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Canada and Russia – Toward an Arctic Agenda

Fall / Winter 2016 Features

Canada and Russia – Toward an Arctic Agenda

Canada and Russia – Toward an Arctic Agenda Why tensions between the two Arctic giants should not interfere with common gain and collaboration in the High North

On July 26th of this year, in Laos, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion sat down for his first formal meeting with Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. It may prove to be a watershed moment in bilateral relations.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Canada’s previous Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, had adamantly refused to talk with anyone from the Kremlin until Russia left the peninsula. Although Canada’s new Liberal government continues to denounce Russian military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, it has indicated its desire to renew a dialogue on potential cooperation in “areas critical to our national interests,” such as space, counter-terrorism and the Arctic.

The Arctic is a natural area of focus for the two countries. Canada and Russia are the geographical giants, spanning most of the Northern circumpolar world. The region plays strongly into both countries’ identity politics, with leaders often invoking sovereignty and security frames to drum up support for investments in this frontier of destiny. The purported need to protect sovereign territory and resources from foreign encroachment or outright theft, backed by explicit appeals to nationalism, produces a siege mentality that encourages a narrow, inward-looking posture.

Although the end of the Cold War seemed to portend a new era of deep cooperation between these two Arctic powers, lingering wariness about geopolitical motives and a mutual lack of knowledge about the other’s slice of the circumpolar world are conspiring to pit Canada and the Russian Federation as Arctic adversaries. While these Arctic neighbours will continue to find themselves on different sides in an era of renewed great power rivalry, this general state of competition does not portend Arctic conflict. Instead, the circumpolar world provides room for substantive cooperation and collaboration in areas of common interest, as long as there is political will to avoid holding circumpolar cooperation hostage to broader geostrategic rivalry (see the Query Article by Alexander Sergunin and Valery Konyshev in the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of GB).

The key audience for confrontational rhetoric on Arctic issues in both countries is domestic. In official policy and statements, however, the Russian and Canadian governments follow a pragmatic line and pursue their maritime and continental shelf claims in the region in compliance with international law – while highlighting that, as sovereign states, they will not be pushed around by neighbours that might encroach on their respective jurisdictions. This serves as a convenient pretext to invest in more robust military capabilities to protect territory, natural resources, and national interests.

The precise nature of the threats to each country’s Arctic realm remains ambiguous, however, with alarmist narratives regularly conflating regional dynamics with grand strategic considerations. Bref, growing great power competition between Russia and the West does not arise from Arctic issues or probable conflicts. The myth of Arctic resource or boundary wars is pure fantasy, conjured by political and media commentators seeking simple, sensational frames to grab public attention.

Accordingly, the long-term goal of a stable and secure circumpolar world, where each Arctic littoral state enjoys its sovereign rights, must not be lost in hyperbolic rhetoric geared toward domestic audiences for short-term political gain.

Unfortunately, a deep history of mistrust means that Cold War narratives are easily resurrected whenever either side declares its right to assert sovereignty, and rattles its sabres to show resolve. As newspaper editor Robert Keyserlingk told the Empire Club of Canada in 1949, “We have actually stretching across the Arctic a veritable ice curtain, which is impenetrable.” Polar projection maps unfurled after WW2, which showed Canada sandwiched between rival superpowers, made the circumpolar neighbourhood a cause for concern. Deep ideological divisions and strategic realities dictated that prospects for Russo-Canadian collaboration in the Arctic would remain frozen for decades.

Scientific cooperation, however, began to draw open the ice curtain separating the two countries beginning in the mid-1960s. Reciprocal political visits showed that the high politics of the Cold War need not freeze out other forms of collaboration, such as research (including in the social sciences and issues concerning northern indigenous peoples) covered by the 1984 Canada-USSR Arctic Science Exchange Program. Mikhail Gorbachev’s landmark Murmansk speech in October 1987 called for the Arctic to become a “zone of peace,” opening new opportunities for political, economic and environmental agendas previously subordinated to national security interests. Inspired by this vision, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proposed an international Arctic Council that would draw Russia into the new world order. Bilateral relations began to thaw. In 1992, Mulroney and Boris Yeltsin issued a Declaration of Friendship and Cooperation, then a formal Arctic Cooperation Agreement.

Canada, in particular, embraced broader interpretations of security with environmental, cultural and human dimensions, promoting a vision of circumpolar stewardship, stable governance and human capacity-building. At the turn of the new millennium, “The Northern Dimension of Canada’s Foreign Policy” – a major foreign policy statement – set four objectives for Canadian circumpolar engagement: to enhance the security and prosperity of Canadians, especially northerners and Aboriginal peoples; to assert and ensure the preservation of Canada’s sovereignty in the North; to establish the circumpolar region as a vibrant geopolitical entity integrated into a rules-based international system; and to promote the human security of Northerners and the sustainable development of the Arctic. Traditional security threats were notably absent, and working with Russia to address northern challenges, such as cleaning up Cold War environmental legacies and funding Russian indigenous peoples’ participation in the Arctic Council, formed a core priority. “Perhaps more than any other country,” the document declared, “Canada is uniquely positioned to build a strategic partnership with Russia for development of the Arctic.”

A popular ‘race for resources’ narrative has fed anxieties about the potential for interstate conflict, fuelled by imaginary resource disputes and sovereignty challenges. These ideas weigh heavily upon Russian and Canadian minds.

Developments over the last decade have both reinforced and challenged this polar partnership. The acute impacts of global warming in the Arctic, dreams of increasingly navigable sea routes, boosterism surrounding oil and gas deposits in the offshore, uncertain boundaries, and heightened interest from non-Arctic states have thrust the region into the international spotlight. A popular ‘race for resources’ narrative has fed anxieties about the potential for interstate conflict, fuelled by imaginary resource disputes and sovereignty challenges. These ideas weigh heavily upon Russian and Canadian minds. With a Russian economy heavily dependent upon oil and gas, it comes as no surprise that senior officials in Moscow should emphasize that “the Arctic must become the basic strategic resource base of Russia.” Canadian politicians harbour similar visions when they declare their country an emerging “Arctic power,” trumpeting “the immense promise of the North,” as Harper did in committing to “unleash the tremendous potential of this region” and its “vast natural resources – to create jobs and prosperity for the benefit of Northerners and all Canadians.”

With so much at stake, symbolism can easily be mistaken for substance. In the West, Artur Chilingarov’s flag planting exploit at the North Pole in August 2007 and Russia’s announcements of reinvestments in military capabilities to defend its Arctic interests aligned with a burgeoning awareness of a resurgent Russian nationalism. The resumption of long-range bomber patrols, coupled with the announcement of new fleet units, airfields and special Arctic brigades protected by S-400 missile systems, pointed to a renewed ‘militarization’ of the region. On the other side of the pole, the Harper government also proclaimed a ‘use it or lose it’ strategy framed by aggressive rhetoric predicated on potential sovereignty threats and the need to protect Arctic resources. Was a new Arctic Cold War emerging, with Russia and Canada as the main protagonists?

Hardly. While the possibility of Arctic conflict attracts media attention, the dominant international messaging from both countries since 2008 has stressed cooperation. The existing governance framework in the region is robust and compatible with state sovereignty, the Arctic Council remains the premier international forum for dialogue on regional issues and for scientific collaboration, and the Arctic states consistently reiterate and demonstrate a common commitment to international law in the region.

Even the most obvious potential friction points, such as competing claims to extended continental shelves up to the North Pole, are much more exciting in theory than in legal and political reality. Misconceptions abound. The outer limits of the Canadian and Russian extended continental shelves in the Arctic Ocean are sure to overlap on the basis of scientific evidence, but they will be defined through diplomacy. There is no defence component to this issue, and relative capabilities to assert control over resources have no bearing on the outcome. In fact, both Russia and Canada stand to gain the most if the delineation process unfolds in conformity with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). And it will.

Just as overenthusiastic commentators prematurely forecast an Arctic resource rush and the imminent opening of new Arctic transit routes, so too have many prematurely heralded the end of the cooperative, post-Cold War Arctic regime. The governance and legal structures in place – both international and regional – remain very much intact, from the Arctic Council to UNCLOS and myriad bilateral agreements between Arctic states. Recent achievements like the mandatory Polar Code through the International Maritime Organization, the Arctic search and rescue agreement, measures to address oil pollution, as well as the creation of new institutional mechanisms (e.g. the Arctic Coast Guard Forum), point not to an unravelling of regional cooperation but to its quiet persistence and entrenchment. By fixating on potential conflict, highlighting uncertainty and distrust, and misrepresenting the Arctic as a highly contested space, we tend to overlook the positive patterns and norms of behaviour, and also the strong cooperative frameworks that guide regional relationships.

Last October, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept into power in Canada. While the main substantive elements of Canada’s Arctic policy are likely to remain intact and will continue to focus on domestic issues, the political tone and emphasis have changed.

Building on Trudeau’s promise that Canada would have a more “compassionate and constructive voice in the world” after a decade of Conservative rule, Stéphane Dion has called for renewed engagement with Russia, despite Canada’s ongoing displeasure with Russian foreign and defence policy. While the Harper Conservatives had suspended almost all bilateral contact with Russia after the Crimean annexation, Dion stressed that this position deviated from the less extreme actions of the US and other G7 partners. “We also need to think about our national interests because Russia is our neighbour in the Arctic,” Dion explained.

This revised stance provoked debate among Canadian commentators, some of whom worried that it would send the wrong signals to an increasingly assertive and unpredictable President Putin. But deterrence and more open dialogue are not incompatible strategies, and Canada’s intention to resume cooperation with Russia in areas of common ground is an eminently sensible one. To do so, both countries should send clear messages that their military investments in the Arctic are defensive in nature, that they do not anticipate conventional military threats to their territorial integrity in the region, and that they will strive to insulate relationships on Arctic issues from geopolitical tensions elsewhere. Canada’s announcement in July 2016 that it will lead a 1,000-strong NATO battle group in Latvia to deter Russia from aggression in the Baltics does not contradict this logic. In fact, it legitimates the idea that Canada can show resolve against Russian aggression in one theatre, while seeking to ‘reset’ the bilateral relationship on issues of common interest in another theatre.

To facilitate constructive circumpolar dialogue, both countries should strive to reinforce the Arctic Council as the primary high-level international forum for dialogue on Arctic issues. To ensure that it does not become another stage for geopolitical grandstanding, however, both countries should firmly resist calls to expand the Council’s mandate to include military security issues. Similarly, calls for NATO to adopt an explicit Arctic agenda or to include Sweden and Finland as members are sure to inflame Russian sensitivities about Western encirclement.

Provoking the bear by prodding its known insecurities will only encourage it to bite. Fortunately, Russia has, in strategic terms, few good reasons – and deep economic and political disincentives – to lash out at its neighbours militarily in the Arctic theatre. First and foremost, the ‘resource rush’ anticipated a decade ago now appears overblown. The global collapse of oil and gas prices, coupled with increasing supply, has rendered most Arctic resources grossly uneconomical, with dramatic impacts on the near- to medium-term future of the Arctic offshore as a viable resource frontier. Self-interest dictates that, if Russia wants access to the necessary foreign capital and technology to exploit its offshore energy reserves – something that it considers essential to maintaining its energy superpower status, and something that is clearly complicated by the current sanctions regime against Moscow – it cannot afford to clash with its Arctic neighbours. Perpetuating the narrative of an unstable region is likely to kill any remaining appetite for large-scale foreign investment.

Although the prospects of Arctic sea routes becoming imminently accessible to regular commercial traffic and ultimately competing with established routes for global maritime trade have foundered on the shoals of harsh environmental, technical and economic realities, issues related to the governance of navigation and shipping in Arctic waters remain high priorities for both Moscow and Ottawa. Russia’s vigorous efforts to develop and commercialize the Northern Sea Route as a wholly integrated international shipping route connecting Europe and Asia have yielded disappointing results – not least for reasons of poor infrastructure – while domestic cargo traffic continues to grow and facilitate state-funded industrial revival efforts. For its part, Canada officially claims to be ‘open for business’ in the Arctic, but has done little to encourage international shipping through the Northwest Passage, choosing instead to prioritize sovereignty as the principal pillar of its Arctic foreign policy. Both countries, however, have comparable interests in upholding their respective legal positions on the status of their Arctic waters, adopting and enforcing navigation and shipping standards through national legislation and international regulation, and developing enhanced search and rescue capabilities. Coupled with emergency preparedness, and prevention and response issues more generally, Moscow and Ottawa can sell these to their populations as human and environmental security imperatives benefiting from international collaboration.

While policy-makers and academic commentators are predisposed to dream up ‘new’ initiatives that suggest innovation, history also offers strong examples of priority areas where Canada and Russia can further their respective Arctic agendas by working together – most obviously by strengthening partnerships in science and research, including cold weather construction, transportation technologies, and measures to address air pollutants, prevent oil pollution, and protect biodiversity. Russia is hardly considered a global leader in climate change mitigation efforts, and the Trudeau government’s aspirations to have Canada become one remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, both countries face similar challenges in terms of local adaptation to climate change and management of impacts on ecosystems, food and water security, public health and infrastructure.

To promote these activities, the two countries should also resume engagement through the Arctic and North Working Group of the Canada-Russia Intergovernmental Economic Commission, a key conduit for bilateral discussions that Canada suspended in March 2014. Although the dream of an ‘Arctic bridge’ sea route linking Eurasian and North American markets through the Port of Churchill may have faded, as has the prospect of a ‘Northern Air Bridge’ connecting Winnipeg and Krasnoyarsk, other opportunities to promote subnational cooperation and sustainable economic development should be explored. In particular, Ottawa and Moscow should encourage the activities of the recently formed Arctic Economic Council to facilitate Arctic business-to-business relationships, promote best practices in environmentally and socially responsible development, and foster grassroots initiatives that can help build healthy, resilient Arctic communities with diversified economies.

The countries have a solid history of sharing best practices in sustainable development – particularly in terms of Indigenous peoples, capacity-building, and governance. “No relationship is more important to me and to Canada than the one with Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau highlighted in his mandate letter to each of his Cabinet ministers last fall. In an era of ‘truth and reconciliation,’ Canada will place the highest priority on ensuring that its activities in the Arctic acknowledge, protect and promote Indigenous peoples’ rights – and, by extension, will insist that other Arctic stakeholders do the same.

Partnering with Canadian Inuit groups, who have been strong proponents of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and its participation in the Arctic Council, Ottawa should resume its technical assistance for initiatives designed to share indigenous best practices with Russian counterparts. This can contribute to regional and local entrepreneurship, as well as improved indigenous governance systems. It cannot proceed, however, without basic assurances and trust that this is not intended to undermine the Russian state or Russian industrial and resource development.

In practice, the existing multilayered governance regime in the Arctic serves the interests of Canada and Russia well. Both countries have a similar stance on the primary rights and roles of Arctic states in regional governance, rooted in international recognition of Arctic state sovereignty and sovereign rights.

Canadians and Russians still lack deep knowledge of one another as Arctic actors. Addressing this unfamiliarity is foundational to any constructive engagement. The Arctic theatre offers a stage for these Arctic citizens to become better acquainted with one another.

Of course, as mentioned, Canadians and Russians still lack deep knowledge of one another as Arctic actors. Addressing this unfamiliarity is foundational to any constructive engagement. The Arctic theatre offers a stage for these Arctic citizens to become better acquainted with one another – perhaps correcting misconceptions and ensuring that blanket characterizations derived from disagreements or divergent interests in other parts of the world are not misapplied to circumpolar relations, and conversely, presenting the possibility of growing familiarity through the Arctic medium facilitating the resolution of disagreements in other theatres.

To begin, rather than conceptualizing the Arctic as an ‘interstitial theatre’ that will experience increased contestation between Arctic states in the years ahead (as Irvin Studin anticipated in his Feature article in Fall/Winter 2016 issue of GB), analysts could emphasize that Canada and Russia have vested interests in a stable, secure and sustainable circumpolar world.

The evolving Arctic security environment is too readily conflated with grand strategic issues – such as Russia-NATO relations, the rise of China, global energy security, and global climate change mitigation – that are best assessed through a global rather than a regional lens.

Appropriately situating the Arctic in the resurgent great power rivalry between Russia and the West requires both nuance and clarity. The evolving Arctic security environment is too readily conflated with grand strategic issues – such as Russia-NATO relations, the rise of China, global energy security, and global climate change mitigation – that are best assessed through a global rather than a regional lens. The most acute Arctic challenges facing regional actors are not generated by great power competition, resource ownership questions, outstanding (and usually well-managed) boundary disputes, or different applications of international law. Instead, they relate to community-level security and safety, the practical challenges associated with adapting to climate change, assurance that Arctic shipping and resource development will be conducted safely, and outlining what sustainable development looks like across a spectrum of economic sectors.

Bref, Canada and Russia should return to cultivating the positive image of an Arctic region where peace, cooperation and stability continue to prevail. If an ice curtain continues to distort each side’s views of the other, it is time for both, as Arctic neighbours, to pull the blinds and get to know their opposite number. For the circumpolar neighbourhood is safe by comparison with nearly every other regional theatre – which means that political developments and divergent strategies in other parts of the world should not preclude Arctic cooperation where this serves national and regional interests.


P. Whitney Lackenbauer is Professor of History and Co-Director of the Centre on Foreign Policy and Federalism at St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo.


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