Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona said that Russia has become a "national security issue" for the U.S. in an interview Friday with Politico's Morning Defense team. His comments were made ahead of a congressional delegation trip he has been planning to the Arctic as a response to a rapidly growing Russian military presence off the coast of Northern Europe.
The trip was set to include visits to facilities in Sweden and Norway in an effort to prepare for possible Russian military moves in the region and to discuss further U.S. involvement in the Arctic Ocean. "To its north, the transatlantic community faces Russia's militarization of the Arctic. And to the east, NATO confronts Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," McCain said in a Senate hearing for the U.S. European Command’s budget and programs in April.
Russia has been building up a large military presence in the Arctic Ocean over the course of many months, for both defense purposes and to drill for rich minerals in the area. "The main emphasis is in two directions - the Arctic and Atlantic" said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on the Kremlin's military plans, as reported by the BBC.
The expanding Russian presence in the Arctic and the Atlantic was because of heightened activity of NATO near Russia's borders, Putin told Russian news agencies Monday. Russia is set to double its military presence in the Arctic by 2020.
McCain has long been an advocate for a more aggressive approach toward Russia, and the nation's heightened presence so close to Northern Europe has sparked fear of Russian aggression. McCain has previously called for the U.S. to arm Ukrainian troops and advocated for a stricter approach toward diplomacy with Putin.
Following comments McCain made on Russia's involvement in Ukraine during the summer of 2014, the senator was banned from Russia for life, along with several other members of U.S. government, to which McCain teasingly responded on Twitter: "I guess this means my spring break in Siberia is off."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island would be the lead Democrat on the Arctic trip, McCain said Friday. One of the main topics of discussion slated for the visit to the Nordic nations was whether the U.S. Navy would start building polar icebreakers in the region, a task that has traditionally been relegated to the regional Coast Guards in the area.
“We may have to get together with Homeland Security and see how this whole thing works,” the senator told Politico Friday of the upcoming visit.