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Barents Sea and Arctic Becoming a Theater for U.S./NATO Confrontation against Russia

May 13, 2020 (EIRNS)—The U.S. sending surface warships and submarines into the Barents Sea would be like the Russian Navy going into the U.S. Navy’s Virginia Capes (known by the military acronym VACAPES) operating area says Bryan Clark, a former U.S. submarine officer who is now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute. He told Defense News that the Russians consider the Barents Sea as “an extension of the areas they deploy that they see as their bastion,” Clark said. “They monitor them closely, it’s right offshore.”

“So we’ve left them alone for so long that they feel like the Barents, the Kara and the White Sea—they kind of see as a free zone for Russian submarine operations,” Clark said, clearly indicating that he doesn’t think the Russian Navy should have that kind of freedom.

Clark said that by sending three destroyers equipped with sophisticated anti-submarine kits, the U.S. Navy is putting Russia on notice that the country doesn’t have free rein over the Barents. “By putting some ships up there, we’re telling them: ‘Well, no, this is not a free zone [for] submarine operations—these are international waters,’ ” Clark said. “It would be a little like if the Russians deployed a bunch of anti-submarine warfare frigates in the VACAPES. We couldn’t do anything about it, but it would put us on notice that we maybe needed to be a little more careful.”

Clark’s remarks are used to preface the lead article of a Defense News package on the militarization of the Arctic. In that lead article, author David B. Larter reports that Russia has made clear to the international community that it has core economic interests there and will defend them, even building icebreakers with cruise missiles and deck guns to patrol frozen waters. Russia, with 7,000 miles of Arctic coast, sees the region as both a security liability and a key to its long-term economic success.

The U.S. administration’s view of Russia in the Arctic is clearly shaped by the 2017 National Security Strategy’s deeming of Russia as a strategic adversary. Therefore, Russia must be confronted in the Arctic as it must be anywhere else NATO butts up against it, such as in the Baltic and Black Seas. “The Russian military buildup in the Arctic has implications beyond its waters,” Michael Murphy, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified to a hearing of the Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee back in February. “From a geostrategic perspective, the Arctic and the North Atlantic are inextricably linked. The Arctic provides Russian ships and submarines with access to a critical naval chokepoint: the GIUK [Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom] gap that plays an outsized role in NATO’s defense and deterrence strategy. Underwater trans-Atlantic cables also run through this area,” Murphy continued. “In short, NATO’s northern flank must once again command the attention of the United States and its allies,” he stated.

The Northern Sea Route is of particular focus here as the U.S. claims that Russia is trying to force shippers using the route to pay fees to cover costs incurred by Russia to keep it open, such as from icebreaker operations. “Russia’s restrictions on the freedom of navigation in the Northern Sea Route are inconsistent with international law,” Murphy said. The U.S. Navy can’t challenge Russia in the Northern Sea Route the way it challenges China in the South China Sea, however. The Russians have about 40 icebreakers, many of them nuclear powered, whereas the U.S. Coast Guard has only one in operation.

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