Don’t miss the significance of the Biden Putin discussion of the Arctic
The view from the plane carrying Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Greenland's Kangerlussuaq Airport on May 20. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP/AP)
You may recall that a few months ago, a large container vessel got stuck in the Suez Canal. This spurred a lot of international attention, both from the standpoint of the inherent humor of the situation and from the standpoint of its contribution to the existing struggles of the global shipping system.
The Russian government, though, saw opportunity.
“The incident in the Suez Canal should make everyone think about diversifying strategic sea routes amid the increasing scope of sea shipping,” Russia’s envoy for international cooperation in the Arctic, Nikolai Korchunov, said at the time. Happily, Korchunov had an alternative in mind: the Northern Sea Route, what might in American vernacular be described as akin to the Northwest Passage.
You may remember this from high school history. Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean in the 15th century was a function of trying to figure out whether Europe and Asia could be connected by sea. As European explorers learned more about the Western Hemisphere, there were repeated efforts to figure out how to get around North America, prompting forays like Henry Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River, a route that he hoped might somehow land him on a path to India. Some theorized that there existed a route that went above North America — a northwest passage to Asia. There was, as it turned out, but it was all but impossible to navigate, given that it was usually frozen over.
Then came climate change. The extent of ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean has declined over time, tracking so far this year with the level seen in 2012, the lowest extent on record.
Sea ice extent by day. (National Snow and Ice Data Center/(National Snow and Ice Data Center))
This trend is expected to continue. Perhaps you haven’t paid close attention to it, but world leaders have.
In 2012, Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon of the U.S. Northern Command framed the evolving situation in the Arctic in remarkable terms.
The Northern Command’s “area of responsibility is evolving and changing,” he said at a panel that year. With the receding ice levels, “the northern coast is about to become a real coast. Maybe not today, maybe not this year, but in a short time. We need to start thinking about that.”
The northern coast of North America — implying an open ocean just above it. And that is the opportunity that Russia sees.
An open or more open Arctic Ocean would be hugely advantageous for Russia from both an economic and a geopolitical standpoint. More than half of the coastline on the ocean is Russian territory, extending for some 15,000 miles. Hoping to extend its dominance of the region, the country in April requested that the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf extend its area of control on and below the seabed of the ocean. One expert who spoke with the CBC described the request as a “maximalist submission,” saying that “you cannot claim any more.”
That same month, CNN reported that Russia had expanded its footprint in the region, building up its military capacity. The country has been conducting military exercises there, including bringing three nuclear submarines up through the sea ice. A Defense Department spokesman insisted that the military was “monitoring it very closely.”
The U.S. government “obviously recognize[s] that the region is key terrain that’s vital to our own homeland defense and as a potential strategic corridor between the Indo-Pacific, Europe and the homeland,” Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said at the time, “which would make it vulnerable to expanded competition.”
In May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Iceland and Greenland. While there, he briefly addressed the issue, arguing that there was a need to “avoid … a militarization of the region.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about the subject after his meeting with President Biden on Wednesday. Putin spoke at length in response, saying that he and Biden had discussed it.
He insisted that concerns about militarization were “unfounded,” and that Russia was simply rebuilding facilities destroyed after the fall of the Soviet Union — albeit while modernizing them.
“We are prepared to assist all stakeholders and all companies in exploring the Northern Passage,” he said, according to an NBC News translation. He added that it was a “sovereign right” to let ships pass through regions of the ocean that are under Russian control but that “we’re not abusing this rule.”
This is important in part because of how the Arctic freezes. Sea ice in the ocean remains most constant near the North Pole, extending outward — which is to say southward — toward international coastlines as temperatures drop. As temperatures warm, the ice recedes away from the coasts. In other words, the areas that melt first are ones closer to land and therefore more likely to be within national zones of control.
Ice coverage in July 2020 and January 2021. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Biden also addressed the subject, albeit it more briefly.
Part of their discussion centered on “how we can ensure the Arctic remains a region of cooperation rather than conflict,” Biden said. “I caught part of President Putin’s press conference, and he talked about the need for us to be able to have some kind of modus operandi, where we dealt with making sure the Arctic was, in fact, a free zone.”
As with so many other things the two leaders discussed, it’s unlikely that there was any ultimate resolution reached. But that this was a topic of some discussion, much less extended discussion (as per Putin), reflects the increased urgency of determining the geopolitics of the region.
An urgency that stems entirely from the warming caused by climate change.
Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.