The Ukraine Crisis Reaches to the High North

Events in the Ukraine have consumed enormous amounts of diplomatic capital since the ongoing crisis began this spring. The ramifications have been felt from West to East, from an energy deal between Russia and China, to reallocation the former’s energy exports, to the creation of a NATO rapid-response force ready to be quickly deployed to Eastern Europe. But one area where ramifications have not been well published has been in the High North.

Photo courtesy of PMG, © 2006, some rights reserved
Photo courtesy of PMG, © 2006, some rights reserved

The Arctic is traditionally an area of cooperation in international politics. The Arctic Council, comprising Russia, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway, has a history of cooperation on multiple projects, including cataloguing Arctic infrastructure and conserving Arctic flora and fauna. Certain IR theories might predict the use of the Arctic as a theatre in which Russia and the United States can compete. But the United States has an established culture of disengagement in the Arctic—the region has never featured prominently on the US foreign policy agenda.

But it seems like the crisis in the Ukraine has caused the beginning of the end in Arctic cooperation.   In November of 2013, American Secretary of Defense announced that the US was increasing military ties with Russia in the Arctic region. In September of 2014, trilateral military exercises between the United States, Russia, and Canada that have occurred yearly since 2008 were cancelled. Moreover, the Canadian Minister for the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, refused to attend a meeting on black carbon and methane emissions, specifically citing Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine as reasons for the boycott.

Tensions go beyond talk. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been pressuring NATO to include the Arctic on its official agenda. Thus far, the Arctic has not been a concern of NATO; its attention is focused primarily east, leaving some members of NATO—chiefly Canada, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland—to fend for themselves when it comes to their Northern borders. This is particularly concerning given that Russia has recently demonstrated its willingness to violate the sovereign waters of European states when a Russian submarine was found in the Stockholm archipelago. Extending the NATO security blanket over the Arctic would no doubt go a long way towards easing Arctic NATO member’s collective nerves.

Russo-American relations are going to be particularly influential in the Arctic given that the United States will assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2015 to 2017. Though the United States has historically disengaged with the Arctic, no doubt assuming a leading role in the primary organization for Arctic cooperation will bring it higher on the American list of priorities.  The best indication of increased US attention is the June appointment of retired coast guard admiral Bob Papp as “Special Representative” to the Arctic.”

Another reason why such tensions are particularly important right now is the increase in Russian presence in the Arctic. The most telling indication of a redirection is the creation of a Joint Strategic Command (Obedinonnye Strategicheskoe Komandovanie) to coordinate Russian forces in the Arctic. More than a bureaucratic reorganization, this includes the revitalization of military infrastructure in the Arctic, including a base in the Novosibirsk Islands and a fighter-capable airbase in the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. To match the increase in resources, troop numbers are increasing, including a new Arctic fleet under the new joint strategic command as well as an infantry force. Despite this build up, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has specifically said that there is no need for a NATO force in the Arctic.

Another complicating factor is the presence of vast amounts of energy resources below the melting Arctic ice cap. According to the US Geological Survey, Arctic petroleum reserves include 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—combined almost 22 percent of the world’s reserves. Gazprom, the Russian state oil company, has taken a major role in extracting these resources, aided by the Russian appeal to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to expand its sovereign waters to 230 miles off of the coast, expanding the number of fields available for Gazprom extraction. And Gazprom expansion is more than an expectation: the petroleum giant recently signed a gas deal worth 400 billion dollars over 30 years.

Russian military redeployment as well as petroleum exploitation have set the stage for a diplomatic conflagration in the Arctic; while neither of those actions can be framed as offensive (the military deployment is being framed as creating a defensive perimeter), it clearly increases the Russian stake in the Arctic. Combined with the United States oncoming stint as chair of the Arctic Council, tensions are sure to be high.

It is on this already tense stage that the effects of the Ukraine crisis are felt. With all the pertinent actors already on their toes, it is not surprising that the Ukraine Crisis’ result diplomatic brouhaha has put a damper on Arctic cooperation.

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