Canadian Security Expert: Arctic Isn’t Immune to Growing U.S.-Russian Geopolitical Rivalry

Oct 2, 2015

Is the U.S.-Russian rivalry playing out in the Arctic?


“The notion that we’re headed to some sort of regional conflict in the Arctic – I don’t buy it,” says Lawson Brigham.

The distinguished professor of Geography and Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks says he – along with many other experts -- thinks it’s unlikely that tensions between the United States and Russia will spill over into the Arctic.

Brigham Lawson, UAF distinguished professor of Geography and Arctic Policy.
Credit UAF

Brigham says incidents earlier this year involving Russian military aircraft flying near U.S. and Canadian airspace were just more of the old geostrategic game of cat and mouse.

But Canadian Arctic-security expert Rob Huebert disagrees.

“This is such wishful thinking,” says Huebert, a political scientist and associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies and the University of Calgary. He says the claim often repeated by Arctic leaders that the region’s history of cooperation makes conflict here unlikely is unrealistic.

“My pushback is, ‘Well, what would be the factors that somehow isolate the Arctic from every other corner of the globe?’ ”

Huebert agrees there’s nothing new about Russian incursions into the airspace or maritime zones of Arctic nations. Which he says increased in late 2007. He says what’s new is there are more such incidents – and that the United States and its allies are making more of that information public.

Rob Huebert, political scientist, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary.
Credit Dennis Urquhart/University of Calgary

“When the Russians started sending their long-distance bomber patrols in August of 2007,” he said, “the American Air Force or the Canadian air force start releasing pictures around 2011 or 2012… Y’know, if you don’t see it, it’s not a problem.”

Huebert says the Russians selectively release information. Like when the nation planted the Russian flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean under the North Pole in 2007, which he says was both an attempt to claim the seabed and its resources and a response to NATO expansion in Europe.

“When the Russians planted the flag at the North Pole – y’know the reason that was such a big thing was that the media got a picture of it.”

Huebert says the Russians were not so forthcoming when they stepped-up submarine patrols around Sweden and Finland, both of which have in response begun to forge closer ties with NATO.

He says Russia’s buildup of military assets in the Arctic may also be a response to development of the Fort Greely’s missile defense base.

“Fort Greely, of course, is the major anti-ballistic missile base for the United States,” he said.

U.S. officials say the missile-defense base is intended to counter the threat from so-called rogue regimes like North Korea. But Huebert says “it defies belief” to think Russia doesn’t see it a threat.