Arctic // Analysis

18 april 2014

Prospects for cooperation in the Arctic: a Canadian perspective

Photo:
Arctic Council / Flickr
SDWG Meeting Yellowknife March 23-24 2014

Interview

This month we asked Rob Huebert to comment on the implications of the Crimean crisis for the Arctic. Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has researched extensively on Arctic policy and defense. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of escalating tensions in the Arctic. The latest news of Canada’s boycott of the Arctic Council meeting in Moscow confirms this picture.

Relations with Russia have reached a level of tension without precedents. Still, the Arctic is considered as one of the most fruitful field of international cooperation. How do you think Russia’s actions in Crimea will impact cooperation in the Arctic Council?

I think that in the short term we are going to see business as usual in the Arctic. We recently saw Canada hosting the Senior Arctic Official meeting in Yellowknife. Canada and Russia were able to cooperate on the launching of the Arctic Economic Council. I think that right now there is a very strong effort to cooperate. It is in the interest of both Canada and Russia to keep that part of their cooperative relations going.

Nevertheless, what is going to happen is that the larger geopolitics of the Russian moves into Ukraine will continue to reverberate. Specifically, we have already seen the manner by which the G8, now the G7, has in fact expelled Russia. Given the type of policy slap that this represents, I expect that Russia will retaliate one way or the other. I don’t expect that it will happen at the expenses of the Arctic Council, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

Rob Huebert

Nevertheless, what is going to happen is that the larger geopolitics of the Russian moves into Ukraine will continue to reverberate. Specifically, we have already seen the manner by which the G8, now the G7, has in fact expelled Russia. Given the type of policy slap that this represents, I expect that Russia will retaliate one way or the other. I don’t expect that it will happen at the expenses of the Arctic Council, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

In the long term, NATO is moving eastward and it is extending exercises up to the Russian front that may be at risk. What is not in the media but what will have an impact in the Arctic is that we are starting to see some statements coming out of both Finland and Sweden talking about the possibility of seeking full membership in NATO. If Finland was to join NATO, that would be perceived as a direct military threat against Russia. The Russian Defence White Paper states that one of the core security threats facing Russia is an expansion of NATO onto its physical borders. If Finland and/or Sweden will move towards full membership in NATO, the Russian government will feel that this is an effort to encircle it and a part of the encirclement will in fact be in the Arctic region. We then combine this with the fact that Russia, particularly under Putin’s third term, has made clear the geopolitical importance of the Arctic to the Russians.

A decade and a half of cooperation and good will disappear very quickly once this chain of events start, in spite of the cooperative effort that have been made to date. We see this type of action and reaction already beginning.

How do you assess the results of the Arctic Council meeting held in Yellowknife?

The Economic Arctic Council is the experiment that is going on. When the Arctic Council was formulated, the Canadian vision was that it would deal with all issues, including that of economics.

Infographics by RIAC

The fact that this meeting took place was a sign of major success. In spite of what was happening in Crimea, they were able to go ahead and this is very positive. Part of the strength of the Arctic Council is the manner in which it facilitates face-to-face meetings. Even when nothing comes out it is a success. The launch of this business initiative is going to be very interesting and we will see what type of uptake it gets. Canada’s focus is of course on indigenous businesses but the Russian perspective is much more on business per se without necessarily the indigenous connection.

The Economic Arctic Council is the experiment that is going on. When the Arctic Council was formulated, the Canadian vision was that it would deal with all issues, including that of economics. There has been a strong reluctance among some of the Arctic states to do that, but I think that is starting to break down. I think this is a timely initiative to understand how you tame the extremes of business cycles that will be coming to the Arctic as various resources are developed.

The U.S. is going to chair the Arctic Council in 2015. What will the U.S. agenda be? What do you expect from the American chairmanship of the Council? How do you think relations between Canada and the US will evolve?

I think that we missed an opportunity here in North America when we didn’t copy the Europeans. They took a “three-chair-in-a-row” approach, a sort of joint approach. They mapped out their key initiatives and pursue them over a six-year period.

I think that we missed an opportunity here in North America when we didn’t copy the Europeans. They took a “three-chair-in-a-row” approach, a sort of joint approach. They mapped out their key initiatives and pursue them over a six-year period. I really wish that Canada and the USA would do the same and agree on a unique issue that they want to push ahead.

Concerning the U.S. chairmanship, I think it is very important that the Americans are taking so much seriously the issue of the Arctic, particularly after the Obama administration came to power and Hillary Clinton started to participate in all negotiations.

What is the mark of Canada as chair of the Arctic Council? How has Canada’s international standing changed? How would you assess the results of the presidency so far?

In terms of how far Canada is able to keep this business initiative, this is something that we’re going to be watching in the next years. Things don’t happen so fast in the Arctic, and so it will take about two or three years to see whether this initiative focusing on business - and particularly on indigenous business - was successful. I think we need more time to draw proper assessments.

First and foremost, one of the major successes of Canada is the fact that this is the second rotation of the chairmanship. Canada wanted to see the Arctic Council functioning on its own. In this regard, Canada has had a tremendous success. We have already had all eight of the members chairing the committee and we are ready to repeat.

In terms of how far Canada is able to keep this business initiative, this is something that we’re going to be watching in the next years. Things don’t happen so fast in the Arctic, and so it will take about two or three years to see whether this initiative focusing on business - and particularly on indigenous business - was successful. I think we need more time to draw proper assessments.

Interviewed by Eleonora Milazzo, RIAC intern and blogger

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“Prospects for cooperation in the Arctic: a Canadian perspective,” Russian International Affairs Council, 18 April 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=3550

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