U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayto

How the Arctic Could Help Warm US-Russian Relations

U.S. Coast Guard commandant says cooperating on mass search-and-rescue exercises and other shared interests could build bridges.

If president-elect Donald Trump wants to build a less frosty relationship with Russia, one counterintuitive avenue could be to go north – all the way north.

While acknowledging the concerns the U.S. and its allies have with increased Russian military activity in the Arctic, Adm. Paul Zukunft, the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said Tuesday that the region’s icy waters also present an opportunity to build bridges.

“We want to cooperate with Russia,” Zukunft told an audience at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

And, in fact, his service has already started. In August, the Coast Guard, along with local and Canadian organizations, conducted a mass-rescue exercise out of Nome, Alaska. Russian representatives attended and observed, at the United States’ invitation.  

Zukunft said that will continue in areas where it makes sense:  dealing with “the present-day threats we see in the high-latitudes: environmental, the mass-rescue scenarios, the increase in human activity.”

“We will host an experts’ meeting [of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum] where Russia will bring their delegation here to D.C. in the second week of December,” he said. “I will host, in the springtime, a principals-level meeting and what we’re planning to do is a mass-rescue exercise staged out of Iceland,” where there has been a lot of iceberg activity.

The forum, which came out of the Arctic Council, is an established venue where Russia and the U.S. could increase engagement.

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But even if Trump holds true to campaign promises of a reset with Russia, make no mistakes about it – maintaining the U.S.’s posture in the Arctic is still “sacrosanct,” Zukunft said.

“I’m concerned about what Russia’s aspirations are in the high latitudes,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more militarization up there … We have NATO members that are looking to the United States — read, the United States Coast Guard — to exert more influence in the high latitudes as well.”

Instead, Zukunft suggested reframing the Arctic issue – or at least zooming out, expanding the focus to include those points of shared interest, like avoiding a “Titanic-like” catastrophe as human activity increases in the region.

“Rather than just putting Russia in the adversarial box, are there areas where we have common ground?” Zukunft said. “And this is one area where I see some opportunity to leverage the coast guard as a unique instrument of that particular policy.”