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The Arctic Policy of the USA and Interests of Russia: Past, Present, and Future (Overview)

This book was planned, first of all, as a study in history of Russian- American relations, as they have evolved with respect to the Arctic. It is noted in the Introduction that, despite the significantly deteriorated relations between Russia and the USA at the present time, the Arctic has retained, and will retain, its importance for these two Arctic coastal nations, as a vital generator of global climate and a treasury of energy and other natural resources. Consequently, when the Russian-American relations eventually normalize, the Arctic may serve as one of the most promising areas of cooperation between them, based on their economic potential, many decades of intensive Arctic research, and many technological and infrastructural advantages which Russia now possesses. The USA is not able to shape the international Arctic process single-handedly, but their positions in the Arctic are second only to Russia: it is one of the five coastal states, the closest ally of three other coastal states, and the only state, except Russia, capable of maintaining constant naval presence in the Arctic seas, meaning first of all its nuclear submarine force.

The author tends to treat the “past as prologue”, with regard to the present situation. Indeed, the United States became an Arctic power only due to friendly relations with the Russian Empire, from which the future state of Alaska was purchased in 1867. The first Arctic combat of the US armed forces took place in Northern Russia in 1918–1919, in the course of the Civil War and foreign military intervention in Russia. World War II also saw large-scale American operations in the Arctic, this time to aid the Soviet Union as an ally. The cold war made the Arctic one of its key theaters for both the USSR and the USA.

The goals of the book are: 1. To sketch activities of the American nation in the Arctic, having impact on Russia’s interests and actions. 2. Under the same angle, to consider the evolution of the USA Arctic policy, their present and future goals and tasks in the Arctic. 3. To explain how the USA actions and plans could benefit Russia’s promotion of its interests in the Arctic. The book is respectfully submitted to the attention of scholars, experts, students, and all others interested in the Arctic and in the history of Russian-American relations.

Chapter 1 «The Arctic possessions of the USA and conceptual prerequisites of its Arctic policy» analyzes the USA attitude toward the «sector principle». That principle means that each Arctic coastal state owns all land in the Arctic Ocean, between the North Pole and the easternmost and westernmost extremities on the northern coast of that state. It is contented in the chapter that neither the USA nor any other coastal state, except the former Soviet Union, have ever accepted that principle.

The third section of the chapter deals with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982, which also provides important guidelines for control over the Arctic continental shelf, and the USA inability to ratify it. The book argues that the USA will refrain from formal adherence to the UNCLOS as long as its political establishment remains confident in the country’s leading position in the World Ocean.

Chapter 2 «The USA emerges in the Arctic. The purchase of the Russian America» deals with several important subjects such as the delimitation between Russia, the USA and Great Britain in the northwestern North America in the 1820s, which laid basis for future setting of state borders between the USA and Canada; the aggressive penetration of American whaling ships to the Arctic seas since the early 1850s; the first known appearance of a US Navy ship in the Arctic Ocean, that being USS Vincennes in 1855; and the failed megaproject of the Collins Overland telegraph in 1865–1867, which is treated as the first actual international Arctic project in history. The chapter also covers the purchase of the Russian America by the USA, the consequent American business activities, first of all fur trade and alcoholic beverages smuggling, in nearby Chukotka up to the beginning of the 20th century, and some attempts of the Russian Navy, largely unsuccessful due to a lack of ships in those northern waters, to take the American traders and whalers under control.

The author mentions the dramatic story of the USS Jeannette expedition commanded by J. De Long, which perished on the Russian shores, where Siberian natives aided the survivors. The First International Polar Year (1881–1883), despite the disaster of the American Greely expedition in Greenland, is evaluated as a great international scientific achievement, the roots of which are traced to the international marine meteorology effort initiated in the 1850s in the USA. The chapter also deals with a success case of the Siberia – Alaska economic intercourse, represented by the project of reindeer importation from Siberia to Alaska for acclimatization and breeding, started in the 1890s; and with a failure case, exemplified by the Northeastern Siberian Company, a Russian-American gold-mining venture, which did not bring actual results and was seen in Russia as a purely speculative venture.

Chapter 3 «World War I. British and US intervention in Northern Russia. Post-war delimitation in the Arctic» describes some attempts of the Russian government to attract the US to the World War I in the Arctic, including purchase of American military ships, as well as US participation in the war supply effort in the Russian North. The subsequent intervention of Great Britain, the United States and several other states into the Civil War in the Murmansk–Archangel region is seen as «the first Arctic war», a relatively large-scale campaign waged by armies, navies and aviation units. It is argued that this operation was aimed at expulsion of the Soviet authorities from the North, resulting in its political and administrative isolation or even complete separation from Soviet Russia. At the same time, the intervention had a «humanitarian epilogue» ten years later, when the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization managed, despite absence of diplomatic relations between the USA and the USSR, to exhume and bring to the USA for internment many dozens of American soldiers fallen in Northern Russia.

This chapter also deals with the Paris Treaty of February 9, 1920, which allocated the Spitsbergen archipelago to Norway, with wholehearted support from the USA as one of the nine original signatories of the treaty. The author discards the often-repeated assertion about «occupation of Wrangel Island» by the USA and Great Britain, and asserts that it was a private adventure, although initially supported by Canadian government.

Some other subjects are also treated, including elimination of American business from Chukotka. Practically no other economic intercourse between the two countries in the Arctic was reported in that period. The USA and the USSR took part in the Second International Polar Year but again there was no cooperation between them while the US participation was very limited. Trans-polar and other trans-Arctic long-range flights between the USA and USSR played an important part in development of aviation. There was such a notable event as the international (Soviet, American and Canadian) search for American aviators B. Eielson and E. Borland who died in an airplane crash in Chukotka in 1929.

Special attention is paid to an incident with the American cargo steamship City of Flint in the early period of World War II. She was captured by a German raider and sent to Murmansk under German control. The ship was eventually ordered to leave that port by the Soviet authorities after protests from the US, still neutral at the time, and finally returned under the American flag by Norway.

Chapter 4 «The Second World War» contains a brief description of the US Navy’s quite limited participation in the Arctic war, including an aircraft carrier raid against a Norwegian Arctic port (Operation Leader) in 1943. The author briefly touches upon the US part, mainly that of its merchant marine, in the USA – Murmansk and Archangel transportation corridor, or the «Northern convoys». It is concluded that the «Murmansk Run», despite heavy loss of allied ships, was an overall success logistically and militarily, with more than 90% of transports reaching their destination and delivering vitally needed equipment and supplies to the USSR.

The chapter also deals with the «Wind class» icebreakers, seven of which were built in the USA during World War II, and three of which were lend- leased to the USSR. These icebreakers worked on the Northern Sea Route until returned to the US in the early 1950s (then they would be used extensively in the Arctic). An attempt of the US Coast Guard to buy or charter Soviet icebreaker Krassin is also mentioned, although it was not successful. The US also made a quite unexpected contribution into development of the Soviet Arctic. Fifteen ice-breaking tugs were built in the USA and transferred to the USSR in 1944–1945. One by one, they made voyage from New Orleans via the Panama Canal, along the US western coast to Alaska and then to Eastern Siberian rivers where most of them would efficiently serve for many years.

As to the famous Alaska – Siberia (ALSIB) air route, it is also described in brief and assessed as an extremely successful logistical operation between the USA and the Soviet Union during the war. Indeed, almost 8,000 fighters, bombers and transport aircraft were successfully ferried since 1942 through 1945 by this route, with very low attrition rate, at least, by the wartime criteria. The first out of five stages of the route was served by the 1st Ferrying Aviation Regiment of the Soviet Air Force based in Fairbanks, Alaska. Obviously, it was the only Russian or Soviet military unit ever to be stationed in the US territory.

Chapter 5 «The Cold War» presents that conflict as «the golden age» of the US Arctic policy and peak of Arctic activities, which assumed almost completely military character. They included polar research performed by naval ships, military aircraft, and laboratories established under the US Navy and US Army command. Mutual fears of military invasion of Alaska and Chukotka from «the other shore» led to strengthening the US military in Alaska as well as to Soviet military buildup in Chukotka. However, the 14th Army, deployed here soon after World War II and inactivated in 1953, was unable to conduct any offensive landing operations. The desire to have a deep-water naval base in the Arctic led to Project Chariot in the 1950s, meaning construction of an artificial harbor in Alaska by explosion of five nuclear bombs. Public protests and obvious impracticability led to cancellation of the project.

In the 1950s and 1960s the US undertook intensive military «colonization» of Iceland and Greenland, including construction of air bases, or construction and operation of Camp Century in Greenland, a test facility for project Iceworm planned as a network of under-ice missile sites. In anticipation of a sudden air strike from the Soviet Union across the Arctic, the USA also invested heavily into construction of air-defense radar lines in Alaska, Canada and Greenland, including the northernmost of them, the Distant Early Warming (DEW) Line. Other projects for defense from an attack from the Arctic included the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, and Sentinel and Spartan anti-ballistic missile defense systems.

At the same time, the US Strategic Air Command was actively preparing for its own nuclear air strike through the western flank of the Soviet Arctic. American bombers and reconnaissance aircraft routinely performed training and reconnaissance flights to the Soviet shores. Other air activities in the Arctic included operations known as Chrome Dome, with combat-ready B-52 bombers patrolling in circle routes over the US, Canadian Arctic and Alaska, or from US bases to Greenland. The operation had to be canceled after a crash of a B-52 with four H-bombs near Thule in Greenland in 1968. The preparations for air strikes led to dangerous incidents in the Arctic skies, like the shootdown of a reconnaissance RB-47 over the White Sea in 1960 or intrusion of a U-2 spy plane into the Soviet air space over Chukotka in 1962. The latter incident was especially potentially disastrous as the Soviet fighters were scrambled to intercept the intruder, and US fighters took off from an Alaska airbase to protect it. And all this happened at the very height of the Cuban missile crisis and on the very day when another such plane was shot down over Cuba.

An entirely new page in Arctic history was opened by introduction of the nuclear submarine into the American and Soviet navies, and its immediate deployment to the Arctic, including voyages to the North Pole, participation in oceanographic research and intensive training for under- ice polar warfare. Both sides practiced constant tracking of the opponent’s submarines, with US attack submarines often performing such missions near the Soviet Arctic shores. To practice monitoring of the Soviet Northern Fleet submarines, US Navy, including aircraft carrier strike groups, conducted exercises in the Northern Atlantic and the Norwegian Sea, sometimes above the Arctic Circle.

The Arctic Research and Policy Act was adopted in 1984, and the Arctic Research Commission was established in accordance with it. The Arctic research potential, however, was becoming more limited as all eight US icebreakers (7 of Wind class and later Glacier) were decommissioned and only three built to replace them.

Chapter 6 «The USA in the Arctic at the present stage» attempts to explain the present-day context in which the US Arctic policy is being formulated and carried on, by the Arctic Research Commission, the Navy, the Coast Guard and other governmental agencies. The USA continues as a member of international Arctic organizations, first of all the Arctic Council. It was one of the initiators and an active participant of Arctic SAREX, a series of save-and-rescue exercises.

The doctrinal basis for US Arctic activities is formed by several directive documents relating to the Arctic, adopted in the recent decade, starting with the National Security Presidential Directive-66. Homeland Security Presidential Directive-25 «Arctic Region Policy». These documents are for the most part formulated quite nebulously, they certainly do not comprise a «master plan» of practical actions and undertakings in the Arctic. However, based on such presumptions as Arctic ice cap meltdown, increasing shipping and other human activities in the polar seas, and therefore growing security, safety and environmental risks, the present- day US Arctic agenda is more or less clear: to step up naval activities in the Arctic; strengthen the Coast Guard presence and procure at least one new polar icebreaker (here Russia’s numerous icebreaker fleet invariably serves both as an example and cause for concern); expand Arctic research and monitoring, especially for environment protection needs; start work on deep-water seaport in Alaska.

The problem of economic exploitation of the Arctic resources, practically, drilling for oil on the Arctic Slope and offshore drilling in Alaskan waters, still is not solved, and the solution will depend on the general trends of the US energy policy. Development of the USA and their energy sector in particular do not vitally depend on the Arctic and its hydrocarbons. Hence, the Arctic is not a top economic priority for the contemporary USA.

Their greatest priority is the undisputed freedom of military activities in the Arctic. In view of the strained relations with Russia, the US tend to return to certain Cold War practices. In 2017, US Marine units began long-term deployment and training in Norway, as of now, on a rotational basis. In 2018, for the first time since 1991, a US aircraft carrier crossed the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea, as a part of the large-scale NATO air, naval and land exercise Trident Juncture 2018. US military planning is again concerned with the activities of the Russian submarines traveling from the Barents Sea to the North Atlantic, and with monitoring of the so called GIUK (Greenland – Iceland – United Kingdom) Gap. In view of this, US antisubmarine warfare aircraft are ready to resume their deployment in Iceland, up to now, on a temporary, «visiting» basis.

The chapter also deals with many various other aspects of US Arctic activities, including prolongation of the ICEX program, using nuclear submarines and attracting scientists from foreign countries; the problem of icebreaker fleet (rather, the absence of such a fleet); the debates about off- shore oil drilling in Alaska; and international cooperation in Arctic research.

It is noted in the Conclusion that an international system of control over the Arctic had begun to evolve in the 1990s and 2000s, but this process stampeded because of the crisis of the 2010s in the relations between Russia and the West. The process can be resumed depending, first of all, on a normalization of relations between Russia and the USA, which are the strongest (in that order) actors on the Arctic scene. To a large extent, the USA is motivated by the desire to keep maximum freedom of action in the Arctic and not to assume any additional obligations. The Arctic is not so vitally significant for the USA, politically and economically, as it is for Russia, Norway and Canada. Clear understanding of these US specifics and limitations, adequate response to them, and efficient management by Russia of its own Arctic potential, will certainly promote mutually beneficial, long-term, and politically constructive Russian – US cooperation in the Arctic.

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