The Cold War comprised three highly symbolic frontiers – Europe’s Iron Curtain, the Bamboo Curtain in Asia, and the lesser known Ice Curtain marking the border between the United States and the Soviet Union.
This line, running from the Arctic Sea through the Bering Sea into the Pacific Ocean, has evaded headlines for many years. Thick layers of sea ice literally create an impassable wall between the countries.
Trade is negligible. The populations of Alaska and Chukotka Province on the Russian side are sparse with few hearts and minds to win. It was in the best interests of both governments to play out the Cold War in faraway regions rather than risk face-to-face conflict across a shared border.
But the sudden return of Russian military power to the global stage has given the Arctic region a critical focus as climate change melts sea ice and weakens the Ice Curtain.
Russia is bolstering its military presence there while reminding that its maritime boundary with the United States remains in dispute. For its part, the United States has stayed quiet – with a policy coming under criticism from the Alaskan state government and the Obama administration’s Republican opponents.
Climate change is forcing a reevaluation of political thinking particularly in the areas of trade and defense. Three issues in particular need closer attention considering there is no clear agreement about which governments control the maritime territory.
First is opening the northern Arctic trade route to Europe. It cuts 7,500 kilometers off the 21,000-kilometer journey through the Suez Canal from, say, Shanghai to Rotterdam. As Asia continues to expand more trade will be carried through here.
Only five years ago, just four commercial cargo ships transporting 111,000 tons managed to navigate these once inaccessible shipping lanes. In 2012, 46 ships carried 1.2 million tons, and five years from now estimates put such cargo as high as 30 million tons.
Second, the melting ice has exposed vast quantities of natural resources. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic accounts for 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its natural gas. With present technology, retrieving these resources is challenging, as shown by Royal Dutch Shell, pulling out of a multibillion dollar exploration project in September.
Third, Russia has announced that it is shoring up its Arctic military presence. It already has 13 airbases and 10 radar stations and is reopening six mothballed Cold War airbases as well as building two new ones. It plans to station its long-range TU-95 nuclear bombers there and is expanding naval and port facilities.
The United States has yet to respond. It has no permanent naval base. The US Coast Guard fleet patrols 3.8 million square miles of sea, an area of responsibility constantly increasing because of melting ice. Alaska has Fort Elmendorf Air Force and Fort Wainwright Army bases, but each is subjected to the country’s overall military reductions. “In the face of the Russian military buildup, we are significantly reducing army forces in our nation’s only Arctic state, Alaska,” says Dan Sullivan, a Republican Senator for Alaska. “This is a strategic blunder while Russia is adding four Brigade Combat Teams and building new airfields in the Arctic.”
Mainland Russia and the United States are separated by 88 kilometers in the Bering Strait. Two islands, Russia’s Big Diomede and America’s Little Diomede, have with less than 4 kilometers of water between them.
The Russian island includes military observation posts and a helicopter base. The US island is home for an Ingalikmiut Eskimo village community with fewer than 80 people. The Alaskan National Guard closed a small watch post in the 1990s.
The border is highly restricted with no crossing allowed though it’s unmarked with no national flags flying on either side. Nothing indicates where one nation ends and the other begins. This is part of a longstanding, although unwritten, agreement to keep the border low profile, a position reflected in recent statements from the US government.
Combative rhetoric is running high against Russia’s role in Ukraine and Syria, but in the Bering Strait, the United States has nothing but praise for Russia’s activities.
While in Europe, NATO reports a substantive increase in the scrambling of fighter planes to intercept Russian aircraft, on the US-Russia border, the level of intercepts remains at 10 per year, the same average for decades, according to the joint US-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD.
Officers categorize the border as non-hostile, with none of the aggression experienced by their colleagues in Europe. “The Russian aircrews act in a thoroughly professional manner,” says Col. Charles Butler, an F-22 fighter pilot and NORAD operations commander. “They are always outside our sovereign airspace so they are perfectly legal.”
Admiral Robert J Papp, US Special Representative for the Arctic, also describes the Russians as “enthusiastic and concerned about making sure that the Arctic remains a place of peace and cooperation which is consistent with the United States Arctic strategy.”
Much of the cooperation at present is done on the platform of shared search-and-rescue capability. But with rising tensions between Washington and Moscow, it’s far from certain how long such cooperation can last – or whether measures can be put in place to ring-fence the Arctic from wider global antagonism. The historical context of rivalries over trade routes and fossil fuel energy resources suggest a challenge.
One mechanism for cooperation is the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental regional forum set up in 1996 with eight permanent members, including Russia and the United States. As an indication of international interest, another 12 governments, including China, India, South Korea and Japan now have observer status. Asian governments have a powerful Arctic voice even though some borders are far from the region itself.
This could be an opportunity because Asian modern history is an example of where a skillful blend of trade and defense can work to dampen tensions. India and China and China and Taiwan are two examples.
Ambitious trade plans between Russia’s Far East and Alaska date back to the 19th century’s Tsar Nicholas 2nd. The first designs were drawn for a bridge across the Bering Strait, using the Diomede Islands as midway points. The modern concept, as proposed by Russian Railways President Vladimir Yakunin and formally supported by the Kremlin in 2011, is for an 130-kilometer long tunnel coupled with this plans for high-speed rail links through Russia, China, Japan, and the Korean peninsula extending through Alaska, Canada, and the rest of America.
“We like the idea,” says Craig Fleener of the Alaskan state government. “We’re barely connected to the rest of the world and our infrastructure in limited. It would give us direct access to the Asian markets.”
While trade cannot resolve everything, a vision to develop this isolated region would help dampen broader complex and divisive issues.
At the same time, the United States will have to respond to national security recommendations that it builds a permanent naval base in the Arctic region to balance the Russian projection of power. It might also consider rotating a small Alaskan National Guard Unit on Little Diomede which, despite being on an increasingly sensitive frontier, has no formal US government presence.
The United States has been caught on the back foot by Russia in both Ukraine and Syria and should keep a close eye on the Arctic as melting sea ice exposes a security vacuum on a quiet and once impenetrable border.