Glance at the headlines and one could easily come to believe that an assertive Russia is squaring off against the West in a “ race ” or “ scramble ” for the Arctic, in a “ new cold war .” The perceived threat from Russia in the Arctic even underscores calls for the construction of additional U.S. icebreakers.
This storyline is merely the taproot of a larger media-driven narrative about the global “ scramble for the Arctic ,” which brushes aside the overwhelming evidence of peaceful cooperation among Arctic states, in favor of alarming and attention-grabbing headlines. The facts on the ground suggest strongly that Arctic states, including the U.S. and Russia, collectively seek more cooperation and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes as increasing human activity and climate change interact in complex and challenging ways.
Nevertheless, the current difficulties in Russia’s relationships with much of Europe and North America cannot simply be brushed aside. Diplomats like to talk of preserving the Arctic as a zone of peace, a walled-off garden in which outside political problems do not intrude, but this is an overly simple conception. While it is impossible – and likely unwise – to wall off the Arctic from other branches of the U.S.-Russia relationship, it is clearly a region in which overlapping interests and the particulars of the Russian position offer opportunities for constructive engagement.
Moscow’s essential interest in the Arctic is economic – exploitation of the vast energy and mineral reserves above the Arctic Circle that are the lifeblood of the underdeveloped Russian economy. Stability and clear management regimes are crucial to the industrial and maritime growth Russia desires, not military tension.
The long history of cooperation and relationship-building that has accumulated throughout the two decades of the Arctic Council has enabled cooperative initiatives to advance, like the 2011 search and rescue treaty and the 2013 oil spill response treaty . These achievements, which came at a time when media coverage of the so-called Arctic cold war was at fever pitch, stand as tangible proof of willing cooperation among Arctic states in areas of shared interest.
Outside the Arctic Council, the U.S. and Russia have worked closely together on shared Arctic interests, including the 2015 establishment of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, which serves as an information-sharing platform that will assist in coast guard cooperation and regular exercises aimed at improving coordinated response.
The U.S. and Russia are maritime neighbors, on either side of the narrow and ecologically critical Bering Strait. The 2014 sinking of the Oryong 501 , a South Korean fishing vessel that went down in heavy seas in Russian waters of the Bering Sea, illustrates that U.S. Coast Guard and Russian authorities must – and do – work together to respond to emergency situations in the Arctic region.
With a shared sea border, and in the face of growing threats to this important migration corridor for marine mammals, even closer coordination is needed between Washington and Moscow. The neighbors, through their respective maritime agencies, must work together to build and maintain good fences: coordinated, adaptive and modern transboundary management regimes that ensure safe and sustainable ship traffic. Although vessel traffic in the Bering Strait is increasing at an uncertain and unsteady pace, preemptive action is the response of choice, given the potential risks to subsistence communities and ecosystems in the area.
Cooperative efforts to develop sound adaptive management schemes in the Bering, as well as broader efforts through the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and Arctic Council to enhance emergency response and environmental protection, can have carry-on effects. It’s useful to think more broadly about the ways in which engagement with Russia in the Arctic may serve large U.S. strategic interests. While the U.S. is not known for practicing global, long-term grand strategy, integrating Arctic strategy into broader statecraft may present insights into improving the relationship between Washington and Moscow. Russia and the U.S. share some core interests in the Arctic, like safety and stewardship, which are best served through common effort.
As the U.S. and Russia seek to solidify the leadership of Arctic states in the Arctic region, greater cooperation will improve safety and stewardship, and may also serve as a needed counterpoint to other areas of divergence in this important relationship. Alarming headlines can create political weather, but a clear-eyed examination of U.S. interests underscores the importance of cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.
Top image: The Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks shore fast ice for the Russian tanker Renda, delivering fuel to the residents of Nome in January 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard/Charly Hengen)