With Russia overextended elsewhere, Arctic cooperation gets a new chance

Radar dish and antennas systems are seen at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association facility on Breinosa, Svalbard, in Norway. (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)

Can the United States and Russia actually cooperate in the Arctic? It might seem like wishful thinking, given that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asserted that there is in fact a “New Cold War” between the two countries in a speech at the Munich Security Conference. Many people—at that conference and elsewhere—see the idea as far-fetched. Sure, Russia is launching air strikes in what has become an all-out proxy war in Syria, continues to be aggressive against Ukraine, and has increased its military build-up in the High North. To many observers, the notion of cooperating with Russia in the Arctic was a non-starter as recently as the mid-2015. There have been, however, significant changes in Russia’s behavior in the last several months—so, maybe it is possible to bracket the Arctic out of the evolving confrontation.

These and other matters were the subject of discussion at a recent conference at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in New York, in which we had the pleasure to partake last week.

Moscow learns its limitations

Russia steadily increased its military activities and deployments in the High North until autumn 2015, including by creating a new Arctic Joint Strategic Command. There have been, however, indirect but accumulating signs of a possible break from this trend. Instead of moving forward with building the Arctic brigades, Russian top brass now aim at reconstituting three divisions and a tank army headquarters at the “Western front” in Russia. News from the newly-reactivated airbases in Novaya Zemlya and other remote locations are primarily about workers’ protests due to non-payments and non-delivery of supplies. Snap exercises that used to be so worrisome for Finland and Norway are now conducted in the Southern military district, which faces acute security challenges. Russia’s new National Security Strategy approved by President Vladimir Putin on the last day of 2015 elaborates at length on the threat from NATO and the chaos of “color revolutions,” but says next to nothing about the Arctic.

The shift of attention away from the Arctic coincided with the launch of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and was strengthened by the sharp conflict with Turkey. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin—who used to preside over the military build-up in the High North—is these days travelling to Baghdad, instead. Sustaining the Syrian intervention is a serious logistical challenge on its own—add low oil prices into the mix, which threw the Russian state budget and funding for major rearmament programs into disarray, and it’s clear that Russia is in trouble. 

The shift of attention away from the Arctic coincided with the launch of Russia’s military intervention in Syria, and was strengthened by the sharp conflict with Turkey.

The government is struggling with allocating painful cuts in cash flow, and many ambitious projects in the High North are apparently being curtailed. In the squabbles for dwindling resources, some in the Russian bureaucracy point to the high geopolitical stakes in the Arctic—but that argument has lost convincing power. The threats to Russian Arctic interests are in fact quite low, and its claim to expanding its control over the continental shelf (presented at the U.N. earlier this month) depends upon consent from its Arctic neighbors.

Let’s work together

Chances for cooperation in the Arctic are numerous, as we and our colleagues have described in previous studies. The current economic climate (i.e. falling oil prices, which makes additional energy resource extraction in most of the Arctic a distant-future scenario), geopolitical climate (sanctions on Russia targeting, amongst others, Arctic energy extraction), and budget constraints on both ends (Russia for obvious reasons, the United States because it chooses not to prioritize Arctic matters) urge us to prioritize realistically.

  • Improving vessel emergency response mechanisms. Though many analysts like to focus on upcoming resource struggles in the Arctic, the chief concern of naval and coast guard forces there is actually increased tourism. Conditions are very harsh most of the year and can change dramatically and unexpectedly. Given the limited capacity of all Arctic states to navigate Arctic waters, a tourist vessel in distress is probably the main nightmare scenario for the short term. Increased cooperation to optimize search and rescue capabilities is one way to prepare as much as possible for such an undesirable event. 
  • Additional research on climate change and methane leakage. Many questions remain regarding the changing climate, its effects on local flora and fauna, and long-term consequences for indigenous communities. Increasingly appreciated in the scientific community, an elephant in the room is trapped methane in permafrost layers. As the Arctic ice thaws, significant amounts of methane may be released into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming.
  • Expanding oil emergency response preparedness. The current oil price slump likely put the brakes on most Arctic exploration in the short term. We also believe that, unless all long-term demand forecasts are false, an additional 15 million barrels of oil per day will be needed by 2035 or so—the Arctic is still viewed as one of the last frontiers where this precious resource may be found. At the moment, Arctic states are ill-prepared to deal with a future oil spill, and more has to be learned about, for instance, oil recovery on ice and in snow. The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic was an important first step.
  • Preparing Bering Strait for increased sea traffic. As the Arctic warms, increased sea traffic is only a matter of time. The Bering Strait, which is only 50 miles wide at its narrowest point, lacks basic communication infrastructure, sea lane designation, and other critical features. This marks another important and urgent area of cooperation between the United States and Russia, even if dialogue at the highest political level is constrained. 

Can the Arctic be siloed?

There is no doubt that the current cooled climate between Russia and the other Arctic states, in particular the United States, complicates an ongoing dialogue. It is even true that it may prohibit a meaningful conversation about certain issues that have already been discussed. 

Skeptics will argue that it is unrealistic to isolate the Arctic from the wider realm of international relations. Though we agree, we don’t think leaders should shy away from political dialogue altogether. To the contrary, in complicated political times, the stakes are even higher: Leaders should continue existing dialogues where possible and go the extra mile to preserve what can be preserved. Russia’s desire for expanding its control over the Arctic shelf is entirely legitimate—and opens promising opportunities for conversations on issues of concern for many states, including China, for that matter.

Realists in the United States prefer to focus on expanding American military capabilities, their prime argument being that Russia has significantly more capacity in the Arctic. While we would surely agree that America’s current Arctic capabilities are woefully poor, as our colleagues have described, an exclusive focus on that shortcoming may send the wrong signal. 

We would therefore argue in favor of a combined strategy: making additional investments in U.S. Arctic capabilities while doubling down on diplomatic efforts to preserve the U.S.-Russian dialogue in the Arctic. That may not be easy, but given the tremendous success of a constructive approach in the Arctic in recent years, this is something worth fighting for. Figuratively speaking, that is.