Cold, Cold War: Putin Talks Tough Over US Arctic Rivalry

Putin: U.S. missile threat forces Russian military to stay in melting Arctic.

ByABC News
December 5, 2013, 11:41 AM
The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) surfaces at the North Pole.
The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hampton (SSN 767) surfaces at the North Pole.
Kevin Elliott/U.S. Navy

Dec. 5, 2013 — -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said this week that U.S. military capabilities in the Arctic Circle leave his government little choice but to maintain a strong foothold in the frigid north, where tensions between the former Cold War adversaries in recent years have heated up as the polar ice thawed.

During a meeting with students in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin was asked whether Russia and other countries might loosen their grip on Arctic territory for military exercises and exploitation of natural resources in favor of environmental preservation.

The Russian leader replied that the United States hasn't slipped off the ice shelf and implied that his country's national defense priorities will continue to outweigh conservation efforts.

"Experts know quite well that it takes U.S. missiles 15 to 16 minutes to reach Moscow from the Barents Sea," Putin said, according to the Associated Press.

His comments came on the heels of a recent renewal of U.S. attention to the Arctic.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laid out the Pentagon's revised Arctic Strategy at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia last month.

The U.S. policy blueprint calls for "building trust through transparency about the intent of our military activities and participation in bilateral and multilateral exercises and other engagements that facilitate information-sharing."

But the Russian president's statement suggested suspicion of American intentions in the region, and possible wariness that the U.S. is not being as forthcoming as it has pledged to be.

A Hagel aide said that Russia should adopt a cooperative policy.

"The Department of Defense Arctic Strategy recognizes that changes in the Arctic landscape create an opportunity for nations to work together through coalitions of common interest," said Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog. "We will work together with Arctic nations to ensure that the region remains peaceful and free of conflict."

Over the last several years both nations have increased their respective military presence in the Arctic, including U.S. naval and Russian air force operations.

Putin's recent comments indicate uneasiness with U.S. military activity so close to Russian borders.

Putin's mistrust of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines' proximity to Russian borders is fueling Russia's professed need for a strong military presence in the Arctic, Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told ABC News.

But Kristensen discounted the likelihood that Navy subs operating outside of the Barents Sea would have any real impact on any hypothetical use of U.S. nuclear power.

"Such a launch is technically possible but U.S. missile subs are thought to operate further back in the Atlantic," Kristensen said. "Putin's use of such a scenario to keep Arctic territories is flawed because they would not prevent such a launch, which would most likely take place in international waters."

With many experts saying that global warming is expediting the melting of the Arctic icecaps, newly created water routes have opened up a possible treasure trove of commercial wealth to northern nations in the form of oil, mineral, and natural gases. There has been competition among countries for Arctic usage rights since the 1950s, but the accelerated melting of Arctic glaciers in recent years has resulted in the resurgence of a Cold War-like scramble reminiscent of the United States-Russia moon landing rivalry.

Both the United States and Russia have insisted that there will be no direct conflict between the two nations regarding the Arctic region. But Putin's worst-case missile scenario suggests indirect conflict over Arctic occupation reminiscent of a bygone competition.

Kristensen called it "an unfortunate example of [Putin] thinking about geopolitical affairs in outdated Cold War terms."