Getting colder: Cooperating with Russia in the Arctic

Is it possible to isolate the well-established mode of Arctic cooperation from the disruptive impact of the Ukraine crisis? Many stake-holders in cooperative projects with Russia keep insisting on an affirmative answer and seek to bracket out tensions emanating from such obscure locations as Debaltsevo or Mariupol. The European Union (EU), which is due to adopt a new Arctic Policy by the end of the year, would have been content to maintain the focus on environmental protection and economic development; the discussions in Brussels, however, have increasingly shifted to far less appealing “hard security” matters. Officials from the European Commission seem deeply reluctant to deal with Russia’s military activities in the high north but have to acknowledge that they are making it much more difficult to cooperate with Russia. As April’s Arctic Council ministerial meetings approach, the United States and Europe must be realistic about the ways in which far away events will negatively affect the possible achievement of their goals. 

Moscow is expanding rather than camouflaging the scope of exercises undertaken by its newly-formed Arctic Joint Strategic Command. Russian President Vladimir Putin used to proudly proclaim Russia’s abiding interest in Arctic cooperation, but even the most pro-engagement Arctic partners cannot fail to see that Russia’s interest is clearly slackening. This may be partly due to the disappearing attractiveness of exploration of the Arctic resources, since the estimated production costs of the off-shore platforms go far beyond the expected returns on the current level of oil prices. Another reason may be the disappointment in the commercial prospects of the Northern Sea Route (or Sevmorput), where maritime transit contracted by an astounding 77 percent in 2014, after several years of promising growth. A further reason may be Moscow’s recognition that the much trumpeted (and still not submitted) claim for expanding its “ownership” over the Arctic shelf cannot be legally approved because Denmark has presented its own claim, and the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf cannot make any recommendations on clashing claims.

It is hard to find an active lobby in Russia for sustaining cooperative projects or at least the joint work in the Arctic Council, as many actors who promoted the Barents Cooperation in the 1990s, are either on a short leash (as is the case with regional governors) or branded as “foreign agents” (the NGOs that want to avoid such branding have to curtail or cut ties with Western colleagues). The appointment of Dmitri Rogozin as a chair of the new government commission on Arctic matters bodes ill for the cooperative endeavors because this firebrand “patriot” deservedly holds a spot on U.S., EU, and Canadian sanctions lists. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry is still circulating a message of commitment to the Arctic dialogue. The forthcoming session of the Arctic Council ministers in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, might test this commitment with the issue of granting observer status to the EU. It was Canada who blocked the resolution of this issue at the previous meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, in 2013, but the controversy about seal products has been resolved, and Canada is ready to put the question on the agenda as its chairmanship of the Council expires. European Commission officials expect that during the 2015 meeting, Russia will raise objections because the EU is now seen as an antagonist, but EU officials still feel it is important to force Moscow to put their opposition on the record.

One external party that aims at enhancing and also at reformatting the Arctic cooperation is China, and while Moscow has to show eager attention to Beijing’s opinions, it cannot be comfortable with this “encroachment.” Russia’s traditional position has been that Arctic matters were the responsibility of the littoral states, but China insists on having a say and even entertains notions of the high north as a “global common,” a prospect which Moscow finds hard to swallow. 

It is indeed futile to praise the value of cooperative ties when seven members of the Arctic Council are compelled to tighten step by step the regime of sanctions against the eighth member, which is sinking into a deep economic crisis but persists in building its power projection capabilities in the High North. The usefulness of engaging Russia is beyond doubt, but it would be irresponsible to expect that joint projects in monitoring climate change could reduce the risks from expanding Russian military activities. The high north is one area where Moscow fancies itself to be in a position of power, but so far it has not found a way to enjoy it. It is not my intention to give the Kremlin war-mongers ideas about putting this military advantage to good political use, but when the likes of Rogozin or Nikolai Patrushev (secretary of the Security Council and former head of the Russian Federal Security Service) profess particular interest in the Arctic, it is only prudent to expect a brainstorm of sorts. The technique of “hybrid war” is not only the continuation but also a driver of Putin’s politics of confrontation, and this drive transforms the unique Arctic landscapes into just another “theater.”