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A Melting Arctic in a Frozen Russia-West Relationship

'Russia, the United States, and Europe are in danger of turning the Arctic into the northern front of Europe’s new Cold War'

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This article originally appeared at Valdai Club

The Arctic region could have been—should have been—approached as a critical building block in constructing the Euro-Atlantic security community leaders had pledged to create ever since the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe.  It is the Euro-Atlantic region’s crucial new northern frontier—the world’s next great hydrocarbon reserve, a region posing vast economic, technical, environmental, and sociological challenges that can only be well met through cooperation, a region unburdened by the poisoned legacy of the Cold War, and a region whose security need not have become competitive—and it once offered a chance to illustrate in microcosm how a Euro-Atlantic security community would operate. That is precisely what the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative (EASI), led by Wolfgang Ishinger, Igor Ivanov, and Sam Nunn, proposed in 2012, when the group urged that “the Arctic should be thought of as an auspicious chance to begin building the groundwork for a Euro-Atlantic Security Community.”

<figcaption>Kirov-class battle-cruiser Piotr Velikii (“Peter the Great”), flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet, on maneuvers in the Arctic Ocean</figcaption>
Kirov-class battle-cruiser Piotr Velikii (“Peter the Great”), flagship of the Russian Northern Fleet, on maneuvers in the Arctic Ocean

Now, having failed to heed that advice, Russia, the United States, and Europe are in danger of turning the Arctic into the northern front of Europe’s new Cold War. They are not there yet, but the growing furor over military activities in the region, and the ambitious steps Arctic states are taking to beef up their military presence in the area are creating a penumbra darkening the spirit of cooperation counted on to deal with the other items on a very formidable agenda. Much of the attention has focused on Russian actions—the TU-95 ‘H’ bombers testing the defense responses of littoral states, the increased presence of Russian submarines, naval forces, and aircraft in and over Arctic waters. “They’re flying in places. . . where they’ve never flown before,” the commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command warned. In turn Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu talks of a “broad spectrum of potential challenges and threats” to Russian national security in the Arctic. And the vast Russian military exercise stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea in mid-March directly linked preparations for military conflict on Russia’s European border with bolstering Russian defenses in the Arctic.

More portentous, however, is the rapid pace at which military forces are being developed and deployed in the region. Last December Russia created a new Arctic command (the Northern Fleet-Joint Strategic Command) to coordinate its increasingly elaborate military activities there. It has substantially increased the number of marines attached to the Northern Fleet and plans to deploy two new Arctic brigades permanently at reopened Soviet-era bases. The once-closed base on the Novosibirsk Islands now serves ten military ships and four icebreakers; plans are to restore ten Arctic-area airstrips. On the other side, Sweden, the chair of the Nordic Defense Cooperation (NORDEFCO) has pushed to explore the feasibility of assembling a modular-style Nordic-Baltic Battle Group (NBBG) modeled on the European Union's Swedish-led standby Nordic Battle Group (NBG). The reason made explicit by Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide is that "2014 has been an eventful year for Nordic defense cooperation”, that Russia's actions in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine has changed the European security landscape, with implications also in the Nordic region. And Canada has increased defense spending for armed ships to operate in the Northwest Passage and its part of the Arctic.

Thus, when in 2012 the EASI commission wrote that “avoiding military competition in the Arctic warrants attention now, in the early stages, as many of the Arctic states take military steps to protect their interests in the region,” little could its members have imagined how soon what they feared would come about, or how wise but ignored would be their insistence that “these states should consciously focus on ensuring these initiatives contribute to mutual security in the Arctic, not to military rivalry.” Alas, having failed to start down this road, military rivalry, and not mutual security appears to be the direction events are taking.

Indeed, for years, members of the Arctic Council, beginning with the United States, refused to allow the Council to take up the issue of military security in the region. Now that this issue has imposed itself on the eight members of the Council, those who want to include it on the agenda are moved less by an expectation that it will serve the aim of building mutual security than by a desire to counter what are seen as threatening (Russian) initiatives. In his press conference after the recent Iqaluit Ministerial, John Kerry confessed that it was “a subject that a number of us have kicked around,” but then decided that that it “would complicate” the “consensus . . . built thus far” and, thus, the Council’s “overall work.” 

That may be the most positive thing that happened at the AC ministerial, to the extent that it left members of the Council free to focus on issues where cooperation had been achieved and more might be. Four years ago they had agreed, in legally binding terms, to coordinate search-and-rescue operations over this vast ocean area. Two years ago they did the same to facilitate cooperation on cleanup efforts in the event of an oil spill, a vastly more complicated task in the icy waters of the Arctic, and Kerry suggested that efforts should now be expanded to ensure that catastrophes of this sort do not happen. The creation of an Arctic Economic Council investing the business community and development agencies in a safe and constructive exploitation of the economic opportunities arising as climate change redraws the coastline, an accomplishment that the Canadians can and do take credit for under their chairmanship of the Arctic Council, seems to have general support. And the Canadian emphasis—for good domestic political reasons—on giving voice to indigenous populations over what happens in the Arctic is surely a sensible proposition that also appears to enjoy broad agreement, at least at the rhetorical level. 

When looked at from the perspective of how the Arctic fits into the sad larger picture in relations between Russia and the other seven Atlantic Council members, however, all of this rather misses the point. Decoupling what is happening in the Arctic and within the Arctic Council from the new Cold War in Russia-West relations is like seeing the Kremlin afire and worrying about oiling the clock on Spasskaya Tower. Unless those areas where the rudiments of cooperation survive are approached as an antidote, indeed, a counter-current to the dialogue missing in every other dimension of the relationship, cooperation in the Arctic will eventually also become a victim of the larger train wreck. 

Kerry said in his address to the Council that the United States intends to make climate change and the Arctic a central theme of the U.S. chairmanship. He called for cooperation in fully implementing the Arctic Council’s Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emissions, for members to join Global Ocean Acidification Observer Network to facilitate monitoring of Arctic waters, and for progress in developing a pan-Arctic network of marine protected areas. These are concrete steps that would have a measurable impact on the Arctic region, and, as important, if Russia, the United States and the other five members of the Arctic Council, along with the observer states, advance them together, they would not only be reopening—at least slightly—the curtain on East-West dialogue, they would be demonstrating the ability of Russia and the West to address one of this century’s largest global security challenges.

For that to happen, however, both sides will have to rethink aspects of current policy. Cooperation in the Arctic won’t come about without effort. Effort will require effective dialogue. Effective dialogue will depend on a readiness to engage with the other side. As long as the United States and its European allies remain committed, as a general matter, to isolating Russia and eschewing dialogue in most areas, they will be deluding themselves if they think efforts to cooperate in the Arctic will go unharmed. At the same time, as long as senior Russian officials responsible for Arctic policy treat the Arctic as “Russia’s Mecca,” frame the issue as a “battle for resources,” and dismiss the concerns of Canada and the Nordic states over Russia’s increased military activity in the Far North as “their problem,” the likelihood Western states will rethink their policy shrinks.

Which brings us back to the shadow cast by the militarization now underway in the Arctic region. The chance to use the Arctic as a building block in the formation of a Euro-Atlantic security community may be lost for the foreseeable future, but that still leaves the formidable challenge of ensuring that the Arctic does not become a tragic extension of the new Russia-West Cold War.  To guard against that the two sides need to get very serious very soon about containing the military measures all are taking in the region and begin approaching their legitimate defense concerns more as a matter of mutual than national security. To do that, they will have to agree to resume a serious dialogue. Despite the disagreement that it will generate within NATO, the logical place for that dialogue is in the NATO-Russia Council—not the Arctic Council. Given the degree to which Brussels, Moscow, and Washington are dug into their current stony reluctance to engage, restoring the NRC to a genuinely effective role is not soon likely to be anyone’s priority. But were all eight Arctic Council members to step back and think hard about the military road they are now on, they may want to rethink a lot of things. 

Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus, Columbia University.

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