Russian aggression unlikely to hit Arctic, say security experts

Julia Gourley, senior Arctic official at the State Department. (Photo: Liz Ruskin)
Julia Gourley, senior Arctic official at the State Department. (Photo: Liz Ruskin)

Russia is antagonizing the U.S. on multiple fronts these days, in Europe, in Syria and in cyberspace, if claims prove true that Moscow is behind some high-profile email hacks. But in the Arctic, Russia is still playing nice. That’s one conclusion a panel of national security experts made at a Washington, D.C. briefing today.

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Russia has certainly built up its military on its side of the Arctic. It has installed or refurbished Arctic bases, enlarged ports and built new airfields.

“But the fact is there’s really no evidence of aggressive intent by Russia,” says Julia Gourley, the senior Arctic official at the State Department. She says it appears Russia is gearing up to protect its economic interests. (It has offshore oilwells.)

“Frankly, all countries would do the same,” she said at a Capitol Hill briefing for Congressional staff.

Warnings of a massive Russian land grab have been circulating since 2007, when a Russian submarine planted a flag on the Arctic seabed, at the North Pole. Russia has submitted a claim to a UN commission for more Arctic territory, based on how far it says its continental shelf extends into the ocean. The documents aren’t public, but Gourley says the State Department believes Russia did not make an outlandish claim.

“In determining its outer limits of the continental shelf, so far there are no overlaps with the United States, from what we know of its submission,” she said.

The U.S. is still mapping its continental shelf in the Arctic.

John Pendleton, a military expert at the Government Accountability Office, agrees with Gourley: It’s likely Arctic warfare is NOT on the horizon.

The Department of Defense “has assessed the threat of military conflict – we have it from several sources – is low in the near term. Armed conflict,” he said.

Sherri Goodman sounds more wary. She’s a former Pentagon official and now a think-tank fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She says the U.S. needs to assert its military presence in the Arctic and remain alert for changes in Russia, for signs it may be “resurgent” in the north, as it is elsewhere.

“I agreed that today we are not facing those challenges in the Arctic, with Russia,” she said. “But we’ve got to operate up there with eyes wide open.”

All the panelists concurred on the need for more icebreakers and for Arctic ports. They were speaking to a room full of Congressional aides, the people who work for the people who could fund such projects.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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