NATO drills in Arc­tic aim to counter Rus­sian mil­i­tary push

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY HE­LENE COOPER New York Times

After fin­ish­ing a train­ing drill on sur­viv­ing the bit­ter cold, the sol­diers gath­ered around Ranger Deb­bie Iqaluk, to hear about an in­escapable fact of life in the high Arc­tic: The ice is melt­ing de­spite the frigid tem­per­a­tures.

And that means the Rus­sians are com­ing.

Her retelling of how she watched as an enor­mous ice­berg frac­tured, just a few feet from the mil­i­tary base here, was riv­et­ing. It is one thing to be told con­stantly that the melt­ing polar ice cap has opened up the Arc­tic, dis­ap­pear­ing what used to be an im­pen­e­tra­ble bar­rier be­tween North Amer­ica and Rus­sia. It is quite an­other to see it first­hand.

The ice­berg took five years to melt, but by 2018 it was gone, taken over by a sea that with each year is melt­ing ear­lier in the sea­son. That has brought Rus­sia right to Canada’s doorstep, cut­ting into the “Fortress North Amer­ica” con­cept that has long com­forted mil­i­tary plan­ners on this side of the At­lantic Ocean.

NATO is rush­ing to try to catch up. Last month, hun­dreds of troops from mem­ber coun­tries and part­ners, in­clud­ing France, Norway, Fin­land and Swe­den, joined Cana­dian sol­diers, re­servists and rangers for the Nanook-Nu­nalivut ex­er­cises that aimed in part to help al­liance forces match Rus­sian readiness in ex­treme-cold climes. (The United States sent ob­servers but no troops this year.)

“Rus­sia is in­creas­ing its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the Arc­tic,” said Dy­lan White, a spokesman for the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion, cit­ing the new Rus­sian ice­breaker fleet, weapons sys­tems and radar. The West­ern mil­i­tary al­liance, he said, is “mon­i­tor­ing Rus­sia’s Arc­tic buildup care­fully.”

In fact, Rus­sia has al­ready claimed the North Pole, and in 2007 sent two min­isub­marines to place a ti­ta­nium Rus­sian flag on the seabed, 2 miles underwater. Twelve years later, dur­ing last month’s al­liance ex­er­cises, Cana­dian mil­i­tary of­fi­cers were still grum­bling about the stunt.

Ships now suc­cess­fully ply the North­west Pas­sage in July – some­thing that was un­heard-of in 1845 when Sir John Franklin, a British ex­plorer, tried to sail it, only to be­come ice­bound near King Wil­liam Is­land. He lost his life and those of his 129-mem­ber crew.

Twenty per­cent of Rus­sia’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct is pulled from the Arc­tic, whether in min­er­als or through its ship­ping lanes. It is far ahead of North Amer­ica when it comes to ma­neu­ver­ing in the re­gion; by com­par­i­son, less than 1 per­cent of the United States’ eco­nomic out­put is de­rived from the Arc­tic.

Over the sum­mer, a Maersk ves­sel loaded with Rus­sian fish be­came the first con­tainer ves­sel to com­plete an Arc­tic sea route that Moscow is plan­ning as part of an Arc­tic su­per­high­way.

Moscow’s mil­i­tary am­bi­tions in the Arc­tic have also in­creased as Rus­sia moves to de­fend the ter­ri­tory that it claims.

Last month, Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry flew a group of re­porters to a mil­i­tary base on Kotelny Is­land, be­tween the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea on its new Arc­tic ship­ping route, to show off anti-ship mis­sile launch­ers and air de­fense sys­tems fir­ing shots at a prac­tice tar­get.

Rus­sia has also ex­panded its fleet of ice­breaker ships to more than 40 (the United States has only two that are op­er­a­tional) and re­opened mil­i­tary bases in the Arc­tic that were shut down after the end of the Cold War. Two months ago, a top Rus­sian law­maker told a state-run news agency that Rus­sian spe­cial forces were train­ing for a po­ten­tial con­flict in the Arc­tic.

AN­DREW TESTA NYT

Rangers train March 26 at Resolute Bay in Canada, ground zero for Op­er­a­tion Nanook-Nu­nalivut, an ef­fort meant to get NATO troops up to Rus­sian lev­els of readiness.

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