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A fresh start on US Arctic policy under Biden

Written by The Frontier Post

Paul Stronski and Grace Kier

The Biden administration does not want conflict in the Arctic, but the potential for tension in the region depends not only on the U.S. administration, but on the actions of Russia (and China) too.

Russia’s upcoming chairmanship of the Arctic Council promises to increase the region’s prominence in the overall U.S.-Russian relationship. At the same time, the main parameters of President Joe Biden’s stance on Arctic issues are still a work in progress. The Biden team has already staked out clear differences with the policy priorities and framework developed by the previous administration, most nota-bly a desire to work more closely with U.S. allies and partners and to tackle climate change and environmental issues head-on.

Such an approach suggests greater U.S. willingness to treat the Arctic as a zone where multilateral and cooperative approaches—the only real ways to tackle global climate change––can be brought to bear. That is a welcome change from the Donald Trump–-era approach, which purported to view the Arctic through the lens of great power competition and a relentless focus on China. While U.S. policy is unlikely to view the region primarily through a security lens, these issues are increasingly hard to overlook.

Biden set the tone for his policy on his first day in office by rejoining the Paris climate accord and imposing a temporary moratorium on oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. While most observers’ attention has been captured by well-reported areas of tension and disagreement in the U.S.-Russian relationship, there have been multiple signals that the Biden team is seeking to compartmentalize areas of dialogue and potential cooperation on a handful of key issues. For example, special presidential envoy for climate change John Kerry quickly sought to engage his Russian counterparts Sergeyi Lavrov and Ruslan Edelgeriyev shortly after Biden’s inauguration. The White House arranged a prominent role for Russian President Vladimir Putin at a heads of state virtual meeting on climate change in late April.

Such moves are in keeping with a strong U.S.-Russian track record in the Arctic—dating to the days of the Barack Obama administration—of cooperating on fisheries management, search and rescue capabilities, emergency ice-breaking, and mitigating environmental damage.

Nevertheless, the Biden team will carry on some Trump policies, including enhancing American military and civilian capabilities to operate in the harsh Arctic climate. It also must contend with and react to a perception that Russia is increasing its footprint in the region (or, more accurately, reinvigorating and expanding Soviet-era military facilities). To do that s-uccessfully, the Biden team will need to identify the resources that might help the United States to send a compelling message that it is serious about protecting U.S. equities in the Arctic. It is likely to embrace decisions inherited from the previous administration to strengthen NATO naval ca-pabilities and the protection of U.S. airspace in Alaska.

But such moves are hardly the equivalent of a full-scale embrace of the view that the Arctic is now an arena for strategic competition with Russia, and, increasingly, China. Given the Biden team’s overriding focus on challenges arising from the pandemic, it is unlikely to make massive investments in new military capabilities or the creation of a new fleet of nuclear ice-breakers in the name of Trump-era policies about the return of great power competition.

To be sure, U.S. policy will continue to recognize Russia as a key Arctic state and take note of the abiding importance of the region for Russia’s economic development and security. U.S.-EU sanctions on unconventional Russian energy projects, including in the Arctic, have impeded––but not completely derailed––the Kremlin’s ambitions to tap the region’s vast mineral wealth. As the Biden administration staffs up and conducts a review of sanctions policy, it may need to grapple with the implications of oil and gas projects that Russian firms are pursuing with a range of foreign partners in the Arctic region. It is too early to say whether U.S. officials may seek to devise tools that target such activities.

Meanwhile, Russia’s promotion of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) raises worries in U.S. policy circles about Russian efforts to impose strict restrictions on the passage of foreign vessels and potential environmental problems. However, many in Washington deem the prospects of success for the NSR as dim at best due to the high costs of developing and operating the route. It is also unclear whether the NSR can meet the demands of today’s just-in-time international cargo and shipping models.

The Kremlin’s emphasis on portraying the Arctic as an area for military muscle-flexing has amplified the security concerns of neighboring Arctic states, including important U.S. allies. The new administration appears concerned about Russia’s enhanced military capabilities, as well as China’s growing economic, political, and security clout in the Arctic, as emphasized in recently published U.S. Arctic strategies, including the 2021 Navy Arctic Blueprint and 2021 Army Arctic Strategy, but it is unclear whether this will translate into broader U.S. or NATO exercises in the region.

Most of the military activity is reminiscent of the Cold War Soviet-NATO stand-off on Europe’s northern flank and is an extension of today’s broader conflict between Russia and the West. Furthermore, although China has no actual territory in the Arctic, it designates itself as a “Near- Arctic State” and pursues scientific, investment, and trade endeavors across the region, including in Green-land, a particular concern of former Ppresident Trump’s.

Yet the United States under Biden still refrains from acknowledging any of China’s claims to Arctic legitimacy and continues to stress the importance of counterbalancing Beijing’s influence there. While many Russian and American foreign policy elites pay attention to Arctic developments, the region receives minimal attention in American society and Congress at large; yet for many Alaskans, it is more than a parochial issue.

The Alaskan congressional delegation in Washington has a long history of pushing for a more robust U.S. economic and security presence in the Arctic, including modernizing America’s inadequate and antiquated icebreaking capabilities. Alaska’s senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, commended the 2021 Navy Arctic Blueprint and consistently advocate for a more adaptable military force in the region. Though the Biden administration likely hopes to resume some Obama-era cooperation with Moscow to jump-start its climate and environmental policies, growing distrust of Russia in American society, combined with a strong push from Alaska and the military to enhance Arctic capabilities, could complicate those efforts. Russia’s recent military buildup and harassment of U.S. ships/aircraft off the Alaskan coast and allied countries’ military operations elsewhere will complicate them even further.

Biden’s embrace of multilateralism will likely spur greater cooperation with Arctic allies and partners, as will his administration’s return to the Paris climate agreement and ambitious pledges to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030. As both a candidate and president, Biden has been vocal about his support for strategic U.S. alliances, especially NATO, which Trump questioned and belittled. The Biden administration’s support extends to formal Arctic allies (Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway), as well as like-minded partners (Finland and Sweden) both through NATO and via bilateral means.

The United. States. will continue to engage actively with fellow Arctic states (including Russia) in the Arctic Council. An early indication of bilateral cooperation is the February joint U.S.-Canadian agreement to protect caribou calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a move highly unlikely before January 2021 given strong opposition in Canada and among Democrats toward Trump’s efforts to promote development in the region.

In another sign of Biden’s push toward Arctic environmental protection, the U.S. Interior Department of the Interior—for the first time led by a Native American, Deb Haaland—in April delayed the opening of 28 million acres of Alaskan land to mining and mineral development, largely to placate the Democratic pParty’s progressive wing, although with clear implications for Alaska.

Haaland’s appointment to the Cabinet highlights the Biden administration’s efforts to promote ethnic diversity in the government and affirm the rights of Indigenous peoples in the United States as a whole. Empowering Arctic Indigenous peoples also has been a component of the Arctic Council since its inception, and Haaland’s appointment could lead to greater U.S. advocacy in that forum on that issue (a topic on which Moscow generally has appeared lukewarm).

The Biden administration does not want conflict in the Arctic, but is responding to what it sees as growing threats from Russia. The recent American deployment of B-1 bombers to Norway is in response to Russia’s increased strategic bomber flights to that area from the Kola Peninsula.

A major security incident between Russia and the West in the Arctic remains less likely than elsewhere in Europe, but spillover into the Arctic certainly is possible given the seemingly never-ending downward spiral in relations between Russia and the West.

Biden appears eager to prevent that from happening, but the potential for tension in the region depends not only on the U.S. administration, but on the actions of Russia (and China) too. Any Russian effort to tone down its rhetoric and curb some of its military muscle-flexing in the north would be a key step to helping Biden to manage competing stakeholders, including aggressive ones, in U.S. Arctic policy and find areas to cooperate in the Far North that are in both countries’ interests.

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