Climate change is unlocking a new crossroads and potential center of conflict: the Arctic. But one key lawmaker is warning the US has lagged behind in securing the region, as other powers move in, adding he believes the Arctic may soon be a stage for a nuclear show of force by Vladimir Putin.
“This new ocean is appearing on our maps, and it has all kinds of different implications,” Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview with CNN. “We’ve been slow to pick up on it, frankly.”
The summertime extent of sea ice in the Arctic has decreased by around 50% since the 1970s. The co-chair of the Senate Arctic Caucus believes the region’s dramatic change is likely irreversible in the short-term. While King argues the world must do more to confront climate change, a new reality is fast approaching and a global rush is underway, as global powers step in seeking untapped natural resources, like oil and natural gas, and highly coveted shipping routes.
“If you think about the Mediterranean Sea, there were 1,000 years of war to determine the relationships of those countries surrounding (it). The question is can we open the Arctic and avoid the conflict?” he said.
As some scientists predict we could see ice-free summers near the North Pole in the coming decades, King said additional shipping lanes could increase commerce and lead to a huge economic advantage as some routes decrease shipping times by up to 15 days.
“But Russia has a huge border on the Arctic Ocean, which by the way, they’re militarizing the hell out of right now,” he said. “It’s a national security issue for everyone in the United States, whether they’re in Texas or in Minnesota.”
CNN has previously reported on the steady buildup of Russian military bases on the country’s Arctic coastline, which includes the refurbishing of old Soviet installations. The Kremlin allowed CNN a firsthand look at Russia’s northernmost outpost in 2021, vowing its intentions for the region were peaceful.
“Ukraine changed all that,” said King, adding Putin’s expansionist views could soon extend to the Far North. “I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll stop (in Ukraine) if he’s successful.”
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive gains momentum and Russia’s military suffers setbacks, one of King’s concerns is Putin may resort to using nuclear weapons to reassert dominance.
“He has several options with regard to a tactical nuclear weapon and one of them is a so-called ‘demonstration,’” in the Arctic, King said. “The idea being we’re going to show you what we can do, but we’re not going to kill a ton of people.”
While King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said there has been no intelligence indicating an imminent nuclear test by Putin, he said it remains “one of his options.”
New ‘Arctic strategy’
While King said he applauds the Biden administration’s new “National Strategy for the Arctic Region,” released this month, he said the US must invest more resources to compete.
“I mean Russia has like 40 icebreakers. We have one,” King said, adding Russia is not alone, with nations not geographically close to the North Pole, like China and India, also laying out their Arctic ambitions.
At an Arctic conference in Iceland a few years ago, King said he came across a 40-person delegation from China, where Chinese officials told him Beijing was interested in the region as a “near-Arctic nation.”
“That makes Maine a near-Caribbean state. There’s no geographic relationship. It’s ridiculous,” King said. “But they see the strategic value and the potential economic value.”
King is calling for a stronger naval presence in the Arctic, more robust military infrastructure, and a commitment to international treaties, like the United Nations Law of the Sea, among other steps he believes can deter a future war.
“I think the jury is out on that, but it’s at least possible and I think that’d be positive for America and for the whole world,” he said.