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Washington & Moscow’s High North Dance

Spring / Summer 2016 Nez À Nez

Washington & Moscow’s High North Dance

Proposition: In the Arctic, the US and Russia are friends

David Biette is Director of the Polar Initiative and Senior Adviser to the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC (in favour): The US has long had a contentious relationship with Russia. Even going back to the days of the Russian Empire, the US never considered Russia a ‘friend’ as the US today views, say, Canada or the UK. We were allies of convenience during WW2 and sworn enemies during the Cold War. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the bilateral relationship warmed in that business relationships were developed and political relations were friendlier, if still cautious. The warmer relations chilled considerably under a nationalist Vladimir Putin, and became downright cold following Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea and its military support of separatists in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.

When the USSR disintegrated, the US entered into several agreements with the Russian government to cooperate in outer-space activities. In January 1998, officials from the US, Russia, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency signed agreements to cooperate on the design, development, operation and use of the International Space Station. That cooperation in space endures, and NASA continues to depend on Russia to get its own astronauts into space.

So what about the Arctic? One should recall that nearly half of the Arctic coastline belongs to Russia, which has for hundreds of years explored and settled portions of its Arctic onshore and offshore territory. The US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 gave the US its first and only Arctic territory. While the US has become a superpower in the area of Arctic scientific research, it is slowly beginning to embrace the idea that it is indeed an Arctic nation.

There are parallels in the Arctic with US-Russia space cooperation. Russia and the US joined other countries with Arctic territory to form the Arctic Council in 1996. While the Arctic Council works on a consensus basis on issues such as environmental protection, indigenous communities, search and rescue, and shipping, it notably does not get involved in military and security issues. So while Russia and the US buzz each other’s ships, the two governments were able to sign the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement with other Arctic Council member states in 2011 (and notably worked together in a search and rescue operation for a capsized South Korean fishing vessel in the Bering Sea in 2014). Russian and US coast guards work together regularly in the Bering Sea.

US Admiral Papp insists that the US and other nations need to continue to work with Russia on Arctic issues. Cooperation in these areas enables more delicate cooperation on issues such as flight protocols for overflights in Syria.

In October 2015, American and Russian coast guard officials met in New London, Connecticut with their counterparts from the other Arctic states to form the Former US Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp, now the State Department’s Special Representative for the Arctic, has had a long history of working with his Russian counterparts. In January 2015, Admiral Papp travelled to Europe to meet with Arctic officials – a visit that included meetings in Moscow to meet with government officials on the Arctic. Papp insists that the US and other nations need to continue to work with Russia on Arctic issues. Cooperation in these areas enables more delicate cooperation on issues such as flight protocols for overflights in Syria.

US understanding of Russia has atrophied since the Cold War, and the expertise that the US had on a wealth of issues involving Russia (and the former Soviet Union) has sunk to dangerously low levels. If only a few military analysts continue to study this challenging country, then US views of Russia will be seen only through a military lens. If all that you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

While calling the US and Russia ‘friends’ in the Arctic may stretch the definition of the word, the two countries certainly cooperate – and will continue to cooperate – on a number of important issues in that theatre.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs (against): Geography is not destiny, but it still matters enormously. With the melting of polar ice, the Arctic Ocean will quickly become an efficient transportation route between North America and Northeast Asia. The Arctic also provides access to lucrative resources under its waters – especially oil and gas. It is emerging as one of the world’s most coveted regions.

That is what makes the Arctic a source of strategic rivalry. It is bordered by eight countries, each of which is drawn ever deeper into the region for its trade and treasure. The Arctic is easily accessible to all of its neighbours, but none is in a position to control it. The waters are too vast, too rough, and too diffuse. Most importantly, the Arctic is dynamic, changing its shape and depth as the ice melts. It attracts powerful states and it threatens them at the same time. It very uneasily connects those who live around it.

Each country fears the consequence of allowing the other to leverage the ocean resources for building national strength and threatening others. Each country predicts future economic growth from trade primacy in the Arctic.

As the two most powerful countries connected by the Arctic, the US and Russia will define a new era of strategic competition in the region. Each country fears the consequence of allowing the other to leverage the ocean resources for building national strength and threatening others. Each country predicts future economic growth from trade primacy in the Arctic. Perhaps most surprising to non-specialist observers, each country has detailed scenarios for the other side’s attack across the ocean. The open water weakens land security by facilitating the movement of vast military resources.

In this sense, the Arctic is a natural maelstrom, stimulating fears, clashes and retaliation. The distrust that Washington and Moscow bring to all facets of their relations will surely erupt in more recrimination and aggression in the Arctic. The emerging US-Russia rivalry will lead each side to pursue alliances with weaker Arctic states, gaining superiority against a common foe. As such, the ‘Arctic system’ will echo the alliance balancing and bandwagoning of the international system in general.

None of these realistic observations about the more accessible ocean waters makes war inevitable or even likely. Competition produces stabilizing rules and norms. As in other regions and time periods, strategic rivalries can be managed effectively with adequate preparation and clear understanding. That is the appropriate work of high-level diplomacy between powerful countries – like the US and Russia – with competitive interests but a common commitment to live together.

What should this diplomacy look like? It should include open dialogue about the region, frank acknowledgement of divergent interests, and continuous work to reduce and control the most volatile points of conflict. Prescient diplomats will create shared trust about competitive national behaviour in the Arctic, despite continued distrust between the same countries in other regions. Predictability will breed stability, just as it allows competition to continue.

What should the US and its allies do now? They should begin by nurturing more expertise on the region, sending more diplomats to explore its contours, and encouraging a deeper understanding of all of the regional players. In addition to military force projection, the US must increase its scientific and cultural investments in the region. This means laboratories, observation stations, and a stronger university presence along the edges of the Arctic. Making this formerly peripheral region central to current Western thinking will increase the capacity for managing peaceful competition.

Regions that attract powerful states make competition hard to avoid, but they allow many possibilities for managing that competition. That is the role of statesmanship. Wishful thinking about friendship and worst-case thinking about war encourage dangerous measures of appeasement and provocation. Honest appraisal of differences allows for coexistence and even mutual gains. US-Russia strategic competition offers a stable hope for the new Arctic, but it will be a stability that requires energetic, intelligent and continuous diplomacy. Geography is not destiny, but geopolitics will define a competitive peace.

DB: The longstanding US-Russia strategic rivalry has ebbed and flowed over the years. The rivalry has sometimes trended into dangerous territory, but not in Arctic relations. The media are constantly shouting about upcoming ‘battles’ for the Arctic, competition for and control of natural resources, and a looming ‘militarization’ of the Arctic, with little understanding of what is actually going on in the High North.

Let us remind ourselves that half of the Arctic coastline is, and has been, within Russia for a long time. Russia’s direct access to open ocean is through its northern ports. Its Northern Fleet, including its submarines, operates from bases on the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The US has patrolled the Arctic Ocean by air and under the sea for decades. Talk of militarization of the Arctic ignores history, even as Russia’s military becomes increasingly competent after the crumbling of the Soviet military following the Cold War.

NATO, however, did not crumble, and the distrust of Russia among NATO states has not abated; in fact, it has increased. Five of the eight Arctic countries (the US, Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland) are original signatories to NATO. Long neutral Sweden may be considering joining NATO, and Finland, wary of recent Russian military activity, may be looking at the possibility as well. Russia has warned Sweden and Finland that should they ever join NATO, which Russia views as an existential threat, it would be – to put it extremely mildly – very angry. Russia’s northern boundary, once protected by ice, is increasingly vulnerable. Recent snap Russian military manoeuvres in the Arctic are of great concern, but the US military concedes that the Russian activity comes from a defensive mindset. NATO members themselves cannot agree on an Arctic military strategy.

To be sure, climate change has caused melting of a considerable amount of ice that once inhibited maritime transport – military and other – along Arctic coasts, but this has not opened up the Arctic Ocean to smooth sailing. The ocean still freezes in the winter, necessitating icebreakers for any maritime activity. The US could certainly use a few more heavy icebreakers to supplement the two old and not always reliable ships that it has. Even Russia, with more than 40 for its 5,600-kilometre Northern Sea Route, claims that it needs more icebreakers.

Most transportation in the Arctic will be commercial and of a seasonal nature. Russia acknowledges that its Northern Sea Route will at best be a summer alternative to the Suez Canal. Any kind of resource extraction in the Arctic – onshore or offshore – will need infrastructure, which is extremely expensive and challenging to develop at the best of times. While there are potentially vast deposits of oil and gas, minerals, and other resources, they are viable to the extent that they are commercially exploitable. The low price of oil and other commodities is hindering much natural resource development in the Arctic (and at the same time severely hurting the Russian economy). The planning horizon for development is extraordinarily long; current oil fields in the High North were conceived some 40 to 50 years ago.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) essentially governs any claims of Arctic territory beyond the internationally recognized exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Russia’s claims to vast undersea territory follow UNCLOS to the letter. These claims will be reviewed by an international tribunal that will take years to adjudicate. Russia’s claims overlap with Canadian and Danish claims, all of which will be adjudicated under the aegis of UNCLOS (even if this same aegis does not guarantee happy outcomes for each claimant). While the US recognizes UNCLOS as a codification of customary international law, it has yet to ratify the treaty, and is at a disadvantage when it comes to making its own claims of undersea territory, among other things. The Arctic is most certainly not a ‘wild west’ chase for resources, nor are any Arctic neighbours planning to control the region.

Vladimir Putin, and Russia under his rule, can be very unpredictable. We know that he wants to consolidate power at home and to assertively project strength abroad, which generally undermines trust all around. Yet at the same time, we know that Russia has very carefully cooperated in the Arctic. In respect of resources, Russia joined the Arctic coastal states to sign a declaration in July 2015 to prevent unregulated commercial fishing in the high seas portion (not in any nation’s territorial waters) of the Arctic Ocean.

International rules also apply to commercial activity – not just among Arctic nations, but for other non-Arctic states, which foresee commercial possibilities, however distant in time. In spite of potential created by climate change and melting ice, challenges will remain, and we will not see a near-term race for resources, in spite of media hype to this effect.

Notwithstanding rivalries elsewhere on the globe, then, the US, Russia, and their Arctic neighbours work in a cooperative framework on Arctic issues. We have seen that compromise and consensus are difficult but attainable in the Arctic. And we all agree that a rules-based international order is preferable to military confrontation.

JS: Foreign policy is a constant struggle to avoid two extremes: self-fulfilling conflict born of excessive fear and suspicion, and defeat born of weakness and wishful thinking. Effective policy navigates between these twin nightmares, and that is the hope that all experts on Arctic geopolitics bring to their analyses of the region today. The US and its allies seek to maintain access and stability in the Arctic as global warming encourages more competition over land, waterways and resources. Russia is not a natural adversary, but its interests in controlling and insulating parts of the region challenge American aims. This is the central geopolitical problem: how to manage American-Russian competition without triggering war or surrender.

Stability and peace in the Arctic will require rules and compromise – rules for freedom of transport, and compromise over political authority. Close and consistent negotiations among state leaders can contribute to this process, and international organizations – especially the UN – have a major role to play as mediators. It is also possible that a new Arctic regional organization, on the model of ASEAN or the Organization of American States, might emerge to regularize deliberations. Treaties and laws will bring predictability and ensure protection for core state interests, on the model of similar treaties governing Antarctica.

The history of the last century, however, reveals that cooperation will be limited. Powerful states will seek to maximize their control of resources in contested areas. Powerful states will also define their security through the acquisition of strength against potential peers. The big and the strong seek to widen their advantage or to catch up with those that might be ahead.

At least in the present domestic configuration, Russian leaders will see the Arctic as a region where Moscow can close the gap between its diminishing capabilities and general American military superiority. Moscow will also fear – legitimately – that passivity in the Arctic invites American and Western expansion, leaving Russian interests out. As he has in Crimea and Georgia, President Vladimir Putin will argue that anything less than Russian preemption in the Arctic facilitates American aggression.

In this geopolitical context, the US and its allies must prepare for strategic rivalry with Russia across the Arctic. The geopolitical sources of rivalry and distrust are too great to disappear entirely through friendly negotiations. Western diplomacy must be prepared to engage, manage and contain Russia simultaneously. Russia, for its part, should be allowed to obtain real benefits from the region, but it must receive clear incentives for cooperation and strong deterrents against belligerence. Effective diplomacy will mix carrots and sticks, overtures and muscle-flexing.

Strategic rivalry does not mean war, just as compromise does not mean surrender. Getting the balance right to preserve stability and serve everyone’s long-term interests requires a frank recognition of potential conflict. The US and its allies must prepare for likely difficulties with Russia, and they must resist the kinds of forward attacks in the Arctic that have Russian troops occupying Crimea illegally today. The Western emphasis on law in the Arctic must have the backing of force in order to avoid war or surrender.

DB: Those who work closely on Arctic issues tend to see cooperation as the rule for the region. After all, Arctic states – Russia and the US included – all abide by UNCLOS to the letter, even if the US has not ratified the agreement. As noted in my first two volleys, Arctic states – again, including Russia and the US – have recently cooperated to sign agreements on the International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code, search and rescue, fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, and the formation of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Unlike Antarctica, a continent that includes no sovereign states and whose status is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, Arctic lands, waterways and resources all belong to existing sovereign states. There is no conflict as to which lands belong to which country. There is no territory up for grabs. Russia, with the largest stretch of territory in the Arctic, is unlikely to try to claim anyone else’s when it can barely take care of what it has.

Norway and Russia settled a maritime border dispute in the Barents Sea in 2011, Canada and the US have yet to agree on a peacefully contested maritime border in the Beaufort Sea, and Canada and Denmark do not agree on the sovereignty of Hans Island – a tiny island between Ellesmere Island and Greenland. Aside from this, political authority and the control of land, internal waterways and resources are not contested.

International law and convention have defined territorial seas and EEZs offshore. UNCLOS has set up a framework for claims to exploit the resources of the outer continental shelf. Extensive claims by Russia, which garnered considerable media attention, were, as mentioned, submitted according to the letter of the treaty, and will be assessed by a UN commission (even if the commission issues non-binding recommendations).

The waters surrounding the North Pole and the Central Arctic Ocean, beyond EEZs, are considered international waters. Likewise, the seabed beyond EEZs and confirmed continental shelf claims are considered to be the “heritage of all mankind” and are administered by the UN International Seabed Authority.

Transportation through the Northwest Passage in Canada and along portions of the Northern Sea Route in Russia is indeed contested, but there is nothing in this that should provoke military aggression. Canada insists that the various routes of the Northwest Passage are internal waterways, whereas the US maintains that they are international straits. In any case, of course, regular shipping is a long way off. For safety and security reasons, Russia is not willing to let any ship traverse the Northern Sea Route without permission and a proper icebreaker escort.

There is no race for resources in the Arctic. While there has been much science to show that there are likely enormous deposits of oil, gas and minerals, most of those deposits are to be found within long-established boundaries, and there are no firm estimates of exactly how much is actually there. Exploitation of those resources will take enormous capital and technology – neither of which Russia has at present in order to allow it to go after its own offshore deposits, especially given the current low prices for energy and commodities. Current economic and market conditions are inhibiting the start of any new exploitation, and related infrastructure efforts that will take decades to get off the ground.

Global warming has certainly changed ice patterns in the Arctic, and it is conceivable that all of the ice could melt within a few decades. New possibilities may open up, but weather will always be a concern. Major shipping companies have not yet indicated strong interest in this possibility for the near or medium term.

Bref, there is no competition or conflict over territory, resources or transport routes. Cooperation is the order of the day. Who exactly is trying to maximize ‘control’? Whence ‘conflict’?

Am I a Pollyanna on the concept of Arctic cooperation? I do not think so. The West – and Russia – must be vigilant about areas of conflict elsewhere in the world not intruding into a region where cooperation reigns. Russia is indeed well-armed in the Arctic and, as noted, generally from a defensive mindset. Russia can, of course, be very sensitive in respect of NATO, but we do not need to create tensions where none really exists.

The US needs to be ready and vigilant to deal with a complicated Russia – one that can cooperate on space and Arctic issues, but one that the US may not trust elsewhere. Cooperation in the Arctic is not a sign of weakness.

JS: We generally agree on many things. Arctic cooperation – especially between Russia and the US, is preferable to conflict. Multilateral treaties, including UNCLOS, help to build norms for trade, travel, and dispute resolution. And, so far, relations in the Arctic between the most powerful actors have been remarkably amicable. Few other world regions look quite so stable right now.

There is nothing wrong with this analysis, except that it is incomplete. Far-sighted policy-making does not presume conflict, but it remains acutely sensitive to adversarial interests and patterns of behavior. The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has pursued a policy of forward aggression along its eastern and southern borders in recent years. It has challenged NATO forces in the air space across Europe. President Putin has also declared the US a threat to Russian interests at home and abroad. He has openly declared a goal of challenging American and NATO power.

These words and actions should place the US and its allies on careful guard against possible Russian aggression in the Arctic – especially as the ice melts and the declining Russian economy becomes more desperate for new resources and apparent political victories. At the very least, Washington must strongly reinforce the current allied claims in the region and deter Russian aggression. In addition, the US should work hard to build unity among the allies for regional cooperation and crisis management, if necessary.

Vigilance, of course, is not the same as belligerence. I agree that the US should not do anything to provoke Russian retaliation or deepen Russian insecurities. Nor should American policy-makers expect conflict. It should, however, prepare for probable disagreements and rivalries that are indeed likely to proliferate as the points of clash between Russia and its neighbours expand with the opening of the Arctic frontier. New territories and seaways draw in rivals, allow possibilities for cooperation, and also – to be sure – create new conflicts. We will see all of these dynamics – concurrently – in the coming years. The US and its allies must prepare for this increasingly complex diplomatic and military space, and they must begin by educating their citizens about the stakes. That is why this discussion in GB is so valuable.


David Biette is Director of the Polar Initiative and Senior Adviser to the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor in the Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.


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