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Window is closing for Canada and U.S. to defend the Arctic

For the past several years, Russia has spent billions of dollars to modernize Soviet-era installations in the Arctic region. There are already missile launchers and air defense systems dotting the roads at the various military bases along the country’s northern border that are now refurbished and occupied with troops.

Liberal John McKay, the Canadian co-chair of the Permanent Joint Board on Defence with the U.S. has grown very concerned about the military buildup and he fears Canada is just not ready to defend its territories. He warns that if Canada doesn’t act now, it will be too late and the country would end up losing its grip on the Arctic.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his country's efforts to expand its military pr...

Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up his country's efforts to expand its military presence in the Arctic

“There is a very dramatic buildup of Russian military capability right across the top end of Russia, starting with Norway, working right across, right through to Alaska,” McKay said Friday in an interview with Chris Hall airing today on CBC Radio’s The House.

The Northern Shamrock base
One such base, dubbed Severny Klever (Northern Shamrock) for its trefoil shape, is painted in the white, blue and red colors of the Russian national flag. The sprawling facility is designed so that its 250 military personnel can reach all parts of the base without ever going outside.

Airdrop on Kotelny Island in October 2013

Airdrop on Kotelny Island in October 2013,
Shugaev (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The base is strategically located on Kotelny Island. Kotelny Island is part of the Anzhu Islands subgroup of the New Siberian Islands located between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea in the Russian Arctic. Between 1933 and 1993, Kotelny Island hosted an important Soviet’s Northern Fleet base.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the naval base was evacuated and only a civilian arctic research station remained – at least until 2013 when the first steps were taken to reactivate the base. In September 2014, according to Tass, the 99th Tactic Arctic Group permanently established the base by beginning construction of a military air base, pier, and accommodation for troops and their families.

Icebreakers CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and USCGC Healy on a joint exercise in the Arctic.

Icebreakers CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent and USCGC Healy on a joint exercise in the Arctic.
Wikimedia Commons

The personnel on the base are responsible for maintaining air and sea surveillance facilities and coastal defenses like anti-ship missiles. There are enough supplies available that the isolated base can remain autonomous for well over a year.

“Our task is to monitor the airspace and the northern sea route,” said base commander Lt. Col. Vladimir Pasechnik, according to the Navy Times. “We have all we need for our service and comfortable living.”

With global warming, the receding polar sea ice is opening new paths for sea vessels and thoughts of natural resources unavailable before climate change came into the picture. This means there are quite a number of other countries also interested in staking their claims on the polar region.

The arctic town of Honningsvaag in northern Norway  seen in 2013  is set to host an important termin...

The arctic town of Honningsvaag in northern Norway, seen in 2013, is set to host an important terminal, where the Norwegian energy company Statoil was set to land the oil produced on the giant Johan Castberg offshore field in the Barents Sea
Pierre-Henry DESHAYES, AFP/File

The Arctic region is open for business
The United States, Canada, Denmark, and Norway are all jostling for position to stake their claim, but it is China that has raised serious concerns with the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon. Russia has a very long northern border facing the Arctic and has in the past usually been affable to cooperating with the United States on some Arctic issues, like search and rescue operations.

Last year, China declared itself a “near-Arctic nation” in an effort to inject Beijing into Arctic discussions and defend its desire for a “Polar Silk Road.” Perhaps more alarming is China’s willingness to bankroll projects for other countries in the Arctic region.

Beijing offered to back loans for three airports in Greenland recently, causing great concern for former defense secretary Jim Mattis because of their potential military applications. The Pentagon got in touch with Norway over the matter and Norway agreed to fund two of the airports with the Pentagon offering to fund undetermined airport infrastructure, defense officials said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesman said, “Countries should be wary of piling on monumental debt, particularly ‘loan to own’ projects, that undermines their freedom of political action and sovereign choices. Beijing’s lack of transparency in its polar research, expeditionary activities and approach to natural resource development is also of concern.”

With the Arctic free of sea ice most of the year  a cruise is not that unusual.

With the Arctic free of sea ice most of the year, a cruise is not that unusual.
Gary Bembridge from London, UK (CC BY 2.0)

China’s aggressiveness in the Arctic is very similar to what it has been doing in Latin America and Central America, as reported in Digital Journal the other day. American officials have become alarmed at the Chinese “invasion” into what has been a U.S.-dominated Western Hemisphere.

And as officials in Washington fret and stew over China’s ambitions in the region, China is all charm, wooing Panama’s politicians, professionals, and journalists, according to CTV News Canada.

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee
“We haven’t seen this sort of systematic and methodical increase in threats since the height of the Cold War,” Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy told U.S. and Canadian policymakers last month, asking them to think seriously about if they are doing enough to counter Russian threats in the far North.

McKay shares these concerns. “It’s not just simply the presence of significant numbers of troops but it’s also missiles, and ships, and ballistic missiles, and low-altitude cruise missiles,” he said. But McKay is not so sure the Trump administration understands what is at stake.

A Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean  near the North Pole on April 21  2015

A Norwegian research vessel in the Arctic Ocean, near the North Pole on April 21, 2015
Tore Meek, Scanpix/AFP/File

“Clearly, there is a certain indifference on the part of President [Donald] Trump.” But McKay also wants Canada to ramp up its defenses. “I would like to see more resources applied to what has become a security issue for us, primarily driven by the fact that climate change has opened up the sea lanes.”

McKay says the window is closing for Canada and the U.S. to take some action on protecting our defenses and the security of our countries. While Mr. McKay will have to define the problems with Canada’s government officials’ lack of any meaningful efforts to do something about the country’s Arctic security, in the U.S. it is just as bad.

We have an administration that ignores the science of climate change and a president totally wrapped up in closing the southern border with Mexico. As for Russia’s military buildup in the polar regions, if Vladimir Putin says it’s OK, Trump will take him at his word.

This is not to say the Trump administration is not developing a new Arctic strategy, because it is – but it is focused on China. The document will focus on how the Pentagon “can best defend U.S. national interests and support security and stability in the Arctic,” said Michael. The strategy is supposed to be released in June. We’ll see…

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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