“Can Western-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic Survive the Current Conflict?” Wilson Center – Polar Initiative

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine affects prospects for peace and general cooperation in the region, and beyond, including the Arctic. The specific impact on the future of the Arctic, on continued Russia-West cooperation, and the consequences of failed cooperation was discussed at an event at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., on June 29.


The event was moderated by Ambassador Kenneth Yalowitz, Global Fellow and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Belarus. The primary speaker was Irvin Studin, founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine, and the President of The Institute for 21st Century Questions in Toronto.


Russia’s recently increased military presence and large-scale military maneuvers in the Arctic have sparked concerns among other Arctic countries. U.S. energy sanctions on Russian oil and gas projects in response to Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict have injected outside political issues into Arctic economic development plans and activities.


Yalowitz opened the discussion about the West-Russia relationship by saying the Arctic is one area where future cooperation seems possible, and that he hopes the geopolitical situation has not passed the point where this can occur.


Studin said in terms of Arctic development, Canada is a little ahead of the U.S., and Russia is well ahead of both countries.


Studin said that annexation capabilities still exist in the Arctic, and the prospect of war, compared to 10 years ago, is much more present in both North America and in Europe, and will only increase in the decade to come. He said three conflicts across the globe hold great strategic importance: the collapse of order in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.


In the near-term, Studin said, one of these must be solved relatively quickly, before the moment passes. This would be the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. He said the conflict is poorly understood in English-speaking countries, and he addressed three actions that need to occur in order to solve this problem structurally.


First, peacekeepers must be introduced into southeastern Ukraine. Furthermore, these peacekeepers cannot come from a selective treaty organization, or from Belarus, but instead must be recruited from Asia, preferably India. India is highly respected in both Russia and Ukraine, and as a neutral country, has peacekeeping experience.


Second, Ukraine needs to be removed as a prospective North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, which is something that Ukrainians have always understood, he said. Third, all sanctions on unrelated to Crimea must be removed.


Studin also suggested an institutional arrangement needs be established for Ukraine to have a relationship with Russia because Ukraine cannot survive without Russian energy supplies.  Also, the final criterion for Ukraine’s success is the heroic competence of the government. The conflict in Ukraine can serve as a model for relations among the Arctic nations, he said, and the potential disagreements that could emerge from colliding regimes.


Regarding Canada’s Arctic policies and how they are related to Russia and the U.S., Studin said Canada is a lucky country, as it hasn’t faced a territorial war since 1871.  Canadian borders, however, will increase in complexity in the future as the formerly frozen northern border changes with the melting sea ice. Furthermore, the U.S. diminution as a world power and technological changes will make Canadian borders more porous.


Canada and Russia are the top strategic Arctic players, Studin said, but Canada’s psychology will need to change as a result of the melting Arctic. As an analyst, he predicts that Canada will become the second most important and populous country in the west by the end of the century.


Regarding the Arctic, Studin said a “Pax Arctica” doctrine that claimed the international rule of law, prudence, and co-operation will govern the judgments of the first order Arctic players—the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark—as well as other big participants, such as China, the EU and India.


Studin referenced Michael Byers, who argues that everyone interested in the Arctic hopes only for cooperation. Studin then referenced Charles Emmerson with a contrary view, who claims a diversion of power, claims and interests in the Arctic is inevitable.


Studin said he agrees with Emmerson, and what is going on in the Arctic is not very different from the conflict in the South China Sea; considerable prospects seem to exist for a conflict between Russia and western countries.


Studin elaborated on five themes related to Russia and the Arctic:

  1. Russia believes it has veto power over most strategic questions in the Arctic, and that not one major challenge is solvable.
  2. Russia is the most serious and capable of the eight Arctic nations from the military, strategic, psychological, infrastructure, and historic standpoints.
  3. Russia plays the linkage aspect well, though linkage to other issues hasn’t been pressed in any major way. Canada played linkage during its Arctic Council chairmanship. The U.S. is less deliberate than Russia.
  4. In its current state, Russia is poor at long term planning.
  5. Russia needs western countries for economic support.


Discussing the possibility of war in the Arctic, Studin said soon the Arctic would be the first thoroughfare, but warfare over the Arctic will not occur in the near future because the region’s military capabilities are not mature and the stakes right now are not very high.


Studin described three different futures for the Arctic over the next 50-100 years:

  1. Conflict – Disagreements and escalating tensions.
  2. Cooperation – With strong leadership from the Arctic Council, Russia seems to be on board with this, but is also pedantic on delivering transactional agreements that aren’t in accord with its strategic regimes.
  3. Disorganization and incoherence – Similar to the situation in the South China Sea where one large power has the resources and national interest to engage in conflict with smaller countries in the region.


Studin said the West should keep an eye on Russia. In the near term, this relates mostly to fighting in Ukraine, though it could have consequences for the Arctic as a war zone.


In the not too distant future, Russia will have to address a succession issue related to governmental transition, Studin said. This is why there is urgency in addressing the Ukrainian situation. He said the U.S. holds an important role in ensuring the transition is stable, as a Russian collapse of any type would be a “hellish” proposition, a century-long problem, and a barrier to solving any international conflicts. It would also mean “Arctic failure.”


He said that in the medium to long term, the Arctic will inevitably be the subject of overlapping claims. How this is managed is a function of heroic diplomacy and how well the countries understand one another. Canadians and Americans have big differences with Russians over the major global issues that are important to them.


Yalowitz said there are many reasons of why relations won’t improve over the short term.


First, every Arctic country has its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and most of the Arctic oil resources are located within national EEZs. So, there will be few disputes over who has the rights to the oil and the issue is unlikely to cause war among nations. What could be a potential source of conflict, Yalowitz said, is the extended continental shelf beyond national ocean boundaries.


In terms of priorities, even the Russians are putting the Arctic on the back burner, Yalowitz said. In contrast to the conflict in Ukraine, multiple vehicles exist—such as the Law of the Sea (though the U.S. has not ratified this treaty)—to resolve international Arctic issues.


In regard to the Northern Sea Route, the Russians are “painfully aware” of the difficulties of using it. Though viewed as a shorter way to move cargo, the route has unpredictable weather and isn’t necessarily seen as part of a viable shipping network. Also, the Russian icebreaker fleet is aging and needs to be replaced.


On the long term agenda is the topic of oil and gas: Russia will need western assistance to develop Arctic energy projects.


The discussion ended with questions and comments from the audience. The following is a summary of some of the notable exchanges.

  • Rich Cos of George Mason University said that using the Northern Sea Route will require building double the commercial shipping capacity that operations elsewhere require. Oil and gas tankers probably won’t use the Northern Sea Route in the near term. Land-based access is another factor to consider planning commercial transportation in the Arctic.
  • A question was directed to Studin about unresolved maritime boundaries. Studin said that from a Russian military strategic perspective, the way to target Europe and North America would from the north, and so over the Arctic.
  • Rob Hemmit of Johns Hopkins University addressed the Arctic and the connections with the Ukraine conflict. He said Russia has major interests in the north, and it’s building up its Coast Guard and infrastructure in order to defend them.
  • Studin said the status of Arctic aboriginal people is an issue that has been neglected in Russia and the U.S., but is very popular in Canada. To compensate for past misdeeds and bad policy decisions, Canada is working on a new claims settlement with its aboriginal population. Canada could be a leader on Arctic aboriginal issues.
  • David Sharp of the University of Washington said the Arctic needs cooperative governance, which requires institutional trust. The U.S., Canada and Norway exchange data, but there is no data exchange with Russia.
  • Irvin responded that the most important type of exchange is actually language competence. English speakers need to show initiative and learn Russian, and then have the most valuable interactions while “breaking bread.” The Arctic Council can play a strong role in this, along with funding academic studies on Russian relations.