British Parliamentarians: Russian Military Expansion in the Arctic “Of Significant Concern”

August 26, 2016 in Blog

British Parliamentarians recently expressed concerns about Russia’s increasing military aggression in the Arctic, adding yet another voice to the large contingent of military leaders around the world who are worried about Russia’s activities in the region – and the lack of commensurate engagement by other countries in the Arctic. As the U.S. Department of the Interior finalizes its forthcoming 2017-2022 offshore oil and gas leasing program, it should listen to these voices and include the Arctic for the same reason that it excluded the Atlantic from the leasing program earlier this year: to support America’s ability to defend our interests domestically and abroad.

In a report that was released earlier this summer, the British Parliament’s Defence Committee concluded that “Russian military expansion in the [Arctic] region is of significant concern,” given Russia’s functioning Arctic military bases and icebreakers. The Committee warned that the melting ice may have “significant defense and security implications,” and that while the Arctic is not a militarized zone at present, “increasing tensions leave the future uncertain.”

The concerns raised by the Defence Committee are hardly surprising, given Russia’s recent escalation of activities in the Arctic. In June, Russia launched the world’s biggest and most powerful icebreaker, making its icebreaker fleet now 42-strong. Last year, it had already established six new bases in the Arctic, including 16 deepwater ports and 13 airfields. At the beginning of this month, Russian oil company Gazprom Neft announced that it had brought its third and fourth wells – out of a planned total of 32 wells – into production at the Prirazlomnoye field in the offshore Arctic.

By contrast, the Obama Administration may remove the Arctic from the upcoming oil and gas leasing program entirely, effectively banning Arctic offshore oil and gas development for the foreseeable future.

Given that the oil and gas industry plays an important role in meeting infrastructural needs and filling resource gaps in the region – including saving the day in not one but two search-and-rescue missions in recent years – preventing private sector investment in the Arctic would be a mistake that the U.S. cannot afford to make. That’s why prominent leaders in the American defense community have been speaking up in support of Arctic oil and gas development for national security purposes.

In June, a group of former military leaders, led by former Defense Secretary William Cohen and former Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Joseph Ralston, submitted a 58-star letter to the Department of the Interior urging the agency to allow for Arctic offshore oil and gas leasing. In the letter, the former generals and admirals explain that the private sector, by helping pool resources and share costs and expertise, is integral to the military’s efforts to defend U.S. interests in the Arctic.

A month later, a group of senior national security experts, led by former National Security Advisor to President Obama Gen. James Jones, issued a statement reiterating the theme of government cooperation with the private sector in the Arctic: “All major U.S. agency Arctic strategies rely on government and private sector cooperation, including private infrastructure investments that facilitate presence and leverage resources.” They also write that the U.S. is “at risk of being eclipsed by other Arctic states for access and influence” and that it is time to “establish a meaningful presence” in the region.

To put additional pressure on Interior to include the Arctic in the leasing program, Gens. Ralston and Jones wrote an opinion piece earlier this month explaining that the agency’s leasing program “could not come at a more crucial time” and that “it is important to keep all options on the table in the rapidly-changing context of the Arctic”:

“The Department of Interior’s review of its five-year oil and gas leasing program – which proposes two new lease sales in the Arctic – could not come at a more crucial time. Private investment and U.S. presence in the Arctic have been underpinned by the oil and gas industry, and it is important to keep all options on the table in the rapidly-changing context of the Arctic. …

“As two former Commanders of NATO militaries, let us be clear: removing Arctic lease sales will only further signal a strategic withdrawal from the region. This decision will have a profound effect on our ability to project presence and maintain U.S. interests in the Arctic. Energy and natural resources have long provided the lifeblood for economic investment and growth, buoying the local economy, supporting communities on the North Slope, and providing a foundation for continued military investment. With a resurgent Russia and complicated border issues that require intricate diplomacy, it is time for the U.S. to resume its place as a global leader in the Arctic and back its claims with action.”

A few days later, Guy F. Caruso, former head of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, penned a piece arguing that the “connection between Alaskan offshore leases and U.S. national security should not be overlooked,” and that oil and gas leases is a national security issue that “affects all Americans”:

“In order to hinder Russia’s efforts towards energy domination in North America, the U.S. should move forward with the offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska. The offshore leases are not just an Alaska issue, but a national security one, as it affects all Americans who wish to see the U.S. as a leader in energy.”

Last year, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft warned, “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now. … We’re not playing in this game at all.” Whether or not Interior decides to include the Arctic in the leasing program will reflect the Administration’s decision to participate in the game – and its commitment to protecting America’s interests in the Arctic.