Commentary

Russia Playing By The Rules In Arctic

in Program

By Colin Wall: 

The Arctic is much more than just ice. Owing in large part to the effects of global climate change, the region is becoming increasingly accessible. Since 1979, the ice cap centered on the North Pole has shrunk 40 percent. Economic opportunities abound, including over one-fourth of the world’s undiscovered recoverable petroleum resources, considerable mineral deposits and fish stocks. Trans-Arctic shipping routes, increasingly practical as polar ice recedes, could cut days or weeks off traditional pathways. In recognition of this, Arctic nations have begun staking their claims to swaths of territory and the resources they contain, including Norway, Denmark and, most recently, Russia.

Recent comments by Senator John McCain link Russia’s incursion into eastern Ukraine and its activities in the Arctic. Sen. McCain is not alone in his concern. The anxiety regarding Russia can be seen as a response to a number of trends. First, it is true that Moscow’s interest in the Arctic is growing. A new Russian naval doctrine identified the region as a priority, and promised a new fleet of icebreakers for the navy. Russia has also invested considerably in security infrastructure. Second, with its annexation of Crimea, incursions into the Ukraine and recent meddling in Syria, Russia has demonstrated a willingness to bend and even break the rules of international conduct. Putin’s Russia has proven itself to be an unpredictable actor.

However, in the case of the Arctic, Russia has perhaps surprisingly shown respect for regional governance structures, in particular the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is the primary forum for regional cooperation and is currently chaired by the United States. On the matter of geographical claims, the Council abides by rules set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which delineates how far states’ territories extend beyond their respective coastlines and allows for countries to claim swaths of seabed if they can prove these areas lie on an extension of their continental shelves.

In 2001, Russia submitted a claim to the Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (CLCS), the UN body that adjudicates such claims. The CLCS was not satisfied with the submission and requested that Russia gather additional data. This was a crucial moment. One might have predicted that Russia, denied their aspirations through the proper channels, would simply act unilaterally and claim the territory. Instead, Moscow regrouped and spent fourteen years following the CLCS’ recommendations, painstakingly gathering the requisite data and submitting a new claim in early August. The claim is currently under review.

Similarly, Russia has reaffirmed its commitment to cooperation in the region on multiple occasions. In 2008, Arctic states, including Russia, signed the Ilulissat Declaration, in which they pledged to respect UNCLOS and settled overlapping claims in an orderly fashion. Russia has held fast to this promise even in the wake of Crimea; the 2014 Danish submission to the CLCS contained an agreement between the two countries pledging to work together to create lines of delimitation based on CLCS recommendations.

Another agreement on fishing, exemplifying the coordination typical of Arctic geopolitics, prompted David Benton of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission to note, “In the Arctic, the United States and Russia have been able to reasonably stay the course and work together.”

And yet, in spite of a decades-long history of regional cooperation, it is not unreasonable to be concerned about future Russian actions. The argument is simple: Russia follows the rules until it chooses not to. Their actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine seem to bear this out – why then should the Arctic be any different?

But even if one assumes that Russia is a bad actor biding their time to renege on their promises, it is still in their own interest to continue a course of cooperation.  Put simply: Russia’s goals in the region are economic, and any kind of conflict will siphon money, time and focus away from extracting resources. This is especially true considering that the majority of such extraction, particularly in hydrocarbons, has involved public-private cooperation, which depends on a low-risk environment to secure investment. Any attempt, therefore, to provoke conflict would damage everyone’s bottom line.

While concerned observers are right to point out Russian militarization in the region, the conclusions they draw from these activities are likely overblown. The Arctic is not Crimea 2.0.  While there is likely to be some tension over jurisdictional limits, there is every reason to believe it will be handled peacefully. Russia has been playing by the rules in the Arctic, and there is good reason to think they will continue to do so.  
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Colin Wall was an intern at the Stimson Center. 

Photo credit: NASA Goddard via flickr

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