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Pavel Gudev

PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at RAS IMEMO Sector for US Foreign and Domestic Policy, RIAC expert

On April 24-25, 2015, the 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council took place in Iqaluit, Nunavut in the north of Canada. The meeting marked the end of Canada’s Arctic Council Chairmanship and the start of the US Chairmanship. Russian delegations at such events have been traditionally led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. However, amidst certain logistical problems and a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Ottawa, Russia at this meeting was represented by Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy. Does this indicate that the events in Ukraine have affected the development of cooperation in the Arctic, and what should Russia expect from the US Chairmanship in the context of the ongoing sanctions pressure?

On April 24-25, 2015, the 9th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council took place in Iqaluit, Nunavut in the north of Canada. The meeting marked the end of Canada’s Arctic Council Chairmanship and the start of the US Chairmanship. Russian delegations at such events have been traditionally led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. However, amidst certain logistical problems and a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Ottawa, Russia at this meeting was represented by Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy. Does this indicate that the events in Ukraine have affected the development of cooperation in the Arctic, and what should Russia expect from the US Chairmanship in the context of the ongoing sanctions pressure?

In previous years, the vast majority of experts involved in studying Arctic issues were unanimous in their opinion that the potential for conflict, let alone the threat of direct military confrontation in the region, was very insignificant, as all the countries of the Arctic Five (Russia, USA, Canada, Norway, Denmark) were interested in the prioritized development of cooperation. Nevertheless, it was widely recognized that despite little if any possibility of growing tension in the Arctic on its own account, other non-regional conflicts could act as a catalyst for its emergence.

A series of events in 2014 was as follows: the annual meeting of the chiefs of staff of the Arctic Council countries was cancelled; the establishment of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum was suspended; and the regular Russian-US-Norwegian naval exercise was not carried out. All this testifies to the fact that the international political situation caused by the crisis in Ukraine has had a direct impact on the development of the Arctic cooperation.

If the Ukrainian conflict is not settled, the next two years could well test the Arctic Council to the result of destruction. This outlines the first key uncertainty: how will the Arctic states perceive their national interests in the region? Will the understanding of the need to jointly form a regional management regime in the Arctic survive or we will embark upon building new isolation obstacles, notwithstanding common interests and threats?

The transfer of the Arctic Council Chairmanship from Ottawa to Washington coincided with the period when US interest in the Arctic region is finally being crystallized: in May 2013 the National Strategy for the Arctic Region was adopted; in February 2014 the US Navy released its updated Arctic Roadmap 2014-2030; on July 14, 2014 the State Department appointed Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., USCG (Ret.) Special representative for the Arctic; on January 21, 2015 President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order “Enhancing Coordination of National Efforts in the Arctic.”

The preliminary program of the US Chairmanship presidency was made public at the meeting of the Arctic Council in Yellowknife, Canada on October 23-24, 2014. The goals set out in this program are quite ambitious:

  • Arctic Ocean Safety, Security and Stewardship (enhancing on-going work to evaluate the prospects for developing a Pan-Arctic Network of Marine Protected Areas on the basis of the ecosystem approach; using a Regional Seas Program as a mechanism to coordinate and enhance scientific research and human activity in the Arctic Ocean; launching a marine environmental protection by expanding information sharing on the environmental impacts of hazardous substances; enhancing search and rescue capabilities; and monitoring ocean acidification and its negative consequences).
  • Improving Economic and Living Conditions (developing and sharing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies; finding better and more affordable ways to deliver reliable drinking water and sewage disposal services to remote communities across the Arctic; assessing of the role and vulnerability of freshwater resources in the Arctic; reducing the incidence of suicide in indigenous groups; and developing telecommunications infrastructure).
  • Addressing the Impacts of Climate Change in the Arctic (creating an early warning indicator system in each Arctic State that could be linked into a single pan-Arctic network: these systems would contain the changes in key physical, biological, social and economic elements related to climate impacts and their effects in the region; developing a digital elevation model to obtain more accurate information about the impacts of climate change on the topography of the Arctic).

The American “agenda” puts a particular focus on environmental issues, which outlines the second key uncertainty. It is obvious that the protection of the marine environment and biodiversity in the Arctic is the main goal of the Arctic Council. On the other hand, it is no secret that the development and exploitation of living and non-living resources of the Arctic are considered by regional and certain non-regional actors as a foundation for their social and economic development in the future. Russia places a stake on implementing transport as well as oil and gas projects in the Arctic, which require international cooperation for using modern and environmentally friendly technologies among other things. The first blow to these plans was dealt by the refusal of the American ExxonMobil to cooperate with Rosneft and by the ban on the supply of all types of oil and gas equipment to Russia. Against this backdrop, couldn’t the environmental rhetoric be used as another tool of sanctions pressure to influence the implementation of Russian projects in the Arctic?

The third key uncertainty is associated with the reluctance of the US, which is assuming the Arctic Council Chairmanship, to reveal its long-term goals in the Arctic, and which developments in the region fully comply with its national interests. The wording of its numerous conceptual and strategic documents on this subject is often very general and vague.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the US, unlike other Arctic countries, does not participate in a number of international agreements relating to the management of expanses and resources of the great oceans. This is true not only for the Constitution of the Seas – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 – but also for the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Additional Protocols, for the Convention for the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage and a number of other international treaties and agreements that the US is not party to due to the incompatibility of their certain provisions with American national interests.

Although the United States does comply with most of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, it interprets some of the Convention’s norms quite broadly (for example, the freedom of military scientific research within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of coastal states and submarines’ right of innocent passage submerged through the territorial waters of coastal states). Finally, given that the United States is not party to the 1982 Convention, it remains uninvolved in the processes which today determine the fate of the Arctic, in particular the establishment of the outer limits of the continental shelf.

As a result, it remains unclear whether US policy in the Arctic Council is likely to be balanced enough and aimed at achieving common goals, which many in the American expert community insist upon, or the Ukrainian events will again affect adversely the format of the counties’ cooperation in the Arctic. Will the solution to the region’s problems become another area that requires joint effort to reach success, just as the fight against terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, and the North Korean problems do? Or will the Arctic become another stumbling block in the Russian-American relations? The next two years of the US Chairmanship of the Arctic Council will give answers to these important questions.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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