When a meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council scheduled to take place in Canada in June was cancelled, one couldn’t help assuming the political standoff between Russia, on the one side, and the US and other European partners on the other over Ukraine must have played a role.
The Arctic Council Secretariat, based in Tromsoe in Norway, was keen to play down any political implications. In response to my inquiry, I was told the meeting had been rescheduled in form of teleconferences and written exchanges, and various meetings of Council working groups and task forces were going ahead in the coming weeks in Canada and in other Arctic Council member states. Business as usual? When Canada, which currently holds the chair of the Arctic Council, boycotted a working meeting of the organization planned for April in Moscow, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq called it a “principled stand” against Russian actions in Ukraine.
On other levels, the political repercussions of the Ukraine crisis for the Arctic are undisputed. A statement from the US State Department reads:
“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the US government has taken a number of actions, to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis”.
And that includes Arctic-related events. In Alaska Dispatch, Yereth Rosen reports the withdrawal of State Department funding for a hazard-reduction workshop planned for June between Russian scientists and their US counterparts. He also notes the head of Russia’s emergency services failed to show up at an international meeting in the US state last month.
With the West looking to broaden sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine dispute, relations between the two factions are bound to be strained in a region where climate change has set off a highly competitive race for oil, gas and other resources.
Defending Arctic interests
While careful to secure their own business interests, the USA plans to block exports of oil and gas technology for new projects run by Russian state-controlled companies, if the Kremlin interferes with the Presidential elections planned to take place in Ukraine on May 25th.
“Depriving Rosneft and Gazprom of the most modern technology would be a significant setback for their ambitions in the areas that are the future of the Russian industry, including the Arctic”, writes Ed Crooks in the Financial Times of May 14th.
Well before the annexation of Crimea, Moscow made no bones about its intention to defend its energy and other economic interests in the Arctic region. President Putin has made it a strategic priority, re-establishing Soviet airfields and ports and preparing a strategic military command to be set up in the Russian Arctic by the end of this year.
Russia, the only non-NATO coastal Arctic state, holds more Arctic territory than any of the other seven Arctic nations. It also lays claim before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to an extension of its own shelf, including the huge seabed area of the Lomonosov Ridge. Other countries that have claims on the Arctic seabed include Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States.
In March this year, the Commission approved Russia’s longstanding claim to 52,000 square kilometers of seabed in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean, believed to be rich in oil and gas. At the time, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy told journalists the UN decision was also “the first step in our Arctic applications, which will be ready in the near future.”
The Times Moscow correspondent Ben Hoyle responded with the headline “Russia’s legal land grab is dress rehearsal for Arctic showdown”.
A matter for NATO?
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year called for the USA and Canada to take up a united stand in response to Moscow’s military build-up in the Arctic .
According to the TTU online newsletter on defense and strategy, pressure is mounting on the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to abandon opposition to making the Arctic a part of NATO’s official agenda.
Harper would prefer to see the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command NORAD extended to forces on land and on sea. The defense experts say the Harper administration is at the same time using the Ukrainian conflict to re-gain geostrategic influence at a time where Russia is building up a strong maritime position in the Arctic.
The defense publication quotes international political risk research consultancy Polarisk Analytics however as saying extending NORAD’S powers would mean keeping up the old block mentality. That would not guarantee sufficient stability to attract private western investment in the Arctic.
Including the Arctic in NATO’s official agenda would provoke a counterproductive escalation, which could have a lasting destabilizing effect on Arctic cooperation and lead to confrontations, says Polarisk. They suggest the debate should be conducted within the Arctic Council. But so far, that has remained outside its mandate, focusing instead on environmental protection and health and safety.
Professor Lawson Brigham of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, former chairman of Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, told Alaska Dispatch “There are enough environmental issues and enough people issues to keep us busy and keep us together”.
He said he hoped tensions would ease enough and US leaders would be “diplomatically adroit enough to pull off one of the goals articulated in White House recent Arctic Strategy implementation plan: a 2016 “Presidential Arctic Summit”, attended by heads of Arctic nations to mark the Arctic Council’s 20th anniversary.
First, let’s see how the next Arctic Council SAO meeting in Yellowknife, Canada this autumn works out. Given that the chair of the Council goes to the USA in 2015, it seems unlikely that the long shadow of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict will become shorter any time soon.