Can Western – Russian Cooperation in the Arctic Survive the Current Conflict?

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine affects prospects for peace and general cooperation in the region, and beyond, including the Arctic. The impact this conflict will have on the future of the Arctic, the necessary political will for continued Russia-West cooperation, and the consequences if this fails to materialize was discussed. The event was moderated by the Honorable Kenneth S. Yalowitz, Global Fellow and former U.S. Embassador to the Republic of Belarus, and the primary speaker was Irvin Studin, Founder of Global Brief magazine.


Russia’s recently increased military presence and large scale military maneuvers in the Arctic have sparked concerns among its Arctic partners, and U.S. energy sanctions on Russian oil and gas projects in response to Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine have injected outside political issues into the Arctic’s economic development.


Mr. Yalowitz opened the topic of discussion on the prospect of a West – Russia relationship, stating that the Arctic is one area where cooperation seems hopeful in the future, and that he hopes the geopolitical situation has not passed the point where this is still possible.


Studin was then asked to speak about the topic. He said that in terms of development in the Arctic, Canada is a little bit ahead of the U.S., and Russia is way ahead of both of the North American Arctic nations.


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 talked about 3 conflicts across the globe that hold great strategic importance –  collapse of order in the middle east, the rise of China, and the Russo – Ukrainian conflict.


Studin said that in the near-term, one of these must be solved relatively quickly, before the moment passes. This would be the Russo – Ukrainian conflict. He said that this conflict is poorly understood in English-speaking countries, and he addressed 3 actions that need to take place in order to solve this problem structurally. First, the solution requires the introduction of peacekeepers into Southeastern Ukraine. Furthermore, he said that these peacekeepers cannot come from a selective treaty organization, or from Belarus. He said that the peacekeepers need to come from Asia, preferably India. This is because India is highly respected in both Russia and the Ukraine, is a neutral country, and has experience in peace keeping. Secondly, Irvin said that Ukraine needs to be removed from becoming a prospective North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member, which is something that Ukrainians have always understood. Lastly, all sanctions on the Ukraine unrelated to Crimea must be removed.


Studin brought up 2 other points before relating the conflict in the Ukraine to the Arctic. He said that there needs to be an institutional arrangement within the Ukraine for a relationship with Russia, because the Ukraine cannot survive without energy supplies, most of which still come from Russia. Lastly, he said the final criterion of the success of the Ukraine is heroic competence of the government.


He said that the conflict in Ukraine can serve as a model about how to go about relations among the Arctic nations, and the potential conflict that could emerge between colliding regimes and unintelligent interstitial problems.


He then talked about Canada’s Arctic gain, and how it is related to Russia and the U.S. as well. He said that Canada is a lucky country, as it hasn’t faced a territorial war since 1871, but that the Canadian borders will increase in complexity in the time to come. While in the past, their northern border was frozen, with melting sea ice this will not be the case. Furthermore, diminution in the U.S.’s world power, and changes in technology make Canadian borders much more porous.


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


Specifically regarding the Arctic, Studin talked about a “Pax Arctica” doctrine that claimed the international rule of law, prudence, and co-operation will govern the judgments of  first order Arctic players – the US, Russia, Canada, Norway, and Denmark – as well as other big players, including China, the EU and India. Michael Byers argues that everyone interested in the Arctic hopes only for cooperation. On the contrary, Charles Emmerson claims that a diversion of power, claims, and interests in the Arctic is inevitable.


Studin said he agrees with Emmerson, and that what is going on in the Arctic is not very different from the conflict in the South China Sea, and that there seems to be a considerable prespect of a conflict between Russia and western countries.


Studin then elaborated on 5 themes related to Russia and the Arctic:

  1. Russia considers it has a veto 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 8 Arctic Nations – from a military, strategic, and psychology, infrastructure, and historic stand point.
  3. Russia plays linkage well. Linked to other issues, though linkage hasn’t been pressed in any major way. Canada played linkage in the last round of the Arctic council. U.S. is less deliberate than Russia.
  4. Russia in current form does long term planning poorly.
  5. Needs western states for support.


Studin then discussed the topic of war in the Arctic. He said that under scenarios that could be articulated soon, the Arctic would be a first thoroughfare, but that warfare over the Arctic will not occur in the near future. This is because military capabilities are not mature in this region, and the stakes right now are not very high.


Studin discussed 3 different futures of the Arctic over the next 50-100 years:


  1. Conflict –
  2. A cooperative future, with strong leadership from the Arctic Council, Russia seems to be on board with this, but is also pedantic on delivering transactional agreements, and isn’t in accord with strategic regimes. Russians on board with the Arctic Council and much more pendantic on deliveing on those transactional agreements. They are nervous and don’t agree on the strategic regimes.
  3. A future of disorganization and incoherence, similar to the scenario in the South China Sea, where one large power has resource and national interests that are at a dissonance with the smaller players in the region, this future has with it a great risk of conflict.


Studin says that an eye should be kept on Russia and in the near term, this relates mostly to fighting in the Ukraine, which could potentially have consequences related to the Arctic through a thoroughfare


Studin said that in the medium term, there is a succession issue in Russia, related to the transition of the government, which is why there is an urgency to address the Ukrainian proposition as well. He said that the U.S. holds an important role in terms of this position in order to ensure it is a stable, happy transition, as any type of collapse of Russia is a “hellish” proposition, a century-long problem, and would make conflicts impossible to solve. It would also mean “Arctic failure.”


He said that in the medium to long term, there will inevitably be overlapping claims in the Arctic, and that how this is managed is a function of heroic diplomacy and how we understand one another. He said that there is a big different between Canadians and Americans compared to Russians and the major global issues that are of importance to them.


Yalowitz said there are many reasons of why this is not going to happen over the short term. He said that first, everyone in the Arctic has their own exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and that the majority of oil is located on nation’s EEZ’s so there won’t be dispute over who has the rights to it. Yalowitz said that isn’t going to be the topic that will embark war among nations. He said that what could be a potential source of conflict is the extended continental shelf that goes beyond nations’ continental shelves. He said that in terms of priorities, even the Russians are putting the Arctic on the back burner.  Yalowitz said that in comparison to the conflict in Ukraine, there are multiple vehicles to resolve international Arctic issues, such as the Law of the Sea.


In terms of a sea route, the Russians are painfully aware of issues with a northern route, which is looked to as a shorter way of moving cargos. Due to unpredictable weather, the northern shipping area isn’t necessarily seen as a viable shipping network. Also, the Russian icebreaker fleet is aging and needs to be replaced. On the topic of oil and gas, Russia is going to need western assistance with developing projects in the area, which is a long term agenda.


NOT SURE WHO SAID THIS – Russia’s economy is in a difficult place right now, and as everyone supports the annexation of Crimea, and that U.S. sanction on Russia is a result of Crimea. He stated he hopes that the Arctic can be an area of cooperation


CAITLYN ANTRUM – Said that her background related to Arctic Law of the Sea and she also has a background in the Navy. She said that the largest watershed on Earth is the Sea Ice that is melting in the Arctic. She said that in the medium term, or about the next 30 years, the Arctic will be more accessible and the area will be seen as more accessible from a Russian perspective, and that it will help ports in the interior of Russia.



Deep interest in developing internal relations with Russia through


RUSSEL KING talked about a northern sea route as it related to Singapore’s Arctic policy. He used this as an example of the global interest in the Arctic, and how this was related to sea ice melting, less local interests for a more viable sea route.



Stated how having a better understanding of oil where oil and gas is outside of the Arctic Nations’ EEZ will help, as removing some of the unknowns will aid in furthering negotiations.



RICH COS, from George Mason University, said that shipping through the northern passage will require building double the commercial shipping capacity that is needed for operations elsewhere in the oceans. He said that another thing to think about in terms of  commercial transportation in the Arctic is land-based. He said there is a new international maritime organization working on a new Arctic Shipping Code. He said that he doesn’t think oil and gas transportation vehicles will be operating in a northern sea route in the near term.


One man directed questions at Studin about some of his statements, he asked about the maritime boundary despite that are not resolved, and also about how he justified statements about the Canadian population tripling over the next century.


Studin responded that from a Russian strategic perspective, targeting Europe and North America would be done so through the North, so through the Arctic.


Rob Hemmit, from Johns Hopkins University, addressed the Arctic and linkages with the Ukraine conflict, He said that Russia has major interests in the north, and defending those, which is why they are building up their Coast Guard and Infrastructure there.


Irvin said that one aspect that is neglected in Russia and the U.S. but very popular in Canada is the area of Aboriginals. He said that in Canada there is going to be a new Aboriginal deal based on past misdeeds and bad policy decisions, and that Canada could be a leader in respect to Aboriginal Arctic issues.


David sharp, uni of Washington in Seattle said that there needs to be cooperative governance in the Arctic, which requires institutional trust. He said that the data exchange among the U.S., Canada, and Norway, but there is no data exchange with Russia.


Irvin said that this isn’t the most important type of exchange that needs to occur. He said that there needs to be language competence, English speakers need to show initiative and learn Russian, and that the most important types of exchanges need to happen over breaking bread. He said that the Arctic Council can have a strong role with this and with funding studies on Russian relations in the academic area, in order to advise on issues like Russian policy.