Resources & Climate

Relocating the Reset: US-Russian Partnership in the Arctic

in Program

By Caitlyn Antrim – In January, when a US Coast Guard icebreaker escorted a Russian tanker carrying essential fuel to Nome, Alaska, it served as a reminder that the US and Russia have many reasons to continue pursuing a thaw in relations.  Unfortunately, beyond the New START agreement and a few other deals, the US-Russia reset, which was announced with fanfare in 2009, seems to have descended into bureaucratic obscurity. While it is essential that the United States maintains a constructive relationship with the Russian federal government, there is much more to be gained in developing working relationships that extend to regional governments, nongovernmental organizations, and indigenous people as well, in order to address cooperation not only in security affairs but also in economics, trade, science, and environmental conservation.

Two expert assessments of the limitations of the reset are particularly insightful. In December 2010, Deana Arsenian and Andrey Kortunov noted in World Politics Review that while New START represented a major accomplishment, the reset had so far failed to lay the foundation of a durable relationship that reached deeply into the two societies. A year later, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov blamed the entrenched geopolitical mindset of the political intelligentsia in both capitals for protecting status quo views left over from the Cold War and creating a barrier to greater implementation of the reset.

Building a better, more effective relationship with Russia is too important to allow ties to be derailed by changes of leadership in both capitals. Unfortunately, a new approach may not be possible given election year politics in Washington and Moscow, and certainly not when the reset is focused principally on presidents, prime ministers, and Cabinet members.

Instead, the US-Russia relationship can be strengthened by opening a new front that engages governments, businesses, and civil society at regional and local levels in addressing issues of economics, environment, and quality of life. Just such an opportunity can be found in the Arctic, where both countries share a frontier as well as the challenge of managing the arctic environment as climate change makes the region more accessible.

Cooperation is already occurring in the Arctic, specifically the area between the North Pole and the Bering Strait along the antimeridian and the coasts of the Russian Far East, Alaska, and Canada. Beyond the high-level forum of the Arctic Council, where national governments and indigenous people are represented, there is a history during the past two decades of relationship building at the state and local levels, spearheaded by Alaskan and Russian governors. Issues of fisheries, Bering Strait shipping, regional development, and environmental protection have led to increased regional cooperation.

But differences in language and culture, business practices and law, and, most of all, legacies of nearly a century of national distrust have left these local ties in dire need of their own reset. Given the region’s distance from the two countries’ national capitals, political leaders and entrenched intelligentsia, ownership of this kind of initiative should be devolved to state and provincial leaders, indigenous people, civil society organizations, and businesses, with encouragement and support from national governments and intergovernmental organizations.

The countries of the antimeridianal Arctic, which is effectively separated from the more economically developed regions of the Barents and Kara seas, stand to gain from a regional partnership that addresses their common interests and concerns. Russia sees the opportunity to develop its vast Arctic watershed, which is becoming accessible with the rejuvenation of the Northern Sea Route across its Arctic coast. Alaska wants to capture benefits in energy development and trans-Arctic trade. The Canadian territories stand to gain from increased mineral development. All three countries have common interests in sustainable fisheries, a clean environment, and protection of native cultures.

These interests can open opportunities for regional cooperation toward a new and productive future for the people of eastern Russia and North America. But cooperation without structure runs the risk of being ad hoc and ineffective. That’s why such an initiative should take the form of a regional council representing the states, territories, and populations of the antimeridianal Arctic to identify problems and implement solutions that benefit the people of the region and the nations themselves. In addition to developing a durable partnership across Russia, Alaska, and northern Canada, a regional council should be a partner to the high-level Arctic Council, providing it with local insight and advice, and with assistance in implementation of its recommendations in ways most compatible with local and regional concerns.

The antimeridianal Arctic provides a promising new front on which to reinvigorate the U.S.-Russia reset. Far from the centers of national government and politics, local governments and peoples may provide more stable and continuous leadership. Issues of economic development and environmental protection can provide common focus, in contrast to the competitive aspects of national security and great power politics. The participation of Canada’s northern territories can moderate the inevitable spillover of Washington-Moscow politics into the development of a regional partnership for the antimeridianal Arctic. So, too, would the overarching interests of the Arctic Council and other international organizations – as well as multinational businesses, environmental organizations, and indigenous people’s organizations that transcend national borders – help develop a new partnership in the Arctic. For the sake of the Arctic as well as for East-West relations, the three federal governments should encourage and support the creation of such a council and recognize that regional leadership will be the key to its success.

Caitlyn Antrim is the Executive Director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans and a Stimson Affiliate.

This article was originally published in World Politics Review at:


Photo credit: US Geological Survey via Flickr

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