A few weeks ago, U.S Senator John McCain visited Bodø and Svalbard to hold meetings with Norway’s defence and foreign ministers. Back in the U.S., the Republican politician warned his compatriots that the real “Arctic danger” is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, not climate change.
– Obama focuses on global warming while Putin’s neo-imperialist dreams continue to spread north, Senator John McCain wrote in an opinion piece recently published in The Wall Street Journal.
McCain and his fellow senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, visited Oslo, Bodø and Svalbard about three weeks ago. In Oslo, they met with Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Defence Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide.
Security and defence policy issues, as well as the Arctic and climate, were among the topics that the American and Norwegian the politicans discussed.
McCain summed up his three-day visit to Norway and the Arctic thus:
– While we saw the challenges of melting polar ice, we also saw a greater and more immediate threat. It is a menace that many assumed was relegated to the past: an aggressive, militarily capable Russian state that is ruled by an anti-American autocrat, hostile to our interests, dismissive of our values, and seeking to challenge the international order that U.S. leaders of both parties have maintained for seven decades.
Want to reassert dominance
-Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions are clear enough in his attempt to dominate Russia’s neighbors, Ukraine most of all. But his ambitions increasingly extend to the Arctic and Europe’s northern flank. That is where I and my colleagues met with leaders and security officials from Norway, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, McCain writes.
Like the U.S., these nations don’t want a return to the Cold War, he says.
– But Russia’s aggressive behavior has led them to conclude President Putin wants exactly that. They see Russia’s undeclared, grinding war on Ukraine as a test, both for Moscow’s campaign to reassert Russian dominance of its so-called near abroad and the response of the trans-Atlantic community.
In McCain’s view, Russia is rushing to nationalize and to control new waterways across the Arctic Ocean that would clear the way for not only commercial shipping, but also military and intelligence activities.
– Vast natural resources, including oil and gas, could become available for exploitation, potentially transforming the Arctic into a new theater of geopolitical competition, the U.S Senator says.
Territorial claims also a problem
He claims that officials from each of the countries he visited expressed the same concern; that Russia is threatening the security and prosperity of the Arctic and Northern Europe by assertively deploying its military power, patrolling its neighbor’s coastlines both above and below water, and building or reopening numerous military outposts across the region.
Russian provocations and territorial claims in the Arctic also threaten U.S. national-security interests, McCain says.
– A few months ago, Russia submitted a claim of 1.2 million square kilometers of the Arctic continental shelf, including the North Pole, to the United Nations.
– The new submission is based on more solid scientific research, Swedish Fredrik Paulsen, a member of the Russian expedition to the North Pole – Arktika 2007,told the news agency RIA Novosti last November.
– Russia’s military expansion in the Arctic and North Atlantic appears to be an attempt to establish de facto control over these vital areas, much as China is seeking to do in the South China Sea. In both cases, the U.S. response has so far been feeble. That is alarming, because freedom of the seas is essential to the modern way of life, McCain says.
– Any action by Russia that impedes movement in the Arctic may ultimately threaten the peace of the Atlantic and the intercontinental ties between the U.S. and our closest allies and trading partners in Europe, he adds.
John McCain currently serves as Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services.
– Alliances need to be renewed
– Defending America’s national interests in the Arctic will require bringing renewed energy to our alliances and partnerships, he says in The Wall Street Journal.
In April, the United States took over the Chairmanship in the Arctic Council. Over the next two years, the U.S should make “recognition of Mr. Putin’s hegemonic ambitions a top priority and increase cooperation with our Arctic partners to deter Russia from instigating a new “great game” in the Arctic”, McCain says.
– We must also provide robust support for the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. But amid budget constraints and worsening global crises, the Arctic challenge is stark. Traveling in the region often requires heavy icebreakers. Russia currently operates 27 of these vessels. The U.S. has two, one of which is not currently operational, he says, and quotes what U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Paul F. Zukunft told Newsweek in an interview published in July:
– “We’re not even in the same league as Russia right now. We’re not playing in this game at all.”
According to McCain, Moscow is waging a Cold war updated for the 21st century, employing modern military tactics and weapons systems, side by side with advanced cyber and space capabilities.
– It is not that the U.S. and our allies are doing nothing in response to this new Russian threat, but nothing we are doing has been successful in establishing deterrence, he concludes.
Increased budgets and cooperation
– To be successful, the U.S. must end the arbitrary caps on defence spending imposed by the Budget Control Act and return to a strategy-driven defence budget. America’s European and NATO partners must spend more on defence—at a minimum, meeting the NATO commitment of 2 percent of gross domestic product. But they also have to spend strategically by investing in interoperability and high-priority and high-demand systems, including missile defence, aerial refueling and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The good news, he summarizes, is that some European countries are responding to what he describes as the new strategic realities in Europe.
– Norway continues to be a leading military power in Europe. Sweden, which has suffered brazen Russian incursions into its territorial waters and airspace, is planning a defense-spending increase to improve training and acquire vital military capabilities, including submarines, fighters jets and air defenses, he says, before adding that also the Baltic States are stepping up as well.
To deter Vladimir Putin’s quest for a new form of Russian empire, the U.S. Senator believes there is a need for more cooperation.
– With each of these nations, and other European and NATO allies, the U.S. must encourage greater security cooperation, robust military exchanges and exercises, and improved intelligence capabilities, McCain concludes.