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What Will The Arctic Endgame Look Like?

Spring 2009 Strategic Futures

What Will The Arctic Endgame Look Like?

strategicfuturesWhat will the Arctic endgame among competing countries and parties look like?

Sergei Plekhanov

“Creation of an international legal regime based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The differences are negotiable, and the issues manageable. And the new trend in Russia-West relations is quite positive. If it holds, the benefits of cooperation will outweigh any potential benefits from excessive competition.”

» Sergei Plekhanov is an associate professor of political science and Coordinator of the Post-Communist Studies Programme at the Centre for International & Security Studies at York University.

Daniel P. Fata

“As the world witnessed on August 2, 2007, Russia planted a flag (literally) on the Arctic seabed – thus claiming parts of the Arctic to be sovereign Russian territory – an act which has been challenged by Canada, the US and Norway. These littoral states, as well as Denmark and Finland, and non-littorals or ‘outsiders,’ such as China, Japan, and the EU, have looked at the Arctic as an area for possible new transit routes, energy supplies, and fishing grounds. Growing fossil fuel needs and depleted national fisheries are forcing countries to look for new areas of resource wealth. Climate change and innovations in technology (including seabed mapping, GPS and transportation) are making it easier for countries and private companies to explore the Arctic Circle. While outsiders are looking at the Arctic as a land (or sea) of opportunity, the littorals are quite concerned about the national security implications of what an actual ‘northwest passage’ through the Arctic and northern Canada may mean for increased commercial shipping traffic (and the corresponding increase in risk of major environmental damage), as well as increased naval military traffic (and the corresponding likelihood of increased intelligence and reconnaissance patrols). It is also not out of the question that dedicated terrorists could resort to entering Canada and the US through extreme northern routes.

Russia is the key player in determining whether the Arctic Circle or ‘High North’ will be an area of strategic competition or regional cooperation in the years to come. As Moscow continues to (unhelpfully) insert itself into the security affairs of continental Europe and the transatlantic alliance, there is an opportunity for Russia to play a constructive and non-confrontational role in working with the Arctic littorals and outsiders to promote a zone of security cooperation and smart environmental stewardship. Such an action by Moscow could very well mark a new beginning for North America’s and Europe’s relations with Russia. To do this, however, Moscow will have to officially and publicly accept that it shares the same security and environmental concerns as those of its neighbours, that partnering with the littorals is not a zero-sum game, and that Moscow is not in any way entitled to special rights or benefits to the Arctic seabed by virtue of its participation in a regional effort. This would be a significant and notable shift in Russian policy-making, and one that may very well make the difference as to whether the Arctic will remain peaceful. Absent this step by Moscow, the ‘Arctic endgame’ likely will be one that we have seen repeatedly in history: a costly economic and military struggle for resource accumulation and access to the sea lanes.”

» Daniel P. Fata is Vice-President at the Cohen Group in Washington, D.C. and a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US. From September 2005 to September 2008, he served as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy.

Leonid Kosals

“I doubt that Russia will turn out to be an efficient player in the ‘Arctic game,’ because it has no need to be. Most likely, Russia will be a ‘media player’ – promoting stories about expeditions, special ‘Arctic troops’ and advanced technologies developed especially for ‘Arctic climate.’ It will open many opportunities for different interests groups to gain funds from the Russian federal budget, but will, in turn, be unable to provide real presence in the region.”

» Leonid Kosals is a professor in the Higher School of Economics (Moscow), having also worked for many years in association with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Michael Byers

“There is no ‘endgame’ in the Arctic. Cooperation – not conflict – is the more accurate paradigm. With the exception of Hans Island, there are no sovereignty disputes over land in the Arctic. The unresolved differences concern a) coastal state jurisdiction over shipping in the Northwest Passage, b) the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Barents, Beaufort and Lincoln Seas, and c) the extent to which each of the five Arctic Ocean countries has sovereign rights over the continental shelf more than 200 nautical miles from its shore.

There is no great cause for concern. Canada and the US have ‘agreed to disagree’ over the Northwest Passage while cooperating on maritime surveillance and pollution prevention. They – along with Denmark, Norway and Russia – have also agreed that overlapping continental shelf claims will be resolved according to the rules in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

As the sea-ice melts, all five countries are increasing their military presence. But the concern is with non-state actors – whether criminals, terrorists or companies skirting environmental rules.”

» Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is a project leader with ArcticNet, a consortium of scientists from 27 Canadian universities and five federal departments.


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