At an international Arctic conference in Moscow, a number of Russian, U.S. and Canadian participants weigh in on the potential risks and opportunities for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic.

The Arctic: Risk and opportunity. Photo: Laif / Vostock-Photo

The Arctic conference in Moscow, “The Arctic: Region of Development and Cooperation”, which is organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) on Dec. 2-3, brings together politicians, diplomats, academics, businessmen and environmentalists from the U.S., Russia, Canada and Europe.

Since the conference presents a unique opportunity to address common challenges in the Arctic and foster cooperation between countries, the organizers of the conference as well as most of the participants are optimistic about the future of the Arctic.

“The Arctic region is a laboratory of new models for international collaboration that can be applied in other [less stable] regions,” said Andrey V. Kortunov, President of the New Eurasia Foundation and the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).

Artur Chilingarov, the Russian President’s Special Envoy for International Cooperation in the Arctic and Antarctic, doesn’t see any reason for future confrontation in the Arctic.  A large number of conferences dedicated to the Arctic indicate that there is growing interest in bringing stability to the region and more cooperation, according to him. 

The Arctic conference in Moscow indicates that there are a lot of unresolved issues that “we need to negotiate,” Chilingarov told Russia Direct. Under the Russian strategic framework for the Arctic, the region’s development is related to international collaboration, “We will look for solutions to the issues raised by the international community taking into account the interests of Russia’s security.”

The international conference, "The Arctic: Region of Development and Cooperation" takes place in Moscow on Dec 2-3. Photo: Russia Direct

David Balton, Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries at the U.S. Department of State, echoes his Russian counterparts.

“I see the United States and Russia as continuing to collaborate in the Arctic for the foreseeable future because the interests of both of our nations overlap very significantly: We both want a stable and peaceful Arctic that can develop and also where we can protect the environment. So, there are no major policy differences between the U.S. and Russia or the other Arctic states.”

Nevertheless, regardless of the Arctic Council’s endeavor to expand cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic countries, there is always the risk of escalating tensions in the region.

The militarization of the Arctic: myth or reality?

The Arctic is not only an opportunity but also a high-stakes risk that requires prudence and vigilance, according to Leonid Kalashnikov, First Deputy Head at the Committee on International Affairs of Russia’s State Duma. He warns against future escalation in the region.

“Everybody is saying that we will prevent the militarization of the Arctic, yet we forget that an active NATO member, Norway, has a strong presence in the region,” he told Russia Direct. “When NATO seeks to expand its participation in the Arctic and other countries seem to regard these ambitions peacefully enough, I feel not only embarrassed, but also indignant. Despite optimistic statements that there will be no any militarization of the Arctic, we should remain prudent.”

Kortunov echoes Kalashnikov’s view. He argues that multilateral cooperation might be hampered by the current political situation that may affect U.S.-Russia relations in other fields.

“It may affect bilateral cooperation in the Arctic region,” he said in an interview to Russia Direct. “There might be rivalry and artificial differences in the Arctic Council. And this negative background, if developed, might have a negative effect.”

The militarization of the Arctic is the first and obvious threat of such cooperation, according to him. The second one is less obvious but essential: it is the strengthening of the split between Arctic states and non-Arctic states.

“It is quite understandable that non-Arctic players seek to be more active in extracting mineral resources in the Arctic region while Arctic states want to save their special status,” Kortunov said. “If there is not reasonable balance, I anticipate some tensions from both sides: the Arctic states might team up to withstand attempts of non-Arctic players to get into the region. So, we need to find some mechanisms that would satisfy all.”

Foreign experts and diplomats look at the problem from different angles. Scott Highleyman, Director of the International Arctic Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, warns against “the risk of not collaborating.”

“[If] we don’t learn from each other, one country will make the same mistake and the next country will make the same mistakes,” he told Russia Direct. “So, the biggest risk on not cooperating is that we may miss an opportunity to figure out this issue, how to live in the Arctic sustainably and how to build a normal economy while protecting the environment.”

The Arctic gamble. Photo: Getty Images / Photobank

Anton Vasilyev, Ambassador-at-Large at Russia’s Foreign Ministry and the Russian representative on the Arctic Council, echoes his American counterpart.  

“The biggest obstacle [to multilateral cooperation in the Arctic] is an inadequate knowledge of the real situation in the Arctic: those who know the real situation are sure that there are a lot of premises for this collaboration,” he told Russia Direct. “It is necessary to talk about the issue more frequently to be more optimistic and less focused on the problems.”

Meanwhile, John Higginbotham, Senior Fellow of the Arctic Program at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) argues that security and human rights issues might “sometimes inhibit the natural collaboration that should take place in the Arctic."

Alfred Jakobsen, Executive Director at Inuit Circumpolar Council (Greenland), assumes that “unilateral, individual economic interests, and some sovereignty issues” may be an impediment for multilateral collaboration in the Arctic and calls for a more transparent joint approach that could foster “a lot better collaboration.”

David Benton, Commissioner at the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, believes that “the biggest impediment to further collaboration in the Arctic is complacency that people in whatever country decide that there are not any problems and everything is going to be fine.”

“I do believe that right at this time all the Arctic countries together have the unique opportunity in history to build institutional arrangements and mechanisms for cooperation that would extend for decades. And a way to do that is talk well to each other and to listen, talk more and look for common concerns and common interests.”

Will the U.S. ratify the UN Law of the Sea Convention?

Chilingarov expresses his hopes that Washington will eventually ratify the Convention.

“If we are talking international collaboration in the Arctic we should be in equal conditions,” he told. “So, I think they [the U.S.] understand this  and will ratify the Convention.  After all, the Arctic is the territory of dialogue.”

Kalashnikov is more skeptical about the U.S. stance on the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention. 

“There are five Arctic states and when some countries comply with the rules of the convention, while other countries don’t observe them, it’s very dangerous,” he said.

Kortunov agrees: “Because the U.S. didn’t ratify the convention, there is always a danger that a new president comes into office and refuses to observe the rules. So, the uncertainty factor should be taken into account. Moreover, this stance affects the U.S. positions in the Arctic Council: they have fewer rights than the rest of its members. So, they are more cautious of the Council.”

At the same time, he warns against exaggerating this problem.

“The U.S. signed the Convention, but not ratified,” he said. “De facto, they stick to the principles and rules of the convention. There is understanding on an international level that the U.S. can’t ratify this document because of its domestic problems, but they will observe the convention. There is no obvious standoff.”

Vasilyev echoes this view. Even though the Unites States hasn’t ratified the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea, the U.S. tends to identify itself as a de facto member of the Convention who observes its rules, he argues.

“Yet, naturally, it is still a problem: the earlier it happens [the earlier the U.S. ratifies the convention], the better it is,” he added.

Higginbotham argues that the United States observes the requirements of the Law of the Sea. “The opposition to its ratification is uniquely American, among Republicans in the Congress who are concerned about supranational organizations,” he clarifies. “But all of the important players in the Congress and in the administration and in the military support the ratification of the law of the sea and abide by those regulations even though they are not ratified yet.” 

Balton clarifies that even the Pentagon’s new Arctic strategy “calls for even closer collaboration with Russia and the other Arctic nations.  And it calls for us to join the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention.” 

Meanwhile, Benton argues that Washington’s stance on the U.N. Convention is very shortsighted because it hampers, primarily, U.S. interests. 

“The lack of the U.S. ratifying the U.N. Law of the Sea is more a problem for the United States than it is for countries like Russia or Canada,” he said. “What it does is it blocks the United States from the room when you make important decisions, for example, delimitation of the continental shelf, because we are not part of the convention.”

RD Brief: The Arctic as geopolitical pivot

Read the next issue of RD Brief to find out more about the Arctic states' strategies in this region and learn how non-Arctic states like China intend to change the status quo. Look for our special newsletter this Wednesday, Dec. 4, with a link to download RD Brief.