Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study and Policy, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, or the United States government.
One does not need to look very far to find stories about Russia’s misdeeds in the international community during the Putin era. Indeed, the evidence abounds from Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia, its 2014 intervention in Ukraine, or its more recent meddling in Western elections, including the United States’ 2016 presidential election. The reality is that Russia’s actions in the Arctic are much more nuanced than the hyperbole that attracts readers.
Russia has been a generally good partner in the Arctic from the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears to the numerous joint products of the Arctic Council, including the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, and the 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.
As McKenzie et al. argued, the Arctic nations “should decouple the Arctic from other aspects” of their relationship with Russia. It is in the best interest of the United States and other Arctic nations to continue to cooperate with Russia whenever possible and this does not preclude continued condemnation of Russia’s aggression in other parts of the world.
Cooperation reduces the capability and infrastructure gap that all Arctic nations have. Cooperation increases human security. Cooperation is essential to the sustainable development of the Arctic region.
The benefits of cooperation for the United States and other Arctic nations far outweigh the potential negatives in two significant ways. First, cooperation reduces the capability and infrastructure gap that all Arctic nations have. Second, cooperation increases human security. Cooperation is essential to the sustainable development of the Arctic region.
Cooperation reduces the capability and infrastructure gap that all Arctic nations have. The resupply of Nome in 2012 demonstrates the benefits of cooperation. The fall fuel shipment to Nome, a city not connected by road to the rest of Alaska, failed to arrive. By mid-winter Nome was in serious danger of running out of fuel. Ultimately, the Renda, a Russian ice-capable tanker, worked with the Healy, an icebreaker from the U.S. Coast Guard, for almost a month to get to the town and conduct the resupply.
Cooperation increases human security. According to the United Nations, “Human security is an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people.” Human security includes the capability to provide adequate search and rescue services as well timely and effective response to environmental threats. An oil spill knows no boundaries and would be devastating to indigenous subsistence communities. A transpolar flight that has an emergency over the Arctic or an Arctic cruise ship that runs into trouble will quickly exceed the capacity of readily available Arctic assets (those assets stationed close enough to the Arctic to make a difference).
Each of the Arctic states suffers from the lack of sufficient capability and infrastructure to deal with problems on its own. Therefore, recognition of the need to cooperate in the region is nearly universally held by all members of the Arctic Council.
Sometimes even smaller adventurers need help. A Russian icebreaker rescued the two-man crew of the French catamaran Babouchka in 2013 after the other Arctic states agreed that the crew could not be rescued via helicopter. It took three days for the nuclear powered icebreaker to reach the men.
As the ice melts, the Arctic continues to see more activity, which is leading to increased risk. The Norwegian and Russian safety at sea cooperation in the Barents Sea is a replicable model of cooperative risk reduction. The cooperation includes multiple bilateral exercises held annually, environmental cooperation, and a joint ship reporting system in the Barents Sea. Norway has continued this cooperation at the street-level (bureaucrats with expertise in specific areas like search and rescue or environmental protection) despite also participating in the sanctions regime against Russia after its annexation of Crimea.
This is in line with McKenzie et al.’s recommendation to “decouple the Arctic” from other aspects of the Arctic countries’ relationships. An accident in the Arctic will likely have impacts that reverberate far beyond national borders. Additionally, each of the Arctic states suffers from the lack of sufficient capability and infrastructure to deal with problems on its own. Therefore, recognition of the need to cooperate in the region is nearly universally held by all members of the Arctic Council.
Thus far, Russia has played the role of a responsible partner that follows international rules in the Arctic. Russia is an active participant in all of the relevant international organizations focused on the Arctic while continuing to “eagerly” advocate “open dialogue at all levels.”
Cooperation is a low-cost solution to increase capability allowing each of the Arctic nations to benefit from their combined capabilities. In addition, cooperation with Russia could provide spillover benefits to the broader relationship with Russia in that cooperation can increase trust--the model Norwegian and Russian cooperation started with fisheries has blossomed into a multifaceted model of bilateral cooperation in the Arctic.
Thus far, Russia has played the role of a responsible partner that follows international rules in the Arctic. Kari Roberts, a Canadian, has even gone so far as to assert that, “It may even be fair to argue that [Russia] is more of a team player in the Arctic than the United States has been.” To seemingly support this assertion, the Arctic Council Ministerial last May was the first to end without a joint declaration after the United States blocked a statement on climate change.
Cooperation with Russia has been ongoing since Soviet times as evidenced by the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears, which was negotiated and signed during the heart of the Cold War. In October 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev called for the Arctic to become a “zone of peace.” Russia was a founding member of both the Arctic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. It has acceded to the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and was the first nation to submit a claim under it.
Half of the 4 million people that live in the Arctic live in the Russian Arctic. There is a Russian Arctic buildup, but it is nowhere near Cold War levels and it makes sense given Russia’s geography.
As Roberts notes, Russia is an active participant in all of the relevant international organizations focused on the Arctic while continuing to “eagerly” advocate “open dialogue at all levels.” Both the 2010 Maritime Delimitation Treaty between Norway and Russia and the more recent 2018 joint submission from Russia and the United States to the International Maritime Organization for voluntary shipping routes in the Bering Strait demonstrate Russia’s continued effort to work within the confines of existing international law and norms in the Arctic.
Of course, some of the more sensational articles on the Arctic over the last decade argue that Russia is a bad actor in the Arctic, but the reality is much more nuanced. In 2008, Scott Borgerson’s “Arctic Meltdown” largely pointed to Russia’s flag planting as a provocative land grab. Yet Indra Øverland disagreed, noting that, “It is common for explorers to plant their national flags when they reach difficult targets--Mount Everest, the south pole, the north pole, the moon, and so on.”
Roberts also argued that the flag incident is overblown in the media, reminding her readers that former Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham traveled to disputed Hans Island just “days after Canadian military personnel planted a Canadian flag there.” In 2015, the late U.S. Senator John McCain wrote “The Real Arctic Threat” detailing Russia’s imperialist designs for the Arctic to include its inclination to seize territory by force. In reality, Russia has set the example regarding territorial claims under UNCLOS by being the first to submit a claim under the convention to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in 2001.
None of the nations that surround the Arctic Ocean are prepared to meet the future challenges in the Arctic by themselves as both activity and risk continue to increase. Cooperation is a low-cost solution to increase capability and address these gaps.
Russia’s claim was ultimately rejected, but this did not lead to a Russian military conquest of the Arctic. Rather, Russia revised its claim and resubmitted it in 2015 in accordance with UNCLOS. At the same time, Russia negotiated a settlement to its border dispute with Norway in 2010 setting a new mutually agreed upon 1,750-kilometer sea border.
Robbie Gramer’s 2017 article “Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-Up in the Arctic Looks Like” detailed Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic and used a catching graphic that conveniently fails to include NATO military installations. When discussing Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic, one must remember that Russia owns 53 percent of the Arctic coastline. In addition, approximately 20 percent of Russia’s exports along with 20 percent of Russia’s GDP is produced in the Arctic.
Furthermore, half of the 4 million people that live in the Arctic live in the Russian Arctic. In addition, Russia is the only nation with a naval fleet stationed in the Arctic, including its strategic nuclear missile submarines (see Åtland). Thus, there is a Russian Arctic buildup, but it is nowhere near Cold War levels and it makes sense given Russia’s geography.
The United States and other Arctic states should continue to enhance their cooperative relationship with Russia in the Arctic while at the same time using the full range of policy to continue to condemn Russia’s illegal actions in other parts of the world.
Finally, Ibrahim Al-Marashi’s 2019 article “The Great Game Over the Arctic” asserts that the Arctic is just one of the many theaters that Moscow is using to project power. Yet, as Zoë Schlanger asserts, there is no great race for the Arctic. In 2008, the five nations surrounding the Arctic signed the Ilulissat Declaration stating that they remained committed to UNCLOS and “to the orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.” Thus far, all the evidence points to the Arctic nations continuing to follow both the letter and spirit of the Ilulissat Declaration.
In conclusion, none of the nations that surround the Arctic Ocean are prepared to meet the future challenges in the Arctic by themselves as both activity and risk continue to increase. Each of the Arctic nations face capability and infrastructure gaps, both of which will likely be exacerbated by the rapid pace of climate change. Cooperation is a low-cost solution to increase capability and address these gaps.
Therefore, the United States and other Arctic states should continue to enhance their cooperative relationship with Russia in the Arctic under the Norwegian model while at the same time using the full range of policy to continue to condemn Russia’s illegal actions in other parts of the world. In order to safeguard U.S. Arctic interests, we should focus on both dialogue and cooperation to ensure a sustainable and secure future.
Jeremy McKenzie is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and a researcher for the Center for Arctic Study and Policy.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.