Arctic Cooperation

Between Yellowknife and Crimea: towards a security dilemma?

April 14, 2014

The Arctic Council diplomats gathered in Yellowknife, Canada, from the 25th to the 27th of March to discuss high-level political issues concerning the Arctic. The work of the Arctic Council continues, but the echo of the events that occurred in Crimea cannot be ignored. How is Arctic cooperation responding to this unprecedented crisis in Russian-Western relations? What will happen to Arctic cooperation? Is the rise of tension leading to a security dilemma?




The Yellowknife meeting


The Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting held in Yellowknife from the 25th to the 27th of March brought together high-level diplomats from the eight Arctic Council (AC) states, the six permanent participants representing indigenous groups, and the AC observers. The meeting was the second organised under the Canadian chairmanship of the Council, whose main theme is “Development for the people of the North”. The main achievement of the Meeting was the adoption of the document facilitating the creation of the Arctic Economic Council (AEC). The AEC is a key initiative for the Canadian chairmanship of the Council and it aims at strengthening sustainable economic cooperation in the region. In addition, guidance was also provided to coordinate the action to counter climate pollutants, climate change adaptation, enhancing science cooperation in the Arctic, marine oil pollution prevention, and other issues related to the well-being of the region and its communities[1].

The meeting took place without any major disruption. Once again, the Arctic brought together the world’s leaders, no matter how distant they may be on other issues. Nevertheless, the participants of the meeting inevitably felt the tensions concerning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.



Sovereignty and security


The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper affirmed during The Hague summit that Russia continues to cooperate in the Arctic: ”To this point, they have been working with the international community on the continental shelf delineation process and they have been adhering to that and they have been playing according to those rules so far”[2]. Harper has been very critical concerning Ukraine and has supported the hard line of expelling Russia from the G8. Still, his stance seems more optimistic concerning the Arctic dialogue.


Nevertheless, many sides have expressed concerns about the continued peaceful coexistence of the Arctic states in the future. Hillary Clinton said Russia's reopening of old Soviet military bases in the Arctic could be seen in a different light now. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson also made similar comments[3]. The scenario that unfolded in recent weeks has shown that Russia is ready to use military force to satisfy its security needs[4]. What Russia’s Arctic neighbours fear most now is that military tension could rise along Russia’s geographic and geopolitical borders in the same manner as had recently happened in Crimea.

As recently noted, sovereignty equals security in the Arctic[5]. The respect of national sovereignty is paramount for the Arctic states and security helps to ensure it.

What the Crimean situation most likely added to Arctic relations was a feeling of widespread mistrust between the Western Arctic states and Russia. This tension is felt most of all in military cooperation. Russia and Norway had successfully cooperated and conducted joint military exercises in the Arctic, but after the Crimean events, Norway announced on 26 March that it is suspending bilateral military activities with Russia. Canada and the United States have announced that they will not participate in the joint Northern Eagle exercise and have also suspended bilateral military activities with Russia[6].



Are we facing a security dilemma in the Arctic?


One should bear in mind that the Arctic stretches along the borders of two overlapping security communities, one pivoting on Russia and the other on NATO.

As far as Russia is concerned, under the Security Strategy until 2020 that was approved in 2009, Russia has been increasing its military and naval presence in the Arctic and is determined to maintain its position as a leading power. The Strategy leaves no doubt about Russia’s core interests in the Arctic. Moreover, the strategy addresses the disproportionate weight of NATO in the regional and global security architecture and opposes any future eastward enlargement of the alliance[7]. That being said, Russia expresses its readiness to foster dialogue with NATO provided that Moscow’s position and interests are respected[8]. To complete the picture, it is important to stress that Russia is the only Arctic coastal state which is not a NATO member, and keeping NATO out of the Arctic is of paramount importance for Russia.

For the moment, NATO has been clear since 2011 in stating that it has no systematic plans for the Arctic. Rob Huebert, professor at the University of Calgary and specialists in circumpolar relations, says tensions with Russia in the Arctic could rise if Finland and Sweden joined NATO: "If that happens, you're going to have a sense that Russia is going to say it is being encircled by the other Arctic nations (…)”[9]. “NATO countries keep a close eye on Russian military activities and nothing in the Arctic, so far, has caused them any concern,” said Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Columbia[10].   


What emerged from these stances is that, in the current situation of international tension, any future move may be perceived as a rising threat. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is a direct confrontation that may generate the pattern of a security dilemma in the Arctic and a dangerous vicious circle. The rising aspirations of Russia as regional and global power and the possible expansion of NATO beyond its present geopolitical scope go hand in hand with such a rise of tension along their shared imaginary border.



Coping with the dilemma


Incremental militarisation and escalating tension in the region would be extremely expensive for all the actors involved and should be avoided. The problem is how to do that now. The Russia-NATO Council has not brought about relevant results concerning NATO-Russia dialogue on Arctic security, and the AC is not a forum for hard security issues[11]. Today more than in the past twenty years, we find ourselves at a crossroad: the awareness of the Arctic as a common good could boost the potential for collective security, commitment to good governance, and peaceful conflict resolution; or it could lead to an escalation of tensions and give rise to a collective defence directed against a specific opponent and specific threats[12].


Still, the Yellowknife meeting gives encouraging signs that the Arctic states continue to find common grounds to foster dialogue in the AC, far from defence issues and from the tensions between Russia and the NATO.












[1] Arctic Council, “Senior Arctic Officials met in Yellowknife”, March 27, 2014. Retrieved from

[2] Weber, B., “Canada, Russia, continue to talk as part of Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife”,  Calgary Herald, March 26, 2014. Retrieved from

[3] Ibid.

[4] Invison, J., “Crimea crisis forcing Harper to rethink NATO, Arctic defence”, National Post, March 17, 2014. Retrieved from

[5] Coffey, L., “NATO in the Arctic: Challenges and Opportunities”, The Heritage Foundation, June 22, 2012. Retrieved from

[6] Pettersen, T., “Norway suspends all bilateral military activities with Russia”, Barents Observer, March 25 2014. Retrieved from; Barnes, J., E., “Cold War Echoes Under the Arctic Ice”, The Wall Street Journal, March 25, 2014. Retrieved from

[7] Geopolitics in the High North, Arctic Strategy documents. Russian Arctic Strategy. Retrieved from

[8] Ibid.

[9] CBC News, “Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife begins today”, March 25, 2014. Retrieved from

[10] Weber, B., “Canada, Russia, continue to talk as part of Arctic Council meeting in Yellowknife”,  Calgary Herald, March 26, 2014. Retrieved from

[11] Åtland, K., “Russian-Western Relations in the Arctic: Perceptions, Policies, and Prospects”, European Leadership Network, March 25 2014. Retrieved from

[12] Rynning, S., “Arctic Security Order: Collective Security, Collective Defense, or Something New?”, Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 15, n° 2, 2013.


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