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Analysis: Russia in the Arctic – Conflict and Cooperation

With Russia adding to its icebreaker fleet, revitalizing its Arctic bases and boosting its military activities in the Arctic, many are asking whether Russia is a threat to Arctic security.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
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Canada and Russia would benefit from cooperating on issues of science and research in the Arctic.Flickr/Kimli, CC BY-NC 2.0

In the wake of the increased emphasis Russia has placed on modernizing its Arctic military infrastructure in the past year, several officials and experts have called for high-level discussions about Arctic military security issues, prompting discussions about the reorganization of the Arctic Council or the creation of a new security-focused forum.

“It should be explored whether there is support for a discussion forum on security policy related to the Arctic,” Peter Taksøe-Jensen, the Danish ambassador to the United States, recently wrote in a review of Denmark’s foreign and security policy. And a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, has suggested redesigning the Arctic Council to take up military security issues, even though its founding documents clearly state that its mandate doesn’t include such matters.

But many other security experts are dismissing the risk of military confrontation in the Arctic. Speaking at a meeting in Toronto in June, they cautioned that burdening the Arctic Council with military security issues would slow down its progress on environmental and economic development issues and encouraged Canada and Russia to cooperate on science and research programs.

“Most of the security issues in the Arctic are misplaced,” said Michael Byers, a Canada research chair in global politics and international law at the University of British Columbia. “When people talk about Russian actions, they are not really talking about the Arctic, they are talking about a geo-strategic position that Russia happens to have in that place.”

A large portion of Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability is based at facilities on the Kola Peninsula, a knob of land that juts westward from the frontiers of Finland and Norway, and surrounded by the Barents Sea to the north and east.

Russia has been revitalizing its Arctic military presence, including building six new military bases, adding troops and carrying out exercises. But some of that activity is related to boosting its ability to do search and rescue operations in the area and monitoring the Northern Sea Route, the shipping passage that runs along the northern coast of Russia, Byers said.

“Naturally we are developing our military resources there, because that is where we have access to the ocean,” said Liudmila Filippova, program manager at the Russian International Affairs Council, an academic and diplomatic think tank based in Moscow, with a focus on preventing international conflict and promoting crisis settlement.

Canada and Russia could build on decades of cooperation in the Arctic and focus on their shared challenges, said Byers. Both countries championed the adoption of Article 234 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which reinforces states’ powers to adopt and enforce regulations to prevent pollution from shipping within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in ice-covered areas. But they could go further, said Byers.

Bunker fuel use “is the proverbial low-hanging fruit,” said Byers. “We could ban bunker fuel use in the Arctic, and yet our governments have decided not to do that.”

Bunker fuel, or heavy fuel oil, is extensively used by the shipping industry. Burning bunker fuel releases black carbon (soot) that lands on snow and ice, darkening the surface and warming and melting it. The recently adopted Polar Code bans its use in Antarctic waters, but not in Arctic waters.

Arctic fisheries, Indigenous peoples’ issues, marine transportation and safety, emergency preparedness and measures to prevent air and oil pollution, as well as improvements in cold-weather construction technologies, could all benefit from more cooperation between Canada and Russia.

“Canada and Russia are not going to be BFFs, but there is no reason to expect Russian paratroopers landing on Ellesmere Island,” said Whitney Lackenbauer, a historian who specializes in Arctic sovereignty at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Some experts have called for the transformation of the Arctic Council into an international organization that gives non-Arctic countries equal input on Arctic matters, but scholars from Arctic nations tend to oppose the idea. “The Arctic Council would lose its flexibility and countries would not be able to make agreements so quickly,” said Filippova.

“There is no reason the Arctic Council should expand to include security issues,” said Lackenbauer.

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