Will the Arctic ‘Ice Curtain’ supplant Cold War ‘Iron Curtain'

Crewmen aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche keep watch from the bridge © U.S. Coast Guard / Chief Petty Officer Luke Pinneo / Handout via Reuters
The so-called ‘Ice Curtain’ continues as Western members of the Arctic Council and Russia display their differences on the geopolitical stage, Rob Huebert of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies told RT.

READ MORE: On Alaska visit, Obama pushes Arctic agenda

RT: President Obama and John Kerry are going to the Anchorage Arctic conference tomorrow. What do you make of the importance of the Arctic region and this meeting in particular for the US?

Rob Huebert: You’ve got several levels of importance. I think at the top level, and that is really looking at the Arctic as a circumpolar region, is that this is one of the first times that we see the Americans taking it seriously. One of the biggest challenges that we faced since the end of the Cold War is that the Americans have tended to take a very parochial view towards the Arctic. In other words, if it doesn’t pertain to Alaska, they haven’t been that terribly interested. So the fact that Obama is calling for such a meeting is important for the region.

The second area of importance - and it takes a little bit away from what I’ve just said - is that it’s clear that Obama set an interest in the Arctic after two terms as president, that he is seeing this as a part of his legacy package. So part of the problem of that that it’s very important for him: He gets to retire and say: “Oh, yes, I tried to do whatever I could for climate change for the Arctic.” The problem is that everybody will recognize that it is a legacy effort. The fact that he has shown no effort and no real interest up until this point in time. What that means is that his successor, Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter, tend to immediately start to ignore the issue. It’s got a relatively short lifespan.

I guess the third issue is the fact that this also has significance relative to the efforts to build up an international regime system in the Arctic. The Americans have gone to great pains to remind everybody that of their share in the Arctic Council, but that this is not an Arctic Council meeting, even though that the members that are being brought are all eight state members and all either observer states or states that want to have observer status in the Arctic Council. I would say that – and this is another unfortunate element of the way that this has been organized – it also has the overall impact of taking away from some of the developing international governing systems. In other words, I don’t understand why the Americans could not just simply say: “This is part and parcel of our Arctic Council chairmanship.” I think everyone would have agreed to it anyway. It is a little bit ‘one step forward, two steps back’ in terms of the importance factor.

“I don’t think there should be a competition for these resources because Russia has oil within its waters in the north Arctic and the US has oil in Alaska, which is near the Arctic Circle. Certainly there may be some disputed areas but I think both countries can exploit the resources in an economic sense without militarizing the region,” said Ivan Eland, defense and security analyst. 

RT: Former US navy Admiral Gary Roughead suggests that in the race for energy resources Russia and US are polar opposites. Do you agree with this opinion?

RH: This is the interesting thing: when Roughead was an actual admiral he was asked several times about this type of questions. His response as an official was always: “No, there are no polar opposites, we all are working together, we’re all on the same page.” I find it interesting that when you get this individuals coming forward and when they are retired, then I guess they feel that they have a certain degree of greater freedom to speak about the type of competition to suggest that there is.

Having said that, what he is suggesting that in fact the Americans will find themselves in competition with the Russians, probably means more than just simply oil resources. As the former head of the Navy he would be the one that would be the best knowledgeable individual that understands that since about 2007-2008 the Americans and the Russians have begun to engage in the traditional submarine versus submarine in the Arctic type of dueling that we all thought had stopped at the end of the Cold War. My suspicion is that when he talks about these polar opposites and talks about energy- he’s talking about energy, but he’s also talking about the greater strategic picture. 

U.S. Navy safety swimmers stand on the deck of the Virginia class submarine USS New Hampshire after it surfaced through thin ice during exercises underneath ice in the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska © Lucas Jackson

RT: Quite harsh rhetoric can be heard from all sides here. Thus Canadian FM said earlier that Canada is concerned with Russia's building up its military capacity in the Arctic, and therefore it’s ready to defend its interests militarily. Do you think the battle for the Arctic region is already on?

RH: This is the part that gets a little bit confusing for most observers, because they will look and they will see that the Russians have been increasing their military capability. As I said, it is not an overnight thing - this started around 2007- 2008. The Americans have been building up certain elements of their Arctic capabilities also, but not quite in such a visible way. But so have the Norwegians, we’ve been trying to do it Canada.

Really what you are starting to see is not so much a fight for the Arctic, but recognition of the centrality of the Arctic for the strategic balances of the major powers. In other words, it is not about fighting about oil and gas, or the fish resources, or the melting ice cap, but it is more of a reflection of the reality that for the Russians their major nuclear deterrent has to be Arctic-based. I mean the Murmansk bases are what serve their submarine forces. That of course is creating a response from the NATO countries. What you are seeing - and this is what confounds a lot of observers - is that you are really seeing a buildup of military capabilities, because of the deteriorating relationship between the West and Russia.  Because of the geography, the Arctic immediately becomes involved. A lot of people say: “Oh, it’s about a fight for Arctic resources!” And then there are those who say there is no fight can rightly say it is not about the fight for recourses. But the military capabilities that are being developed are very powerful and are going to entirely change the security structure of the Arctic region.

“You have the same situation in the South China Sea where there are oil deposits and various countries like China, Vietnam and Philippines are contending for that and there will probably be some of that in the Arctic as well - claims by various people. But I think that’s why we have international treaties. I don’t think it’s going to be severe in the Arctic because it’s a bigger area. The problem with the South China Sea is that all these countries are right there and they are claiming part of it,” Ivan Eland, defense and security analyst told RT.

RT: The US has also been expressing concerns about the build-up of a Chinese presence in the region. Is there something to be concerned about?

RH: The Americans will always correct you. They will say: “Well, it’s not concern, its interest.” They will be very quick to point out that what you’re talking about for the Chinese is everything that is legitimate within the international sphere. They are doing science, but they are following the rules, they have the one very large icebreaker that was converted from an ex-Ukrainian freighter.

What the Americans are really focused on is a fact that since about 1999 the Chinese have been investing in the Arctic; they have been making it clear that they planned to be in their terms a “near Arctic power”. I think it’s the anticipation that as time develops, it is only a matter of time for the Chinese to start improving their submarine capability, which then means that they too will be, from a geopolitical perspective, showing up in Arctic waters. Since the Russians are there, since the Americans are there it only makes sense from a Chinese perspective that they will be there. I think that is really where the Americans and I very much strongly suspect the Russians are now watching closely in terms of both Chinese Arctic statements, but also Chinese submarine developments.

RT: As we could listen into the Arctic Council meeting recently, its members have been unanimously calling on cooperation and mutual trust from all sides when it comes to the development of the region. Do you think it’s realistic now in the atmosphere of the global tension over the conflict in Ukraine?

RH: You won’t see the Arctic sort of being the lead point, where people just say: “Ok, let’s just go to the Arctic to do cooperation.” I do think, however, that countries will continue to cooperate where it serves everyone’s interest. Remember, even in the face following the Russian intervention in Ukraine when the relationships really started deteriorating, you do see Russia, Canada, the US, Norway and Denmark for Greenland coming together to negotiate and to agree to a High Seas Fishing Agreement in the Arctic, basically imposing a moratorium on any commercial fishing in that region.

U.S. Navy sailors watch their sonar screens as they work in the control room of the Virginia class submarine USS New Hampshire during exercises underneath the ice in the Arctic Ocean north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska © Lucas Jackson

You will probably see some continuation in terms of the search and rescue treaty that was negotiated before relationships started becoming more problematic. You will see the countries working together where it serves their interests. What you won’t see, however, is this ability of the Arctic which through most of the 1990’s it could be portrayed as the way that everyone could come together and basically - because everyone pretended that there were no security issues leftover after the Cold War - that in fact this could be sort of a template for agreement. Those days are gone, but I do think that in terms of anything that people agree upon, you will see cooperation. I suspect what you will see ultimately despite the deterioration between Denmark and Canada, on one side and Russia on the other, you will see the three countries coming together with a common understanding of how to resolve the extended continental shelf submissions that all three countries either have put in, or about to put in.

RT: Do you think the threat of an ‘Ice Curtain’ is looming?

RH: I think that it was a little bit of wishful thinking when we said that it had totally disappeared at the end of the Cold War. The Americans have always maintained their Alaskan naval military bases to support any move to Asia. Russia, even in the worst days of the deterioration of its navy still maintains the Murmansk bases. There are certain geopolitical realities that have meant the so-called Ice Curtain never really stopped. Even in the times of the best cooperation, when the Russians, Canadians, Americans, everybody were able to pretend that we didn’t have any of these geopolitical differences - we were able to create a chiefs of military staff meeting of all eight Arctic states...

When Russia started resuming in August of 2007 the long range bomber patrols, all the rest of the countries, the neutrals included, said: “Look, we understand that you’re doing this, but can you give us prior notification; we will give you prior notification...” Even in the heyday of the cooperation, when the so-called Ice Curtain was said not to exist, Russia would not give prior notification. The reason is pretty clear: There are certain strategic interests that the Russians have in the North that will always preempt any of these sorts of appearances of total cooperation. We’ve always had a little bit of this existing.

The changing understanding of what the West has vis-à-vis the Putin administration is going to be coloring how people perceive cooperation. We may see some form of resemblance of a return to some of the better days of the early 2000s, but I suspect that everyone is starting to recognize that the interests are in fact going in very different directions.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.