Russia – US: Confrontation in the Arctic Expanses?

Like the grim hulk of the Flying Dutchman in Wagner’s opera, the specter of trouble and conflict on the world’s newest frontier, the Arctic, looms in the headlines of the world’s press and the speeches of world leaders. So, from here on, one should expect to be treated to a flow of commentary on how the Arctic is becoming a new Cold War staging area.

How the United States is falling behind in the race to equip itself for the contest, how rapidly Russia is building bases and brigades in the High North, and how recklessly and regularly it is harassing the aircraft and borders of the other Arctic states.

All this chatter will not be without basis. The Arctic political landscape is changing, and a situation that before seemed basically tranquil, if rather languid and remote, no longer does. NATO Arctic states are speaking uneasily about what appears to them to be a new Russian aggressiveness and Russian officials are describing a growing security threat from the north. The Obama Administration admits that the long-standing concerns of the U.S. Coast Guard over the country’s growing inability to meet the security and safety challenges raised by the melting waters of the Arctic are real. Russia’s decision to refurbish ten military airfields, deploy three brigades in upgraded bases, and alter naval doctrine to stress again the Arctic and Atlantic regions obviously isn’t business as usual. Nor is the tripling and quadrupling of the times Norwegian, Canadian and U.S. fighter aircraft scramble to intercept Russian aircraft intruding into their airspace.

But these shifting currents and the excitement they stir should not obscure the two fundamental realities at the base of these roiling currents: first, the underlying risk they contain, and, second, the lost opportunity they reflect. On the first score, the risk: Russia and NATO-Arctic states are not inexorably on the path to confrontation. The United States, as evident in Obama’s September trip to the Arctic, the first by a U.S. president, continues to make climate change and the protection of indigenous peoples its priority in the region, not a military competition. Russia, while putting a new emphasis on military security has not ceased to cooperate within the Arctic Council on practical steps to deal with threats to the environment and with the new Arctic Economic Council for promoting business-to-business ties.

Yet, slowly rising in the background is the risk that the Arctic could become a prisoner of the new Russia-West Cold War and an extended theater of the remilitarized Central European front. Russia’s last two major military exercises in March and May, were no longer only or primarily about security of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and of Russia’s economic interests in the region. They were integrated into Russian preparations for fighting NATO anywhere from the Baltic to the Black Sea. And Dmitri Rogozin, the deputy prime minister who heads the new Arctic Commission that presides over all Russian activity in the Arctic, speaks the language of Cold War. At least that is the way it comes across to outsiders when he declares the Arctic as “Russia’s Mecca,” growls that Russia knows how to protect its interests in the Arctic, and warns that Russian “tanks do not need visas.” His counterpart is more Stephen Harper, the acid-tongued Canadian prime minister, than any senior U.S. official. In short, the fact that confrontation does not currently characterize Arctic international relations does not mean that Russia and the NATO Arctic states could not get there. The seeds are already in the ground.

Even if confrontation and cold war have not yet—and, one hopes, will not—engulf the Arctic, the other reality, the lost opportunity, is no less tragic. In the early post-Cold War years, pristine as the Arctic was naturally, so was it politically. The opportunity existed to make it a building block—indeed, a model—in creating the inclusive Euro-Atlantic security community reaching from “Vancouver to Vladivostok” that Russian and Western leaders pledged to construct from the 1990 Charter of Paris on a New Europe through every OSCE summit including the last one in Astana in 2010. Hence, the historic opportunity was not merely to foster cooperation in addressing the immense technical, ecological, economic, and social challenges posed in developing the region’s vast hydrocarbon reserves, but cooperation to a grander end.

This was not merely the pie-eyed vision of reality-removed political idealists. In 2012 the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative , a commission chaired by former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, and former Senator Sam Nunn and whose members included senior ex- government and business leaders from North America, Europe, and Russia, proposed precisely that. They then laid out an agenda pointing in that direction. It included, first, urging member states in the Arctic Council to do more than monitor exploratory and drilling activity by producing “effective protocols regulating the development of hydrocarbons commensurate with the level of environmental vulnerability in the Arctic.” To make this possible they also urged strengthening the authority of existing institutions, including the Arctic Council, permitting them to “create an action agenda and enforce agreed-upon regulations.”

Second, they stressed the need for the states that would be developing the hydrocarbons to begin now “collaborating on technologies that would be adequate to deal with oil spills” and shipping accidents in the region. Given the complexity and difficulty of coping with an oil spill in the icy conditions of the Arctic, no country alone had the capacity to deal with such an emergency—nor does any yet. Third, in what today sounds like a prophetic appeal, they called for members of the Arctic Council to “launch a dialogue about the military measures each is taking to protect its interests in the region, including protection of the North and Northwest passages, with the aim of achieving mutual security and avoiding military competition.” Knowing that the United States unwisely opposed raising the issue in the Arctic Council, they suggested that this “dialogue might well be under the ultimate auspices of the NATO-Russia Council.”

Finally, they urged the Obama Administration to go forward with its stated intention to secure Senate ratification of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, arguing that “apart from U.S. self-interest, it is important that all Arctic nations, of which the United States is one, operate under the rules of this convention.”

Needless to say had governments heeded their call, today’s conversation about the Arctic would not contain the alarm that it does. For the moment this is water over the dam. The lost opportunity can only be lamented. At some point, however, if Russia and the West wish to begin digging themselves out of the cold war into which they have sunk, and do so before it utterly contaminates the Arctic’s future, they may wish to revisit the wisdom of this group.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.