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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

As Russia escalates conflict in Ukraine, some Arctic and Alaska Native communities wonder what the growing international tension will mean for their home region.

Rising temperatures have started to change the Arctic’s landscape over the past decade. Melting ice has caused new waterways to open up, making the region more accessible and enabling easier navigation for ships.

Nearby nations, like Russia, have started capitalizing on the shifting environment’s newfound strategic value.

“We’re the eyes and ears on the ground. We’re very close to Russia. We see what’s happening. We see what boats that are going through our seas,” said Melanie Bahnke, Yupik, in a 2020 conference on the issue hosted by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest Indigenous gathering in the state.

The build up is noticeable. To date, Russia has at least 16 deep water ports, 14 operational airfields, a new command, and roughly 50 icebreakers in their Arctic territory, some of which are nuclear powered. In comparison, Alaska has two military bases, two airfields, and two icebreakers.

A slide shown at the 2020 AFN conference. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Federation of Natives)

A primary draw to the region is the emerging Northern Sea Route – a new ocean passage that runs from Asia to Europe, cutting off around 14 days for shippers who normally would have to take a longer trip through the Suez Canal, a waterway in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea.

Russia is also interested in the Arctic’s increased energy opportunities, as melting ice makes resource extraction in the region easier.

“Over 20 percent of (Russia’s) GDP right now comes from natural resources above the Arctic Circle in their area,” said Lt. Gen. David Krumm during the 2021 Alaska Federation of Natives. “So we know that the Arctic is important to them. And they're looking for ways to secure that.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t directly related to its strategic goals in the Arctic. Instead, it stems from on-going and historical disputes over Ukraine’s independence. The country’s far-north expansion also doesn’t mean they are interested in invading surrounding Arctic nations, and recent intelligence has continued to support this analysis, according to a senior national security official. However, the official said the invasion does reaffirm that Russia is willing to take significant risks, deliberately follow through on threats with military action, and ignore international laws. For this reason, the nation’s subsequent activity in the Arctic should be taken seriously and continue to be monitored.

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Pre-existing agreements can also lead to unexpected military involvement, even if the conflict is not directly related to one’s own nation. According to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, also known as the Washington Treaty, if one member of NATO is attacked, the other NATO nations are obligated to assist in their defense. There are eight countries in the Arctic: Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, and the United States. Of those, five are part of NATO, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway. It’s something to keep in mind, in terms of potential tensions for nations in both Europe and the Arctic.

Arctic military - An F-16C Falcon from the 18th Aggressor Squadron, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies over a mountain range in Alaska during an exercise evolution that is a part of Northern Edge 2011. The U.S. Pacific Command directed exercise is taking place in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and has brought together nearly 6,000 participants from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard. Corps, Navy and Coast Guard.
Alaskan Command

Photo by Lt.j.g. Joe Painter

Date Taken:06.16.2011

Location: EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, AK, US

On March 3, seven of the eight Arctic nations announced they would temporarily withdraw their participation in the Arctic Council, in condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a joint statement, the seven nations described Russia’s recent actions as “grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic.”

“We hold a responsibility to the people of the Arctic, including the indigenous peoples, who contribute to and benefit from the important work undertaken in the Council,” said the joint statement. 

On March 4, Russia, which currently holds the Arctic Council’s rotating chairmanship, stated that it’s Arctic representatives would refocus “the ... Chairmanship toward addressing our domestic needs in the region.”

In recent years, Alaskans living near the maritime border have noticed growing Russian military action. Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers have increasingly flown through Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zones, drawing several sightings of their aircrafts off the state’s coast. In 2020, Alaskan fishing boats operating in the U.S. zone of the Bering Sea came across Russian warships and submarines in the midst of a military operation. Russian commanders aggressively warned the fishing captains to leave the area, even though the incident took place on the U.S. side of the maritime boundary line.

“The threats facing our nation are absolutely not hypothetical, and I think it’s important to understand that our competitors’ races are now global,” Lt. Gen. Krumm said.

As Russia has begun to expand its Arctic presence, the United States has responded with its own Arctic military measures.

One example is expansion of the Port of Nome, which was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2020. The project will extend the port by roughly 3,500 feet and push its depth to 40 feet, allowing it to accommodate larger ships such as icebreakers and fuel tankers. Once completed, it will be the only deep-water port in the U.S. Arctic. Plans are also underway to build six new icebreakers, adding to the two in operation currently.

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The communities in this region are primarily Alaska Native, whose cultures have lived off the land for centuries. While most Americans won't notice the increase in military operations and infrastructure in the Arctic, these communities will. 

“The Arctic is Indigenous. It’s been Indigenous since time immemorial,” said Megan Alvanna-Stimpfle, Inupiaq, in a 2020 conference on the topic. “And we hope you’ll begin to know us and love us, because we believe in the future of peace in the Arctic, of our shared prosperity.”

As a result, tribal, state, and military leadership have prioritized building partnerships in the region. 

“This is a growing dialogue among different sectors, all having a single focus as far as what’s going on now in the Arctic in Alaska; what can we anticipate; where’s our common areas that we can work together,” said Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, at the 2020 conference.

Military officials have echoed this sentiment. At the 2021 Alaska Federation of Natives, Lt. Gen. Krumm gave a speech updating hundreds in the audience of recent military operations in the Arctic, and affirming the commitment to partner with the region’s local communities.

Arctic military - BARROW, Alaska- The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420 ft. icebreaker home-ported in Seattle, Wash., breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean. The Healy was mid-way through a four month deployment. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Prentice Danner.

“We need to work together. We need to be able to learn from you,” Krumm said, who is a commander in the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force.

“We need to be able to understand how to work and thrive in this environment,” he continued. “And we need to make sure that we do that so that it doesn't impede upon the chosen way of living and the chosen way of that as you gather your own resources. So this needs to be a partnership. My commitment to do that will be a focus of my command while I'm here.”

Geopolitical history

This isn’t the first time Alaska Native communities have experienced the impacts of Russian-U.S. tensions. During the Cold War, Indigenous communities that resided between two islands – one technically Russian, the other technically American – became separated due to the national divisions.

“It’s many of our relatives that are on the other side of the Russian Far East,” Alvanna-Stimpfle said. “I was raised during the era of the Cold War and melting ice current, and one of the experiences we had was landing in Russia, in the Russian Far East. And it was all Siberian Yupik relatives that were reunited after 40 years of a closed border.”

Today, many of the relatives who had once been separated by geopolitical barriers are able to keep in frequent contact through social media. It has reaffirmed their drive to stay connected, despite international obstacles.

Big Diomede is part of Russia, while the neighboring island, Little Diomede, is part of the United States.
The distance between Alaska and Russia. Alaska Native villages such as Wales, Teller, and Port Clarence lie directly on the maritime border between the two nations.

“We know what people are doing and how families are, because we hear from them, and we really want to make sure those connections stay alive, because people matter,” said Alvanna-Stimpfle.

Military involvement and overseas deployments are also a real consideration for their communities – Alaska Native and Native Americans serve in the military at the highest rate of any other ethnic group in the U.S.

“We have been a big part of the military. A lot of people join and they can send us to places that are cold where we survived, and when the military does come up here and do practices, sometimes us local people have to go search and rescue them because living here in the Arctic is harsh,” said Blanche Garnie, Inupiaq, at the 2020 conference. Garnie is the mayor of Teller, Alaska and a Navy veteran herself.

‘Economic empowerment’ developments

It might be too soon to determine all the long-term impacts of increased military involvement in the region, but local leaders are working to ensure the developments align with their community’s goals.

Alaska recently secured around $925 million in federal funding for infrastructure-related projects, with $250 million going towards Port of Nome development. Investments will likely increase in the coming years. Local leaders say the new expenditures present an opportunity to remedy infrastructure gaps and transportation obstacles in Arctic villages.

“The U.S. cannot expect to dominate the Arctic without investing in infrastructure in the Arctic, and that includes infrastructure for our people, not just ports. We need to have the basic infrastructure in our communities, in our Native homes,” said Bahnke, who is the president and CEO of Kawerak, Inc, the regional non-profit tribal consortium in the Bering Strait Region of Alaska.

The moon hangs low in the sky over the village Noorvik, Alaska, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Many villages, like Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, where Bahnke is from, lack facilities that are considered non-negotiable in the rest of the nation, such as sewer systems, running water, and access to roads. They’re hoping the recent attention to the Arctic will catalyze funding for these fundamentals.

“Our basic human needs are not met, and when you say Alaska is America’s Arctic, that is true. All of our resources, everything that’s been extracted has funded the military and everything, water and sewer systems around the nation. It hasn’t funded anything here,” said Garnie.

“I feel that we should have the ability to turn on the faucet, fill our containers in the home, and also be able to flush our waste down the toilet. It is not very sanitary, let alone healthy to have any type of storage unit where you are hauling your waste and hauling your own water,” added Robert Tokeinna, Jr, a tribal coordinator for the village, Wales.

Projects like Port of Nome also have the potential to create new economic streams for the region, through increased jobs and traffic.

Aerial view of Nome, Alaska, from Anvil Mountain in fall, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Jenna Kunze)

Gail Schubert, Inupiaq, president and CEO of Bering Straits Regional Corporation, says the Alaska Native regional corporation supports the Nome port, as well as the potential development of Point Spencer, a nearby piece of land that was transferred to Bering Straits Regional Corporation in 2020.

“As our country prepares to defend our shores in the Arctic, we hope that this port will once again stand as a beacon of safety and security in service to our great nation,” Schubert said in a statement.

“It’s also a building block for further economic empowerment in that region, especially the fishery,” said Kitka of new investments in the Arctic.

Still, communities are prepared to monitor for any negative impacts from the projects, such as harms to local wildlife or subsistence practices. The regional tribal consortium, Kawerak, Inc. compiled a report that outlined potential risks that construction should seek to avoid.

These considerations and developments are likely to be around for the foreseeable future. With global tensions increasing and the environment continuing to change, the Arctic’s role in geopolitical strategy seems like it will only be more important in the coming years.

“While we’ve seen some very good news recently… we’re still lagging in the Arctic. And I think Russia views this as their opportunity to step it up and to lead,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in the 2020 conference.

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UPDATE: This story was updated to include information of the Arctic Council’s temporary withdrawal and Russia's statement.

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