Arctic pact may herald cooperation in region
By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 13, 2011
STUTTGART, Germany —When the U.S., Russia and other Arctic nations reached a deal Thursday to cooperate on search-and-rescue missions in the Arctic, U.S. officials pointed to the agreement as a signal of the kind of cooperation that is possible in an increasingly strategic region, where melting ice could open access to unreachable reserves of oil, natural gas and other mineral wealth.
But much remains to be addressed by the eight-nation Arctic Council, including questions of territorial claims, as those countries with interests in the vast region jockey for control of resources.
“This region matters greatly to us,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, after meeting with her Danish counterpart on Thursday.
In recent months, the Defense Department has restructured responsibilities for the so-called High North, which had been divided among three commands.
U.S. Northern Command’s area of responsibility was expanded earlier this year to include the North Pole and the Bering Strait.
U.S. European Command’s area was extended to include the water space of the Laptev and Eastern Siberian seas north of Russia. While NORTHCOM will be the lead advocate for Arctic issues within the Defense Department, EUCOM will manage military relationships with other Arctic nations in Europe.
At Northern Command and European Command headquarters, officials have launched a review of the assets that will be required in the region in the years ahead.
“That’s still up for debate,” said Lt. Col. Kent Strader, who handles Arctic strategy for NORTHCOM. “We haven’t finalized our analysis at this point.”
Col. Daniel Neuffer, the lead officer for Arctic issues at EUCOM, said the review will look at the Arctic from a long-term perspective.
“What capabilities will we need 30 years from now? That’s the assessment we’re going through,” he said.
Russia has devoted billions of dollars to equipment required to operate in the Arctic. James Carafano, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has written about how to focus U.S. interests in the Arctic, said the U.S. needs to do more.
“I think the less we pay attention (to the Arctic), the more likely it is going to be a zone of conflict.”
Neuffer downplays the notion that the U.S. needs to match Russia, which outnumbers the U.S. in ice-breaking vessels, ship for ship.
“It’s unfair to compare our requirement there to the Russians,’” he said. “The Russians don’t have the Gulf of Mexico. All their ports are frozen over during the winter.”
The U.S., which maintains an air base in Greenland, is on the Arctic council because of Alaska. The other member nations are Russia, Canada, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, which represents Greenland.
Officials at NORTHCOM and EUCOM say the recent command reorganization should better position the U.S. to manage military concerns in the Arctic.
Carafano said EUCOM should have whole responsibility for U.S. interests there.
“What’s the country you’re concerned about in the Arctic? Russia. What does EUCOM focus on? Russia.”
Four years ago, Russia planted its flag on the ocean floor under the Arctic ice, symbolically staking its claim.
Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitriy Rogozin, was quoted in a classified U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks, as reported by The Associated Press, as saying, “Russia should not be defeated” in the fight for resources.
“I think for Russian sustained growth, they will continue to need to harvest more natural resources,” Neuffer, of EUCOM, said. “But nobody wants a conflict, because you can’t extract anything if you’re ducking bullets. In the Arctic, I think, cooler heads will probably prevail.”
In September, Russia and Norway signed a treaty that ended a four-decade dispute over maritime borders in the Arctic and opened the way to commercial oil exploration.
Clinton said the agreement reached on search-and-rescue cooperation should serve as an example of how member nations of the Arctic Council should work together. It also marked the first legally binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the council, which was set up in 1996.
Whether the council can be an arbiter on thornier issues such as land rights and thus access to potential oil and gas reserves remains to be seen.
“The search-and-rescue agreement, which we co-chaired with Russia ... is an example of how the council can work collectively to effect positive change,” Clinton said.
Charles Emmerson, an Arctic expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, said Thursday’s agreement in Greenland could be a step to reducing the chances for future conflict in the region.
“It’s a very positive, cooperative step forward,” Emmerson said. “I don’t really think this affects in any specific way the issue of territorial claims, but what you can say is that a cooperative partnership is developing in Arctic governance, which bodes well for agreement on territorial boundaries in the future. This has been developing for some years.”