctic came in December when Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., announced that the new military appropriations bill — which was vetoed by President Trump but enacted when Congress overrode him — included funding for three heavy-duty and three medium-duty icebreakers. The first 460-foot polar security cutter, a heavy icebreaker, is currently in the detailed design phase at Halter Marine in Mississippi and is expected to be delivered in 2024.

As the ice continues to melt, 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and 15 percent of its untapped oil reserves are becoming accessible in the Arctic. Sea routes that have been frozen for all of recorded history now have cargo ships and passenger ships plying their waters, saving thousands of miles and tens of thousands of dollars on each voyage. With things changing so fast and with so much at stake, continuing to ignore what is happening up north makes no sense, and it could have dangerous repercussions. I am hopeful that President Biden’s administration will develop a thoughtful, comprehensive policy on dealing with the new emerging reality in the Arctic — one that emphasizes building new coastal military bases in Alaska, beefing up our icebreaker fleet and continuing to update our alliances with the other Arctic nations. I believe that if we want to avoid just giving up on our claims, or having to go to war to defend them, there is no other option.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.  

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

Categories: Mariner’s Notebook