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The Arctic remains an overlooked foreign policy priority and missed national security opportunity.
While typically labeled as a challenge, the Arctic should be viewed as a strategic opportunity for security, business, and travel interests. With the melting of ice, as documented by scientists, comes the opportunity for shipping lanes to open, enhanced oil and natural resource development and even tourism. The Arctic is estimated to have 30 percent of the world's undiscovered gas and 15 percent of the undiscovered oil. Additionally, advances in technology and science mean these reserves are becoming easier to exploit.
Many "Arctic nations" are exploring the chances for asserting themselves in this region - such as Canada, Denmark, recently China - but none more so than President Vladimir Putin's Russia. During his annual address to the Russian people in December, Putin said a priority of his military commanders would be increasing Russian military presence in the Arctic, asking them to "pay particular attention to the deployment of infrastructure and military units in the Arctic … Next year, we have to complete the formation of large units and military divisions."
While Canada and others are declaring disputed regions as part of their continental shelf for domestic consumption or economic benefit, the Kremlin seems intent on creating dominance in the region as a goal. It appears Putin's Arctic ambitions are an element of his drive to restore some of the territory and influence that the Soviet Union enjoyed before its fall. Anton Vasilyev, Russia's envoy to the eight-nation Arctic Council, responds to such concern, "We see it as crucial to the social and economic development of the whole of Russia."
However, a well-regarded political scientist, Sergei Medvedev (called "a moron" by Putin), disagrees with his government's desire to dominate the region. "It's imperialism," he said. "Putin sees his ultimate mission as (re)assembling the former Soviet Union."
Regardless, the United States is taking note of these developments and needs to continue to place greater emphasis on this 21st century "wild, wild west." There are so many competing claims in the region, it would appear much of the Arctic must be viewed as international territory for both security concerns as well as the best means to ensure its preservation.
However, the new emphasis on a major Russian military presence in the region necessarily is cause for concern. The United States is responding and focusing greater time and energy on the region. Additionally, within the last six months, the administration delivered its "Arctic Strategy," and leaders from several governmental entities have increased time, energy and resources toward policy recommendations for the Arctic. It is time for Americans to turn their attention to the Arctic, and the possibilities associated there for business interests, maritime shipping and trade, potential tourism, and yes, for security purposes.
Glenn Sulmasy is a Coast Guard Academy law professor and the Homeland and National Security Law Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington D.C. The views expressed are his own.