The era of the Arctic exception is over: the Far North region is no longer a protected sphere of engagement and dialogue between Russia and the West. The March decision by the Arctic Council states to suspend cooperation with Moscow in the Arctic was immediately welcomed but could still prove rather short-sighted. Coupled with continuing capability shortfalls in which Washington has only two icebreakers (old maids prone to fires and breakdowns), with Russia’s number around forty, the United States has essentially put its Arctic interests in the line of fire by suspending the dialogue with Russia.
There is a price to pay for isolating Moscow in the Arctic – where geography rightfully assigns Russia more than half of the theater. The ability to maintain control of Washington’s own Arctic border is complicated by a litany of second-order effects that stem from the cessation of dialogue with Russia in the Arctic context. Washington should expect new Arctic players, namely China and India, in its polar backyard. The region is set to become a more crowded and contested strategic theater.
Make no mistake, Russia is stepping up its efforts to bring new players into the Arctic. Western sanctions against Russian energy companies in the Arctic and developments in Arctic shipping have allowed Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern companies to take stakes (at reduced rates) in companies formerly owned by the West, thus strengthening their geoeconomic implantation in the Russian Arctic. Increased investment often leads to a reinforced military footprint by stakeholders keen to protect national (economic) interests: just look at China’s strategy in Africa. Beijing repeating this strategy in the Russian Arctic is not at all unlikely.
Recently, Chinese and Russian naval vessels were spied off the coast of Alaska near the Bering Strait. China has its own Arctic designs, as codified in its 2018 Arctic Policy. In addition, Beijing has considerable relevant capability: a local icebreaker construction industry, two state-of-the-art icebreakers and a nuclear-powered icebreaker soon to enter service.
China’s resource strategy for the Arctic is well documented. Yet recent months have seen clear signs of a burgeoning Russian-Indian Arctic relationship. India has long signaled its intention to deepen its ties with Russia in the Arctic and recently drafted its first Arctic policy. Then there’s the United Arab Emirates, which is keenly developing a specialized fleet of ice-hardened container ships to take advantage of the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR is set to one day reshape global transportation, reducing transit times between Asia and Europe by up to 40%.
Many states are actively working to take advantage of the breakdown in Arctic cooperation between Russia and the West. This is evident in the international governance space – just look at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Of the thirteen Arctic Council observer states, four currently sit on the UNSC. China, a permanent member of the UNSC and an observer at the Arctic Council, abstained from the resolution denouncing Russia, as did India (a non-permanent member of the UNSC and an observer at the Arctic Council).
It is in the strategic interest of the West to maintain the integrity of certain Arctic agreements. This, however, requires engagement with Russia. One example, given China’s increased irregular warfare capabilities, particularly its maritime militia, is the ban on commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. The initial period covered by the ban runs until 2037, during which time Arctic states will need Russia’s support if China is to be held accountable for any violations. It is a simple reality that no other Arctic state has the same means as Russia to counterbalance Beijing.
There are also other agreements whose lasting success depends on engagement with Russia. An increase in tourism to the Arctic – a region with many natural hazards and few resources to respond to emergencies – makes ensuring adequate maritime search and rescue capacity a priority. It is a challenge if more than 50% of the region’s maritime resources are excluded from the dialogue. Similarly, the management of environmental and marine disasters in the Arctic and the facilitation of scientific cooperation in the Arctic require dialogue between all Arctic states.
This is not an argument against the measures taken to punish Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. It is a question of protecting what remains of the status quo of the Arctic and of the atmosphere of low tension which has reigned there for forty years. But to do so, the Arctic states must re-establish a basic dialogue with Russia on Arctic affairs and concerns. After all, we cannot really discourage state behavior if there is no dialogue.
Of course, maybe the opportunity has come and gone. The sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines could be the clearest indication from Moscow that there is no return to the status quo with the West. Perhaps Russia has little or no interest in re-engaging with the West in the Arctic either. If so, then ultimately the March decision to cut cooperation and freeze one of the few remaining avenues of engagement with Russia will only bring short-term gains to the West. . Pushing Russia into Chinese (or Indian) weapons will overpopulate the Arctic in the long run and make it difficult to control. Better the devil you know than the devil with friends. The United States has essentially drawn on engagement and dialogue with Russia in the Arctic, and according to its new Arctic strategy, this position will remain for the “foreseeable future”. But it is important to grasp exactly what the region is now intended for. New players, new expectations and essentially new interpretations of international rules are undoubtedly about to emerge in the great Arctic game. The question is, of course, whether Washington is ready to play.
Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is Head of Naval Research at the Sea Power Center – Australia. Dr. Buchanan is co-director of MWI’s 6633 project. Follow her on Twitter: @BuchananLiz.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of any organization to which the author is affiliated. affiliate, including the Australian Department of Defense and Defense. the Royal Australian Navy.
Image: Russian, American and Canadian icebreakers travel together near the North Pole in 1994 (Credit: Lieutenant Commander Steve Wheeler, US Coast Guard)