Be prepared for realpolitik over arktik politik

In a March 6 article, Kevin McGwin rightly noted that “Arctic leaders have expressed their outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but when it comes to the region’s issues it […]
Published on March 11, 2014

In a March 6 article, Kevin McGwin rightly noted that “Arctic leaders have expressed their outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but when it comes to the region’s issues it is still co-operation as usual”. Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine has been met with widespread criticism, especially by western states, including Arctic states that have a vested interest in Russia’s foreign and defence policies. Where McGwin, and others, seem to be jumping the gun is in the assumption that Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and the tensions over it, will not impact Arctic relations moving forward.

When a conflict is less than a month old, it is impossible to determine precisely how that conflict will be perceived moving forward. Russia’s invasion of Crimea, combined with its overtly aggressive posturing toward Ukraine, is so new that it remains unknown what will happen next. Will Russia attempt to seize more Ukrainian territory? Will the actions of Western states, the EU or Nato deter further Russian action? Will the conflict eventually turn from cold to hot in the coming days or weeks and escalate beyond its current non-violent nature?

These are all pivotal questions facing the situation in Ukraine, but in reflecting on how this might affect Arctic relations, it is simply too early to tell. McGwin comments that “Even though the other Arctic states, all members of Nato or the EU or both, have sided against Russia in the conflict in Ukraine, they appear – at least for the time being – to have prevented their disagreements from spreading north.”  In the most literal sense, McGwin is correct to point out that the conflict in Ukraine has yet to have any repercussions in the high north. But it will.

Russia’s Arctic interests are of the highest priority in Russian policy making and increased tension with other Arctic states will eventually influence how diplomacy is conducted in the region. It is not the mere fact that certain Arctic states have opposed Russia’s actions in Ukraine; it is how intensely they have condemned Russia’s behaviour and are moving swiftly to impose sanctions and other potential forms of punishment on Russia. It is naïve to believe that American intrusion into eastern European political affairs would not translate into problems in the Arctic, especially as the US is poised to assume the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2015.

One of the notable omissions from McGwin’s piece is the inevitable strain the Ukrainian conflict will have on Canada-Russia relations. Recall that Canada has previously taken very firm stances on Russian aggression that have strained Canada’s relations with the Russians. In 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed that the G8 was actually “G7 + 1” due to Russia’s ongoing support for the Assad regime in Syria. Canada’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine has been among the swiftest and strongest, and there is no doubt this will, in some way, have consequences over competing claims in the Arctic.

Arctic relations to date have been mostly diplomatic, though the school of thought that argues there is no aggression in the north and that states are all cooperating fully is ignoring reality. The defence sector investments in the Arctic states, as well as the involvement of non-Arctic states like China, the UK and India, all serve to demonstrate that competition is alive and well, as is the perception of states that hard power remains an important took in achieving national interests and protecting national security. In most cases, Arctic states like Norway, Sweden, Finland, have contributed significant resources to their military apparatus out of fears of Russian aggression in the Arctic, recognising their limited abilities to assert their claims if necessary. Russia has been dictating Arctic affairs for some time, and provoking the Russians over Ukraine will have consequences of some kind moving forward.

Russia is not behaving out of irrationality or stupidity in Ukraine. Its actions have been carefully calculated thus far and it is not at all a stretch to believe that Russia’s approach to the Arctic may change as a result of its Ukraine mission. It is true that Russia recognises the vital importance of the Arctic for its future interests, but it is unlikely Russia will forgive and forget when it comes to the north. Having looked the US, the EU and Nato squarely in the eyes over Syria, Iran and now Ukraine, why would Arctic diplomacy be any different?

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