Accurate threat assessment is vital to the formulation of foreign policy. Across centuries of political and technological change, the giants of strategy—from Sun-tzu and Thucydides to Carl von Clausewitz and George Kennan—warned against exaggerating threats and ignoring their geopolitical context. Still, ideologically driven threat inflation—from a phantom Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin to nonexistent Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapons—has repeatedly led the United States into costly quagmires. Despite this history, the country is again on the brink of an ideologically driven blunder—this time in the Arctic.

For over a decade, defense hawks have been sounding an alarm over Russia’s supposed military superiority and incipient aggression in the region. Previous U.S. presidents resisted the bait, avoiding confrontation and embracing cooperation through the multinational Arctic Council established after the end of the Cold War. They knew that Russia’s forces in the region were defensively structured and weaker than they were before the Soviet collapse in 1991, despite efforts to rebuild them that began in the mid-2000s. Previous U.S. presidents also knew that U.S. and NATO forces had the clear upper hand in the Arctic and that predictions of Russian aggression were mainly threat-mongering by armchair analysts and vested political interests.

But the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has recently embraced Arctic alarmism with a vengeance. It has stoked fears of Russian and Chinese “aggression,” trashed the Arctic Council’s delicate diplomacy, and adopted a new confrontational posture. In so doing, it joins the alarmists in three serious mistakes: the failure to assess specific threats accurately, the failure to consider an adversary’s forces in relation to those of the United States and its allies, and the failure to evaluate the broader strategic landscape—the political, economic, and environmental factors beyond the battlefield. Violation of these three pillars of careful threat assessment is drawing the United States toward an unnecessary confrontation in a region where the real enemy isn’t Cold War ghosts but looming environmental disaster.

THE IMPORTANCE OF ACCURACY

A staple of the new Arctic alarmism is the “icebreaker gap”—the notion that Russia’s large fleet of icebreaking vessels poses a threat of naval aggression. Alarmists invoke the term seemingly unaware that it echoes the so-called bomber and missile gaps of the 1950s and 1960s—false claims of Soviet nuclear superiority that justified an expensive and precarious nuclear arms race. In fact, Russia’s icebreaker fleet performs overwhelmingly civilian missions. And given that Russia has ten times as much Arctic coastline as the United States and is roughly 50 times as economically dependent on the region, it would be strange indeed if Russia’s icebreaker fleet were not far larger than the U.S. fleet.

Handwringing over the icebreaker gap also suggests a lack of understanding about what these vessels actually do. Russia’s icebreakers perform the same coast guard functions as Canadian, Norwegian, and U.S. ships: search-and-rescue missions, antismuggling operations, oil-spill responses, and supply deliveries for research stations and remote coastal communities. They also escort cargo vessels across the ice-choked Northern Sea Route that links Europe and Asia. Some Russian icebreakers do seasonally escort naval vessels into or out of port through treacherous icy waters, but this reflects a weakness, not a strength. Three of the Russian navy’s fleets—the Baltic, Black Sea, and Pacific fleets—can access the high seas only via narrow “choke points” where enemies closely track them. The fourth, Russia’s Northern Fleet, faces the additional burden of enduring a brutal, months-long Arctic winter during which Russian ships can pick their way to safer seas only in the wake of a plodding icebreaker. U.S. warships face no such challenges.

The United States is on the brink of an ideologically driven blunder in the Arctic.

Nevertheless, some Arctic alarmists advocate the creation of a large and even nuclear-powered U.S. icebreaker fleet that could escort U.S. Navy warships into combat on the polar icecap. Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, has argued that “the highways of the Arctic are paved by icebreakers. . . . Russia has superhighways, and we have dirt roads.” Claims like this reveal ignorance of how icebreakers actually function. Churning through pack ice more than three feet thick, an icebreaker leaves a narrow path choked with jagged floes (one cubic meter of ice weighs nearly 2,000 pounds). The steel plating of a U.S. Navy destroyer is less than one-half-inch thick. Even a polar-rated cargo ship has a more ice-resistant hull. If a destroyer treats this ice-clogged channel as a superhighway, it runs the risk of a deadly collision. Moreover, ships are limited to the speed of their escorts, which plow through three to six feet of ice at under ten nautical miles per hour, even in good weather. In severe weather—fierce winds and powerful waves that encase the ship’s deck and superstructure in ice—progress slows to a crawl. The United States’ fast, stealthy, thin-hulled warships would become sitting ducks.

Some Arctic hawks tout Russia’s so-called combat icebreaker as a unique threat—a ship “built specifically for Arctic fighting.” But the recently launched Ivan Papanin hardly represents an escalation in the Arctic arms race since it was modeled on existing NATO vessels such as Norway’s Svalbard, in service since 2002. It also resembles the Danish Knud Rasmussen–class ships that have been deployed since 2008. Other similar offshore patrol vessels include Finland’s Pohjanmaa-class and Canada’s Harry DeWolf–class ships. All are roughly 300 feet long, cruise at 20 knots, can break three feet of ice, and carry multiple weapons. All are also designed for Coast Guard–type patrol and search-and-rescue missions, as well as possible armed conflict. The Ivan Papanin is Russia’s first in this category and differs mainly in that it is still not operational. Behind schedule and already outnumbered, it hardly lives up to its billing by one analyst as “Russia’s Trump Card in the Battle for the Arctic.”

BALANCE OF FORCES  

If fears of an icebreaker gap stem in part from an exaggeration of Russian capabilities, they also reflect a failure to evaluate such capabilities in relation to U.S. and allied forces. The mere number of Russian ships or planes means little in isolation. What counts is how those forces stack up against their potential opponents. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. assessments not only exaggerated the total number of Soviet bombers and missiles but also often ignored the United States’ countervailing forces—which were nearly always more accurate, reliable, and technologically advanced. In today’s Arctic, alarmists highlight Russia’s assets while omitting similar scrutiny of U.S. and NATO forces. For example, alarmists note that Russia’s Arctic-based Northern Fleet is its navy’s largest. But the entire Northern Fleet still has fewer than 40 surface ships—half of which date to the Cold War. Now, subtract smaller coastal-patrol craft and what remains are barely a dozen major combatants. A host of problems from faulty turbines to obsolete air-defense systems have delayed newer Russian ships from entering service. The same problems plague Russia’s submarine fleet, which is consistently outclassed by the U.S. Navy’s modern torpedo and cruise-missile-firing attack submarines.

By contrast, the recent Trident Juncture exercise brought 65 U.S. and NATO ships to the Arctic and involved the first transit of a U.S. aircraft carrier across the Arctic Circle since 1991. In a crisis, NATO could surge far more naval power to the region, vastly outmatching the Russians. This power includes ballistic missile subs recently adapted to launch cruise missiles and deploy special forces. Despite U.S. fears of Russian submarines infiltrating Scandinavian waters, it is the United States that now has greater sub-based land-attack capabilities.

Decommissioned aircraft near Murmansk, Russia, October 2019
Decommissioned aircraft near Murmansk, Russia, October 2019
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

A similar mismatch exists when it comes to Arctic air power. Alarmists hype the threat posed by some dozen “airbases” that Russia has built or reopened after 20 years of abandonment. But these outposts are better described as airstrips. Manned by small crews, none of them is capable of hosting even a single squadron of fighter jets. Instead, they mainly support antiair and antiship batteries—early-warning radars and short-range missiles designed to defend approaches to Russian territory. Russian fighter jets still deploy from the same distant mainland bases that they did 30 years ago and, due to a modest in-air refueling capability, have a limited combat radius. As a result, the Russian air force offers a formidable defense against any intruder, but it is neither structured nor based for major offensive operations.

Meanwhile, the United States and NATO can summon several hundred stealth F-22 and F-35 fighters for long-range Arctic missions. Russia, for its part, still has no stealth fighters with similar ability to penetrate air defenses. Both in the air and at sea, it is the United States and its allies that possess the greater Arctic power-projection capability.

STRATEGIC CONTEXT

Cold War era threat inflation was driven by a belief in a relentless Kremlin strategy for world domination. The United States discounted evidence that by the 1970s, the Soviet leadership had grown deeply conservative—afraid of U.S. military and technological might, seeking not to advance but merely to shore up its tottering global positions—in favor of dire assessments of Soviet readiness to launch a major war. Today, the belief in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unrelenting hostility fuels an exaggeration of Russia’s strength and aggressive design.

Alarmists consistently shade facts to fit this narrative: Russian bombers intercepted by NATO fighters near Alaskan or Norwegian airspace are practicing bombing runs, while U.S. bombers intercepted by Russian fighters close to Russian airspace in the Baltic or Black Seas are on “training missions.” Russian amphibious exercises in the Arctic are offensive, but similar U.S.-NATO maneuvers are defensive. Some even see a Russian attack on the Baltics or Norway—virtually inconceivable, as it would bring swift military as well as political and economic ruin—as a realistic possibility. Such exaggeration in turn fuels the cycle of buildup and counterbuildup.

A more realistic approach to assessing Russia’s Arctic policy does not ignore Russia’s recent military buildup but places it in context. That means, first of all, acknowledging that the balance of forces still strongly favors the West. This approach also recognizes 25 years of Russian cooperation in the Arctic, including Moscow’s constructive role on the Arctic Council and fealty to the principle that territorial disputes can be settled only through the UN Law of the Sea process. (The only Arctic nation that has not acceded to the Law of the Sea is the United States.) Above all, realists appreciate Russia’s emotional and economic stake as an Arctic nation and understand that bluster aimed at a domestic audience reflects not strength but insecurity.

COLD WAR REDUX

Arctic alarmism began over a decade ago with fears of a Russian “grab” for the North Pole’s undersea riches. Today, that alarm has shifted to fears of Russia’s ability to push NATO out of the region. Russia’s coastal defenses are described in think tank analyses as “core components of an anti-access/area denial bubble” while their naval deployments pose “a direct challenge to transatlantic sea lines of communication that are essential to Allied reinforcement of Europe in the event of any major conflict.” This is Cold War–style threat inflation, as Russia’s air-defense radars and missiles simply do not approach such capability. The possibility of Russia’s tiny fleet charging into the North Atlantic to attack NATO reinforcements during a major war is suicidally, apocalyptically remote. 

A more realistic concern is not that Russia will gain complete dominance but that NATO will lose it. Moscow’s modest buildup could threaten NATO’s ability to keep the Russian navy contained in its home Arctic waters and block it from transiting the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. NATO has historically controlled this choke point, allowing it to project power freely in those waters. Now, Russia has begun pushing back. Like China in its coastal waters—though less aggressively—Russia is essentially saying, “Your air force will not dominate our skies without challenge, nor will your carriers and cruise-missile-firing submarines approach our shores with impunity.” The real strategic choice is whether to seek an accommodation that permits some measure of mutual security or to insist on continued U.S.-NATO dominance and risk escalating Arctic confrontation.

The Arctic is enduring a catastrophic acceleration of environmental degradation.

Last spring, the Trump administration came out unequivocally for dominance. It denounced Russian aggression, mocked the Arctic Council’s diplomacy, and even berated allies such as Denmark for rejecting an offer to purchase Greenland. Trump recently announced the potential acquisition of foreign Arctic bases and additional, nuclear-powered icebreakers. His administration has also added China to the list of Arctic aggressors because Beijing’s modest research and investment projects trigger alarm over a “militarized polar silk road.” China is dependent on trade between Asia and Europe, so its interest in the Northern Sea Route and self-identification as a “near-Arctic power” are entirely reasonable—yet the latter claim caused U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to erupt in fury.

Senior U.S. Air Force and Navy officials have also begun touting strategies to project combat power into the Arctic and have even suggested reviving a Cold War policy of sending carrier strike groups into the Barents Sea: “That strategy really broke the back of Gorbachev,” U.S. Admiral James G. Foggo III said in a recent statement. “They pulled everything back to protect the homeland and the Barents. So it was effective. . . . [in] bringing the former Soviet Union to its knees.” More worrisome still was the Trump administration’s recent decision to send a naval flotilla to the Barents Sea near Russia and its plans for more “freedom of navigation operations.” These maneuvers in Russian-claimed waters are designed to demonstrate that the United States does not accept Moscow’s boundaries. As one Arctic expert warned, rather than just “poking the bear,” such aggressive operations in Russian coastal waters “would be more akin to crawling into the bear’s den and kidnapping one of her cubs.”

THE REAL ARCTIC ENEMY

One very real threat that the ideologically driven Trump administration has not acknowledged is climate change. At the outset of the new millennium, a U.S. Navy study with the forward-looking title “Naval Operations in an Ice Free Arctic” included a recommendation to buy more icebreakers. This evident contradiction highlights the failure of many U.S. strategists to appreciate what an ice-free Arctic actually means or, more broadly, to comprehend how the changing environment will soon negate the assumptions upon which U.S. strategy are based. Instead of one more venue for competition with Russia, a rapidly warming Arctic will be the locus of a cascading series of environmental, economic, and public health disasters that will render both countries’ traditional political and military priorities moot.

The Arctic is enduring a catastrophic acceleration of environmental degradation. A retreating icecap opens the seas to unpredictable currents and ferocious storms, which batter the coasts while the interior is threatened by uncontrollable wildfires above and sinking tundra below. It takes little imagination, only extrapolation from what is already underway, to see how this wreaks havoc on the Arctic hawks’ plans. Unseasonal storms will threaten hundreds of lives on a stricken cruise ship. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost each time a tanker collides with a NATO frigate as navies raise their operational tempo in crowded Arctic seas. Billions more will disappear and incalculable environmental damage will be done with each new oil spill. Even the “ordinary” cost of repairing infrastructure atop sinking permafrost will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Add to that the staggering costs of replacing income from collapsed farms and fisheries and of relocating coastal communities, and the colossal expense of simply surviving Arctic climate change makes that of a simultaneous arms race inconceivable. As for armed conflict in the region, in the words of Canadian Brigadier General Mike Nixon, “It would quickly turn into the largest search and rescue operation the world has ever seen.”

Blind to looming disaster, Trump’s desire to dominate an Arctic endowed with endless U.S. oil brings to mind a crusader from the Middle Ages who, while seeking to export his faith on a journey of conquest, unwittingly imports a plague that devastates his own country. This is no casual metaphor. Scientists have long warned about the dangers of disease in a warming Arctic and traced recent anthrax outbreaks to spores from the thawing carcasses of long-frozen animals. Virologists have “awakened” dormant viruses from the permafrost, and biologists are charting the warming-fueled spread of disease in Arctic fish and mammals. The collapse of key species or the spread of disease between species, including humans, could make the Arctic the source of the next global pandemic.

In the face of all this, bromides from analysts such as Heather Conley that “the country that controls the Arctic controls the world” are extremely shortsighted. Climate-driven crises upend traditional notions of political-military control. The looming catastrophe can be managed only cooperatively. Thirty years ago, as the United States and the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and pondered how to eliminate chemical weapons, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker proposed disposing of them “somewhere in the Arctic.” Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev replied: “That would be even worse” because, in the Arctic, “the ecological balance cannot be disturbed under any circumstances.” Let the wisdom of their predecessors guide today’s leaders in halting an incipient Arctic arms race that can only hasten global catastrophe. 

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  • ROBERT DAVID ENGLISH is Associate Professor of International Relations and Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California and a former analyst at the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • MORGAN GRANT GARDNER is a graduate student in Science and Security at King’s College and a former research associate at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
  • More By Robert David English
  • More By Morgan Grant Gardner