Pro-Russian activists seized public buildings in eastern Ukraine this week, and U.S. officials say they suspect the actions were not spontaneous but engineered by Russia. That, combined with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea has Arctic experts wondering what this means for international relations in the Arctic and whether the era of cooperation with Russia is over.
So far, despite occasional fears from the West of a Russian land grab in the Arctic, Russia has behaved as a good neighbor in its dealings with other countries in the Arctic Council. It led the way to treaties on pollution control and search-and-rescue, for instance, in effect pledging its mighty fleet of icebreakers to help its neighbors. But sometimes Russia shows a harsher face. Like in December, when Putin told his top military officers they should pay special attention to building their forces in the Arctic. He told them Russia will be stepping up development in the region and must “have all the levers for the protection of its security and national interests.” This week Putin also instructed his security forces to beef up the Arctic frontier.
Russia watchers in Washington say there are signs that, whatever its intentions in Ukraine, Russia might remain a good neighbor in the Arctic. The best sign is the meeting of the Arctic Council late last month in Canada. The Russian delegation came as scheduled, even as Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper was criticizing Russian aggression in Crimea and demanding Russia’s expulsion from the G8.
Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says his contacts within the U.S. Coast Guard told him last week they were still talking to their counterparts across the Bering Strait.
“I think everybody realizes it’s in our own mutual interests to cooperate and not run the risk of some disastrous sea accident just because of the broader international difficulties.”
In the big picture, Ebinger says Putin must realize he can’t develop his petroleum assets in the Arctic without the help of American or Western European oil companies. On the other hand, Ebinger says he expects an emboldened Putin will press for territory beyond Ukraine. That, he says, will trigger tougher sanctions against Russia and the spirit of cooperation in the Arctic is likely to be crushed by a grimmer mood in Moscow.
Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it’s unclear if cooperation will continue in the Arctic.
“I think right now everyone is walking very carefully,” she said.
Conley says Russia and the other Arctic nations still have a strong interest in maintaining their good working relationships.
“But, I think we do recognize that should the Ukraine crisis escalate I think it’s clear there will be some spillover effect which will impact the Arctic,” she said.
Already, the U.S. and Norway have called off a naval exercise with Russia in the Arctic. That’s outside the realm of the Arctic Council, but such exercises do help the countries develop the integration needed for multinational rescues and pollution control operations as envisioned by the council.
Robert Huebert, associate director of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary, says he expects the Russians to continue to play nice in the Arctic for the time being, either because they still believe in the cooperative alliance, or because they want to make their actions in Crimea look like an isolated incident. Huebert says figuring out Russia’s true motivation is a puzzle for Western nations.
“On the one hand it’s also in their interest to have the Arctic remain outside all of this, but if the Russians have become more assertive, more aggressive, there’s a requirement to stand up to it,” he said.
As Huebert sees it, Russia has touched off a national security chain reaction that is likely to spread north, because Putin’s takeover of Crimea has both Sweden and Finland feeling they might be next. That has revived their interest in joining NATO. If either country becomes a full member, Huebert says Russia would take it as a direct military threat, an attempt by NATO to encircle the Arctic.
“The Russians, since about 2004, 2005, have always listed one of their core security threats … is an expansion of NATO onto its doorsteps,” he said.
Huebert acknowledges his perspective on Russia tends to be darker than most, but he never really believed in Russia the nice Arctic neighbor. Huebert says the Arctic Council experience only proves the countries can cooperate to set up a framework for cooperation.
“I don’t know if you have kids, but it’s always easy to get the kids to agree to all the rules about sharing toys until the actual toy shows up,’ he said.
The real test, Huebert says, comes when the Arctic Council stands between Russia and something it wants.