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Tomgram: Michael Klare, War in the Arctic?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

When I first met Michael Klare in the late Neolithic age (it was actually the early 1970s), he was already researching the U.S. military in a way no one else was doing. His first book on the subject, War Without End: American Planning for the Next Vietnams, had just been published. The title remains eerily apt, given Washington's twenty-first-century "forever wars." Almost 50 years later, he's still ahead of the curve and his newest book on that military, All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon's Perspective on Climate Change, has only recently come out.

And he hasn't stopped yet, as you'll see in today's piece on a new nuclear flashpoint for the U.S. and Russia: the melting Arctic. It's the sort of thing that, in another world, would be headline news. Still, his latest piece saddens me for personal reasons. When Klare and I first met, the Cold War with the other superpower of that moment, the Soviet Union, was still in high gear; the Vietnam War had yet to end; and the Cuban Missile Crisis (the one time in my life when I truly felt like "ducking and covering") was only a decade past. In other words, the possibility of a global conflagration that might end life as we know it on this planet still seemed all too possible. As late as the early 1980s, in the age of Ronald Reagan, I would find myself on the streets of New York City with my family, marching in the company of Hibakusha -- survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bombing -- and perhaps a million other protestors, part of a global antinuclear movement calling for disarmament and protesting the possibility of an annihilating war. That seemed a moment of fear but also of hope when it came to the nuclear issue.

In 1991, of course, the Soviet Union imploded and such Armageddon-like thinking ended, though research indicated that even a regional nuclear war in a post-superpower world between, say, India and Pakistan could create "nuclear winter" conditions across the planet. And those, of course, were the "good times."

Now, however, as the U.S. military repositions itself in the wake of 18-plus years of forever wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa (without actually leaving them), some version of superpower conflict seems once again the Pentagon order of the day (as Klare has been noting at this site for a while). And thanks to the ingenuity of a fossil-fuel-burning humanity, a new area of the world, the Arctic, is ripe for it (in a melted sort of way), even if you have to turn to Klare, once again ahead of the curve when it comes to U.S. military planning, in a mainstream world preoccupied by... well, you know who... to learn about the dangers involved. Tom

World War III's Newest Battlefield
U.S. Troops Head for the Far North
By Michael T. Klare

In early March, an estimated 7,500 American combat troops will travel to Norway to join thousands of soldiers from other NATO countries in a massive mock battle with imagined invading forces from Russia. In this futuristic simulated engagement -- it goes by the name of Exercise Cold Response 2020 -- allied forces will "conduct multinational joint exercises with a high-intensity combat scenario in demanding winter conditions," or so claims the Norwegian military anyway. At first glance, this may look like any other NATO training exercise, but think again. There's nothing ordinary about Cold Response 2020. As a start, it's being staged above the Arctic Circle, far from any previous traditional NATO battlefield, and it raises to a new level the possibility of a great-power conflict that might end in a nuclear exchange and mutual annihilation. Welcome, in other words, to World War III's newest battlefield.

For the soldiers participating in the exercise, the potentially thermonuclear dimensions of Cold Response 2020 may not be obvious. At its start, Marines from the United States and the United Kingdom will practice massive amphibious landings along Norway's coastline, much as they do in similar exercises elsewhere in the world. Once ashore, however, the scenario becomes ever more distinctive. After collecting tanks and other heavy weaponry "prepositioned" in caves in Norway's interior, the Marines will proceed toward the country's far-northern Finnmark region to help Norwegian forces stave off Russian forces supposedly pouring across the border. From then on, the two sides will engage in -- to use current Pentagon terminology -- high-intensity combat operations under Arctic conditions (a type of warfare not seen on such a scale since World War II).

And that's just the beginning. Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Finnmark region of Norway and adjacent Russian territory have become one of the most likely battlegrounds for the first use of nuclear weapons in any future NATO-Russian conflict. Because Moscow has concentrated a significant part of its nuclear retaliatory capability on the Kola Peninsula, a remote stretch of land abutting northern Norway -- any U.S.-NATO success in actual combat with Russian forces near that territory would endanger a significant part of Russia's nuclear arsenal and so might precipitate the early use of such munitions. Even a simulated victory -- the predictable result of Cold Response 2020 -- will undoubtedly set Russia's nuclear controllers on edge.

To appreciate just how risky any NATO-Russian clash in Norway's far north would be, consider the region's geography and the strategic factors that have led Russia to concentrate so much military power there. And all of this, by the way, will be playing out in the context of another existential danger: climate change. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the accelerated exploitation of Arctic resources are lending this area ever greater strategic significance.

Energy Extraction in the Far North

Look at any map of Europe and you'll note that Scandinavia widens as it heads southward into the most heavily populated parts of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. As you head north, however, it narrows and becomes ever less populated. At its extreme northern reaches, only a thin band of Norway juts east to touch Russia's Kola Peninsula. To the north, the Barents Sea, an offshoot of the Arctic Ocean, bounds them both. This remote region -- approximately 800 miles from Oslo and 900 miles from Moscow -- has, in recent years, become a vortex of economic and military activity.

Once prized as a source of vital minerals, especially nickel, iron ore, and phosphates, this remote area is now the center of extensive oil and natural gas extraction. With temperatures rising in the Arctic twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet and sea ice retreating ever farther north every year, offshore fossil-fuel exploration has become increasingly viable. As a result, large reserves of oil and natural gas -- the very fuels whose combustion is responsible for those rising temperatures -- have been discovered beneath the Barents Sea and both countries are seeking to exploit those deposits. Norway has taken the lead, establishing at Hammerfest in Finnmark the world's first plant above the Arctic Circle to export liquified natural gas. In a similar fashion, Russia has initiated efforts to exploit the mammoth Shtokman gas field in its sector of the Barents Sea, though it has yet to bring such plans to fruition.

For Russia, even more significant oil and gas prospects lie further east in the Kara and Pechora Seas and on the Yamal Peninsula, a slender extension of Siberia. Its energy companies have, in fact, already begun producing oil at the Prirazlomnoye field in the Pechora Sea and the Novoportovskoye field on that peninsula (and natural gas there as well). Such fields hold great promise for Russia, which exhibits all the characteristics of a petro-state, but there's one huge problem: the only practical way to get that output to market is via specially-designed icebreaker-tankers sent through the Barents Sea past northern Norway.

The exploitation of Arctic oil and gas resources and their transport to markets in Europe and Asia has become a major economic priority for Moscow as its hydrocarbon reserves below the Arctic Circle begin to dry up. Despite calls at home for greater economic diversity, President Vladimir Putin's regime continues to insist on the centrality of hydrocarbon production to the country's economic future. In that context, production in the Arctic has become an essential national objective, which, in turn, requires assured access to the Atlantic Ocean via the Barents Sea and Norway's offshore waters. Think of that waterway as vital to Russia's energy economy in the way the Strait of Hormuz, connecting the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, is to the Saudis and other regional fossil-fuel producers.

The Military Dimension

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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