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Valuable Lessons About Russia From the Bear’s Role in the Arctic

Russia sometimes behaves badly, but Arctic politics shows us there is a way to work multilaterally with the country, writes Andrew Chater, an expert in Arctic governance with the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, a U.K. think-tank.

Written by Andrew Chater Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Us diplomacy arctic climate russia politics1
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov speaks during the plenary session of the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 11, 2017.AFP/NICHOLAS KAMM

Russia’s relations with the West are the worst they have been since the end of the Cold War – more than a quarter-century ago – though they are better in the Arctic region.

First, there was Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February 2014, which the United Nations General Assembly condemned as a violation of international law, including the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. Western countries responded with waves of sanctions that damaged Russian banking and its energy industry.

Now, there is an ongoing investigation into the extent of Russian interference in the United States 2016 elections, which at the least included hacking into Democratic National Committee computers and planting fake news stories on social media. On top of that, Russia meddled in France’s 2017 presidential election, among others. Outside the Arctic, Russia is no friend of international harmony.

The rationale for Russia’s actions is unclear. President Vladimir Putin claims the annexation of Crimea was in response to the will of the Crimean people, following a referendum on March 16, 2014 (although the veracity of the results is questionable). Russia’s aggression could be a nationalist reassertion of its power or a strategic gamble to maintain access to the militarily important Black Sea.

Perhaps all this posturing has been to shore up domestic support, as independent polling shows that Putin’s popularity in Russia increased after the Crimea incident, to 80 percent. Russian election interference could be a means to help candidates more hospitable to Russia’s interests.

Russia’s bad behavior does not necessarily carry over to the Arctic region. Its government continues to invest in defense, forming a “military group” with 6,000 troops in the northern Murmansk region and opening a new military base on Wrangel Island. Yet Russia has also pursued cooperation in the region, such as bilateral talks to resolve territorial disputes over its extended continental shelf; further, it has complied perfectly with the voluntary United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Its government representatives have at least paid lip service to the importance of cooperation on environmental issues and climate change.

What does Russia’s Arctic behavior teach us about its politics overall? Here are three lessons to think about. They are subject to update, as revelations about Russia and the administration of President Donald Trump appear almost daily.

Lesson One: It Has a Strong Incentive to Cooperate

Russia must maintain a relationship with the West, as it represents a key market for its Arctic oil; Western governments should thus continue to engage with the Kremlin. Russia is still the world’s largest oil producer. Arctic Siberia contains the majority of the nation’s 80 billion barrels of discovered oil, or nearly two-thirds of its total production. Revenues from oil and natural gas make up 43 percent of the federal government budget. It has the world’s only offshore oil rig in the Arctic Ocean, which is expected to produce more than 125,000 barrels a day by next year.

There have been reports that Russia is focusing more on Chinese markets for the future. Yet 60 percent of its oil and 75 percent of its natural gas are exported to Europe. It is still possible to cooperate with Russia, as it needs European markets for its energy exports.

In September 2014, Exxon and Rosneft – a Russian company – discovered 700 million barrels of oil in the Kara Sea, bordering the Arctic, a project from which Exxon ultimately withdrew due to sanctions. Rosneft said that it planned to exploit the field without Exxon, but so far has not been able to do so. By the end of 2015, Exxon estimated it had lost $1 billion because of sanctions on its Russian investments.

A still unproven hypothesis is that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election in the hope that the Trump administration would lift sanctions against the oil industry. Donald Trump appointed former Exxon CEO (at the time of the Kara discovery) Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. If that was Putin’s plan, clearly it has backfired – in fact worsening relations with the U.S. and possibly inviting yet another round of sanctions. If the gambit had worked, it would have helped the Russian economy; even now, perhaps it will inflate Putin’s popularity, as was the case after the Crimean episode. Despite difficulties, it is worthwhile to work to maintain diplomatic relations with Russia.

Lesson Two: Russia Isn’t Always Hostile and Still Cooperates

This incentive for cooperation has affected Arctic politics. Russia continues to cooperate in the Arctic Council. As I have written elsewhere, the number of comments that Russian delegates make in the council is comparable to other member countries, as are its delegation sizes and project sponsorships. In fact, the number of projects that it sponsors in the council continues to increase. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, used the recent Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a chance to visit Trump and Tillerson at the White House (which has created no end of controversy for the Trump administration).

The Russian government currently sponsors or cosponsors 19 Arctic Council projects – such as work to collect methane emissions, reduce emissions from fish-processing facilities, enhance Arctic search-and-rescue and provide climate change adaptation for nomadic herders. This represents about one-fifth of the organization’s output. The negative relations with the U.S. have not really spilled over into the council; Russian officials complete work to protect the Arctic environment and respond to climate change. It is possible to cooperate with Russia, even on issues such as climate change, because of its need to maintain its energy industry.

Lesson Three: The Russian Government Is Not a Monolith

It is easy to think of the Russian government as a monolithic oligarchy, with Vladimir Putin as its head. Yet strong parts of the Russian environmental bureaucracy have long supported democratizing the country, often at odds with central government. Russia is home to independent researchers, such as those at the internationally well-regarded National Research University Higher School of Economics. Indigenous peoples in the Russian Arctic support environmental protection, but have to walk a difficult line as they face pressure from the Kremlin to support central government policies. The Russian government is more than Putin.

Russia’s international behaviour is often erratic and threatens international security. Yet its Arctic record teaches us some lessons. It relies on its Arctic energy industry to fuel its economy, including extensive exports to the West; thus Russian leaders have an incentive to cooperate with the West. It continues to cooperate in the Arctic Council and sponsors environmental projects regularly; it has not adopted a hostile posture in every aspect of its foreign policy. Russia includes scientists, environmentalists and Indigenous peoples who care about the environment and want to have peaceful relations with the West; so the leadership picture in the country is more diverse than it seems. Russia behaves badly, but Arctic politics shows there is a way forward to work multilaterally with the country.

This article originally appeared at the Polar Connection.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

This story has been updated to clarify that it was produced by the Polar Research and Policy Initiative.

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