On Wednesday, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard issued a grave warning about Russia’s military and industrial presence in the Arctic, stating the country is making “a strategic statement” that it is leagues ahead of the United States in the region, as Arctic ice recedes.
Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said Russia is making it clear that “I’m here first, and, everyone else, you’re going to be playing catch-up for a generation to catch up to me first.”
In remarks before the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Zukunft stated Russia has “made a strategic statement” to build up a huge military and industrial presence in the Arctic while the United States has remained idle.
For instance, specialized ships called icebreakers can punch through thick ice to gain access to sea lanes for commercial and military ships. While Russia has 40 icebreakers, the U.S. has just two in service, and just one is actually available for the Arctic.
In addition, in the next few years, Russia is scheduled to launch two additional icebreakers, “corvette-class” ships that will be armed with cruise missiles.
“They’ve got all their chess pieces on the board right now, and, right now, we’ve got a pawn and maybe a rook,” he warned. “If you look at this Arctic game of chess, they’ve got us at checkmate right at the very beginning.”
Zukunft added, “We’re not building anything in the Navy surface fleet to counteract that.”
Other geopolitical rivals to the United States may step in, as well, as the warming Arctic opens up, granting access to a rich bed of natural resources. If the U.S. doesn’t increase its Arctic footprint, Zukunft warns countries like China will be happy to come in and take advantage of the estimated 30 percent of the world’s unused gas reserves, 13 percent of its oil reserves, and $1 trillion in minerals available in the region.
Zukunft also talked about the Polar Star, which was built in the 1970s and is the last remaining U.S. heavy icebreaker, claiming that the vessel is well past its prime, and saying, “Having only one heavy icebreaker … it is the one aspect I lose sleep over.”
Zukunft is asking for funding to build six new icebreakers by 2023, claiming a new icebreaker fleet could also need “offensive and defense armed capability” to protect against any sort of showdown with Russia. However, he claims this is wishful thinking based on the Coast Guard’s rocky start in the federal budgeting process with Congress.
Magnus Nordenman, director of the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, explained that Russia’s “chess pieces” are mostly in its Northern fleet pointed toward Europe and the Atlantic, stating, “Russia’s Pacific fleet is rather under-resourced compared to the Northern fleet.”
However, he also said, “Their build up makes economic sense. It’s a key region for Russia’s economy, 20 percent of its GDP comes out of the Arctic.”
H/T: Foreign Policy
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