Russia’s NS 50 Let Pobedy icebreaker, the largest until the new Arktika was launched in 2016. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Most media coverage has been trained on Russia’s involvement in Syria, but Moscow is quietly beating America in a turf war on top of the Earth: the Arctic Circle.

Right now, Russia stands as the foremost military and exploration leader in the region. It has 40 icebreakers—huge ships designed to push through ice-covered waters to safe passage ways for other vessels—in service with 11 currently in production. By comparison, America only has one, the Polar Star, that is operational. The other one it does have is broken. Russia also has six military bases, 16 deepwater ports and 13 airbases. Protecting these bases are S-400 long-range surface to air missiles. By comparison, the U.S. has no major military bases north of the Arctic Circle.

The new Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika (Arctic) launches in St. Petersburg, Russia, Thursday, June 16, 2016. Russia has been modernizing its icebreaker fleet as part of its efforts to strengthen its Arctic presence. (AP Photo/Evgeny Uvarov)

And in June, Russia launched its new nuclear-powered Arktika, the world’s biggest and most powerful icebreaker. At 567 feet long and 33,500 tones, the Arktika can smash through ice three meters thick. The ship will escort oil and gas boats from Yamal Peninsula and Gdansk oil fields to markets in the Asia-Pacific region. Also, they aren’t cheap. The Arktika reportedly cost $1.74 billion dollars.

Advertisement

It is no surprise that Russia is in control of the region, given that its has an enormous amount of territory there. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway are the other countries that have legal claim to Arctic territories. They have rights to resources in and below the ocean within 200 miles of their territories. However, Russia reigns supreme.

For one, Moscow has simply invested more financial resources in the region than any other nation and have been doing it longer. Russia was the first country to drill for oil in the Arctic in 1915. The Yermak, which was the first icebreaker in the world, was commissioned in 1898. Icebreakers were essential for the Russians for business purposes, as they needed to clear pathways on its northern shores to get to ports in St. Petersburg, Riga, Vladivostok and Arkhangelsk.

Russia’s Yamal icebreaker in 1994. Photo credit Wikimedia Commons

Most recently, in 2014, Russia became the first nation to ship offshore oil from the Arctic. Russian President Vladimir Putin was there to see the oil loading from the Prirazlomnoye drilling platform onto a tanker.

Sponsored

The Arctic environment is a very difficult area to explore because of its extreme cold and harsh conditions, but global warming and technological advances in drilling technologies are easing such difficulties. Russia’s fleet of 40 ice breakers don’t hurt, either.

Icebreakers serve a key economic geopolitical purpose for Russia: to create a new route of commerce that Russia can control almost unchallenged. Put it this way: Russia is in a position to create a new trading route in the Arctic that most nations do not have the location or resources to compete in.

Putin once boasted in 2011 that Arctic shipping routes along Russia’s northern coast can rival the Suez Canal as the primary link from Europe to Asia. That will not happen soon. The Suez Canal had 16,596 transits in 2014 compared to 71 in the Arctic. But that doesn’t mean the Arctic can’t become a key transit lane in the future. One that Russia controls.

Meanwhile, Washington doesn’t have as nearly a robust Arctic plan. There are many reasons for this. For starters, the Arctic is pretty damn harsh, and people try to stay away from it as much as possible. Also at play are environmental interests lobbying the U.S. and Canadian governments heavily with anti-drilling campaigns. Russia, however, does not have to contend with such issues because its government is not “predisposed to the will of the people.”

Advertisement

Basically, you can get arrested by Russian law enforcement for protesting drilling in the Arctic.

Equally important is that America’s geopolitical focus has been on hardware needs in the Middle East and Europe, where most of the NATO alliance is based. The consistent voices that have raised concerns about America’s footing in the Arctic are, well, people who live near it.

Advertisement

“What has been our national security strategy in the Arctic? Well I think until recently, from the U.S. perspective, from the [Pentagon] perspective, it really hasn’t existed,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said at a Center for Strategic International Studies event on Tuesday, according to Foreign Policy.

The USCGC Polar Star, the U.S. Coast Guard’s icebreaker. Photo credit AP

Another problem is the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates U.S. ice breakers, has been criticized for its rigid requirements of what it wants them to do. For example, $1 billion has been allocated to building a new icebreaker, an extreme sum of money, even for the Pentagon. Coast Guard officials are also reluctant to purchase or lease icebreakers from other nations, especially if they are nonmilitary vessels. Another problem is that U.S. law requires that Coast Guard vessels be built in America, unless the president has a compelling reason for them to be built overseas.

Compounding that problem is that the two shipbuilding companies that built the icebreakers America does have, Lockheed Shipbuilding of Seattle and Avondale Industries outside of New Orleans, are closed. Building an icebreaker stateside could take 10 years.

Advertisement

America needs icebreakers, in case you’re wondering. You can’t explore the depths of the Arctic, or traverse its seas, if you can’t get to it. If the U.S. wants to compete for its share of Arctic resources, it needs to invest in the hardware to do so. Otherwise, it’s an economic field in which the U.S. will be unable to compete because it literally cannot create its own lanes.

Speaking of lanes, transporting goods in the north can cut travel times between Europe and Asia by as much as 40 percent. As activity increases in the region, the U.S., arguably the world’s lone superpower, will need to have heavy engagement in the region to conduct scientific research rescue and patrol missions and maritime activities.

Advertisement

Without a major presence in the Arctic, America will be a world power with little say in one of the world’s most untapped regions.

The U.S. debate over icebreakers and competing with Russia over the Arctic really comes down to priorities and leadership. Washington’s attention for resources isn’t focused up north; it is focused towards the Middle East and that will not change for a very long time. Consequently, that is where most policymakers’ minds will be whenever they propose budgets.

Advertisement

There is one major wildcard in this whole conversation: President Donald Trump. He has been a major advocate of drilling in the Arctic. The problem is that former President Barack Obama enacted drilling restrictions in the Arctic before he left office, which will likely require legal action to reverse. Also in the picture is his new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. As CEO of ExxonMobile, Tillerson signed a drilling contract with Moscow to drill in the Arctic, but those plans were scuttled when Obama coordinated with Europe to sanction Russia over its annexation of Crimea and takeover of Ukraine’s Dombass region in 2014. Sanctions forbid U.S. companies to sell drilling technology to Russia, which it doesn’t have. It is estimated that ExxonMobile has lost more than a billion dollars as a result.

If Trump does lift sanctions and Tillerson does resume drilling talks with Russia, that will allow American energy companies to make money, but Russia has far more to gain. And lose.

Russia is a fossil fuel-driven economy and its oil and gas fields are depleting very quickly. As the world’s largest oil producing nation, it has to find new sources of oil and gas to keep up with the demand. At least 10 million barrels per day are needed to keep up with production demands beyond 2020, a Wilson Center report warns.

Advertisement

Ironically, though, Russia’s hardware still puts in the driver’s seat when it comes to controlling the Arctic Circle. Even if it cannot get to the energy reserves under the ocean because of technological drilling deficiencies, it’s certainly in control of activity above it.

And with 40 world class icebreakers ready to create new shipping lanes in the Arctic and a beefed up military to challenge any stake to it, Putin has a lot to feel confident about.