Arctic Priorities Questioned on Eve of U.S. Chairmanship

The United States assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council next week, kicking off a two-year window to assert American priorities in the region. The U.S. and other member nations have committed to making the Arctic a “zone of peace.” But now, some Arctic watchers wonder if the U.S. needs to add an item to its Arctic priority list:  get tough with Russia.

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Russia has been flexing its military might in northern skies and waters, and Swedish authorities last year reported a near miss with a Russian spy plane. Nordic ministers this week described Russia as the greatest threat to northern Europe’s security. Yet the U.S. says it still wants Russia to be its partner in the Arctic. Heather Conley, an Arctic expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says she’s unsure what to make of it.

“I am struggling with the concept of ‘partner,’ yet I’m seeing extraordinary aggressive actions, missing civilian airliners, a lot of military exercises in the Arctic,” Conley said.

Speaking at a forum in Washington, Conley says she’s increasingly concerned the U.S. government isn’t focusing enough attention on Russia’s behavior.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, at the same forum, said she’s committed to the Arctic “zone of peace” concept, but it requires that countries respect each other and Russia hasn’t been living up to that standard.

“And it causes me to wonder if they are not taking advantage of the fact that we have said, we want to be your friend. We want to be your partner in all of this. Well, if you want to be a partner, then you behave like one,” she said.

The senator says the U.S. government needs to send an equally strong message to Russia to let it know its actions are unacceptable.

“And as much as we want to be working together, we want to collaborate on scientific opportunities, we want to collaborate in areas of the environment, let’s not say one thing on the one hand and then our actions take us in a different direction,” she said. “We need to call Russia out when Russia needs to be called out.”

Murkowski was the keynote speaker at the Arctic forum, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her main message was that the Obama Administration should place a higher priority on the well-being of Arctic people, rather than giving climate change top billing.  Murkowski, though, says she agrees climate change, and how to adapt to it, is a valid Arctic issue.

“But it cannot be our sole and singular focus. And it cannot be held over or held against the people of the Arctic,” she said. “It should not be used as an excuse to prevent those who live in the Arctic from developing the resources available to them in order to create a better standard of living.”

Murkowski also addressed what other senators have called the irony of the Arctic: that rapid Arctic warming gives access to more petroleum, which, when burned, will bring on more warming. At a hearing last month on Arctic issues, a Democratic senator and a liberal independent asked why Arctic Slope witnesses favored oil development when their communities are the most vulnerable to climate change. Murkowski says the question ignores what resource development has brought to the North Slope, from medicine to search-and-rescue, and home heating.

“There is no irony in the people in the Arctic benefiting from the economic opportunities that are available in their region,” she said. “But there is an irony in deliberately limiting their economic future while claiming that somehow it is for their own good and somehow in their best interest.”

The Arctic Council meeting is next week in Canada. Russia’s foreign minister has declined to attend.