US Arctic ambassador nomination may freeze due to foreign actions

by Vern Evans

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Wednesday approved moving forward with the nomination of Dr. Michael Sfraga, a geographer with a career working on issues pertaining to the Arctic, as the U.S. ambassador-at-large to the polar region.

Sfraga, who would be the first to serve in the newly created position if confirmed by the full Senate, would be tasked with promoting American interests in the area during a time when Russia and China are also seeking to build up Arctic military capabilities. Sfraga’s past travels to the near-peer adversaries, however, have raised some eyebrows in Washington.

“The Arctic is undergoing profound change,” Sfraga said earlier this month before the committee, noting that Russia’s war against Ukraine has rendered cooperation difficult and that China is increasing its presence in the region in moves that threaten U.S. interests.

Earlier this month, Gen. Gregory Guillot, the head of U.S. Northern Command, similarly warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill about such activities, including a Russian exercise and a Chinese maritime mission.

When asked about working with the new NATO members Finland and Sweden, Arctic allies who the U.S. would be obligated to support in the event of a confrontation, Sfraga affirmed that in the role he would inform conversations to strengthen the growing alliance.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the lead proponent for the creation of the Arctic ambassador position and for Sfraga, spoke to the committee earlier this month to urge them to proceed with the nomination.

But not all of Murkowski’s colleagues agreed with that decision.

Sen. James Elroy Risch, R-Idaho, the top Republican on the committee, highlighted during the hearing earlier this month what he said were concerns over Sfraga’s travels to Russia and China, participation in certain panels and work negotiating agreements with institutions tied to the Chinese defense and intelligence services.

“The position of ambassador at large for Arctic affairs must be focused on national security challenges, economic opportunities, and the implications of U.S. foreign policy in the Arctic,” Risch said in a statement. “Due to its importance, this position is a target for malign influence, especially from Russia and China. Our Arctic Ambassador must be able to counter foreign malign influence — not facilitate it.”

A committee aide told Military Times via email that Risch intends to put a hold on this nomination on the Senate floor.

“We believe our concerns about Dr. Sfraga are significant and, combined with his attempts to mislead or conceal some of his past activities, warrant a more thorough supplemental background investigation by the FBI to determine any counterintelligence risks,” the committee aide added.

Sfraga — the founding director of the Polar Institute — contended in the hearing that while broad concerns over foreign influence should be taken seriously, his travels and work were warranted. He did not respond to Military Times’ request for comment by press time.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the chair of the committee, praised the movement on Sfraga’s nomination but described in a release that many others are languishing and that national security suffers as a result.

The Pentagon plans to release an updated DOD Arctic strategy this spring, Defense News previously reported. The Army released an Arctic strategy in 2021, as did the Navy and Marine Corps, and the Air Force did so in 2020.

And last fall, the White House released an implementation plan for its national Arctic strategy, highlighting steps that DOD and other agencies should take to meet strategic objectives, including the improvement of collective deterrence and the ability to respond to security challenges.

Jonathan is a staff writer and editor of the Early Bird Brief newsletter for Military Times. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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