With Eyes on Russia, the U.S. Military Prepares for an Arctic Future

Two years ago, Moscow brought its own war games barreling through the Bering Sea, with Russian commanders testing weapons and demanding that American fishing boats operating in U.S. fishing waters get out of the way — an order the U.S. Coast Guard advised them to comply with. Russia has repeatedly sent military aircraft to the edge of U.S. airspace, leading U.S. jets to scramble to intercept them and warn them away.

This month, in response to escalating international sanctions against Russia, a member of the Russian parliament demanded that Alaska, purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867, be returned to Russian control — a possibly rhetorical gesture that nonetheless reflected the deteriorating relationship between the two world powers.

For centuries, the vast waters of the offshore Arctic were largely a no man’s land locked in by ice whose exact territorial boundaries — claimed by the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Iceland — remained unsettled. But as melting sea ice has opened new shipping pathways and as nations have eyed the vast hydrocarbon and mineral reserves below the Arctic sea floor, the complicated treaties, claims and boundary zones that govern the region have been opened to fresh disputes.

Canada and the United States have never reached agreement on the status of the Northwest Passage between the North Atlantic and the Beaufort Sea. China, too, has been working to establish a foothold, declaring itself a “near-Arctic state” and partnering with Russia to promote “sustainable” development and expanded use of Arctic trade routes.

Russia has made it clear it intends to control the so-called Northern Sea Route off its northern shore, a route that significantly shortens the shipping distance between China and Northern Europe. U.S. officials have complained that Russia is illegally demanding that other nations seek permission to pass and threatening to use military force to sink vessels that do not comply.

“We are stuck with a pretty tense situation there,” said Troy Bouffard, director of the Center of Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Either we acquiesce to Russia, to their extreme control of surface waters, or we elevate or escalate the issue.”

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