St. Petersburg University recently hosted an international congress gathering 500 of the world’s top Arctic scholars, experts and stakeholders. The event illustrated how scientific and economic cooperation in the Arctic could be one way for Russia to defuse geopolitical tensions.

The icebreaker, which the Russian polar explorers used to travel to the Arctic to set up a drifting station SP-40. Photo: RIA Novosti.

From Sept. 12-16, St. Petersburg University hosted the first-ever Congress of the University of the Arctic (UArctic), which brought together researchers, university representatives, business leaders and diplomats from around the world. Not only the Arctic states and indigenous communities were represented, but also various international institutions as well as France, Britain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, China and South Korea.

Although the Arctic remains a specialist field and a poorly understood topic, there is a growing understanding that Arctic problems – including environmental implications from the melting of the polar ice cap to the opening of new sea routes – are affecting world politics far beyond the Arctic Circle.

There are conflicting narratives about the significance of Arctic developments for international relations, and many participants at the UArctic Congress were dedicated to the same goal: to enhance the collective understanding of the complexity of the Arctic and to resist the simplistic interpretation of this region as a potential theater for a new geopolitical confrontation.

A common space with common challenges

UArctic, which organized the congress in St. Petersburg, is an international cooperative network of universities, colleges, research institutions and other organizations from all Arctic countries that are concerned with education and research in and about the North. It is supported by the UN and has an observer status at the Arctic Council, the main international governing body in the Arctic.

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According to UArctic President Lars Kullerud, scientific events such as the UArctic Congress are about more than just cooperation. They are about creating a “common mental space,” because most Arctic issues do not have borders and are global in nature.

The shrinking of the ice cap around the North Pole compounds and accelerates global warming, because the rays of the sun, instead of being reflected back to space by the white ice cap, are absorbed by the darker water masses and, thus, they help to raise the temperature of the oceans.

At the same time, the melting permafrost on land raises sea levels worldwide and - most notoriously in Russia - releases large amounts of methane trapped inside, a gas with an extremely high global warming impact. These are just two of the most pressing and well-understood implications of climate change in the Arctic, but there are many more, from ecosystem perturbations to new infectious diseases.

However, the melting ice makes the Arctic - both land and waters - more accessible. That is good news for a number of stakeholders. That means, in theory, new drilling, fishing and shipping opportunities for the Arctic states and economic actors worldwide. But it is less simple than it sounds. The extraction of onshore and offshore mineral resources in the Arctic remains a risky, costly and highly speculative enterprise.

No single country or multinational company has the financial resources and technological know-how to do it in isolation, and there is currently no satisfying infrastructure to ensure safe offshore exploration, drilling, extraction and transportation. Many exploitation projects have stalled for these reasons, others would continue in controversial conditions, for example putting large areas at risk of uncontainable oil spills.

Similarly, the “opening of new shipping routes” is a relative reality. The routes in questions remain extremely dangerous to navigate in the foggy “ice-free” summer months, requiring special hulls and expensive icebreaker escorts.

Current Search and Rescue (SAR) capacities are insufficient to cover such an immense region, despite a solid political commitment by the five coastal states - Russia, Norway, Canada, Denmark/Greenland and the U.S. - to cooperate in this area, and despite massive investment by Asian stakeholders in the development of port infrastructure on the Arctic coasts in support of the growing shipping activity.

The vision of the Arctic as a ”new Eldorado” is thus skewed to say the least, but the challenges posed by increased economic activities in the region are difficult to overstate, and they can only be tackled in a concerted way.

Competing interests in the Arctic

Of course, the Arctic is not only a common space but also the place where different interests meet and compete. While the idea of a “war over Arctic resources” seems preposterous to the informed observer - most of the accessible resources being located in the undisputed Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the five coastal states - there is certainly competition among stakeholders to reap the potential benefits of commercial exploitation in the region.

However, in a globalized economy generally ruled by market economy principles, several observations contradict the simplistic “war for resources” narrative.

First, the competition plays out on a geoeconomic rather than a geopolitical level - which means that military confrontation is a rather irrelevant scenario in this context. Second, many of the stakeholders come from non-Arctic states and many are non-state actors. Third, all competition includes an element of cooperation, as the success of economic projects relies on international streams of capital and know-how.

Playing a role in the governance, economic development and environmental protection of the Arctic is also a matter of diplomatic prestige, which explains why so many non-Arctic states seek an observer status in the Arctic Council. At the UArctic Congress, for example, the delegations from Switzerland, France, Japan and South Korea all sought to highlight their role within the Arctic.

Geopolitical tensions do have an impact on economic cooperation in the Arctic. 

“The Arctic is a theme in which everyone has been interested for a long time... France has recently elaborated its national strategy for the Arctic, the EU is doing so too, as are many of its member states," French Consul General Thibaut Fourrière told Russia Direct. "Of course, Russia being one of the main Arctic countries, we are brought to cooperate with it in this regard. Several French firms are interested in hydrocarbon exploitation projects in Russia, and these projects can only be international. Not a single company in the world is capable of exploring and exploiting an oil or gas field by itself in the Arctic."

"Yamal is the typical example of an international project involving companies and investment from many countries," Fourrière added. "But the sanctions following the annexation of Crimea have had an impact on Russia’s ability to finance these projects. I would not say that the French firms have lost interest in those projects, but they have to take into account a different reality shaped by the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions.”

As Evgeny Minchenko, political consultant in Moscow and author of the report “Politburo 2.0,” told Russia Direct, these developments are worrying because they undermine the trust-building potential of the collaborative projects, and they lead to an atmosphere of political mistrust. Similarly, Tero Vauraste, vice chair of the Arctic Economic Council, echoes his view.

“If you look at the sanctions from a purely business perspective… they hurt. They hurt Russia but also other countries, for example Finland,” he said.

The special significance of the Arctic for Russia

Russia has by far the longest coastline in the Arctic, the largest Arctic population and the highest economic stakes there. Unsurprisingly, the Arctic has played a special role in Russia’s nation-building history and is still an important, yet contested, element of Russian identity - suffice it to mention the logo of the presidential party, United Russia, which features a polar bear under a Russian flag.

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Since the late 2000s, the Arctic has resurfaced as a central concern for Russian policymakers, for a number of reasons. The perceived opportunities and objective challenges posed by climate change have pushed the Arctic higher up the priority list. This has coincided with Russia coming out of its post-Soviet economic and political struggle for survival, meaning a more proactive and articulated use of its statecraft.

Some observers fear that the reassertion of Russia as a strong power and a force to reckon with in the Arctic could pose a threat to the established post-Cold War world order. However, it is important to understand that Russia has an essential interest in keeping the Arctic an area of cooperation, and this for quite pragmatic reasons.

First, the Arctic is Russia’s longest - and virtually only - coastline. The “opening of the Arctic” thus poses a number of questions perceived as vital in a country that is generally used to viewing itself as landlocked. It is a new vulnerability: the Northern flank, which used to be naturally protected by a fortress of ice would now be exposed, should the Arctic become a zone of confrontation rather than the zone of rare trust that it is today.

But it is also a new and unique opportunity for Russia to deploy its navy and to insure a global projection of power matching its global power ambitions. Russian naval presence in the Arctic, in other words, is arguably not meant for the Arctic but for the rest of the world.

Second, in a complex Arctic environment, most of the security challenges are shared. As professor Pavel Gudev, specialist of maritime issues at the Primakov National Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), told Russia Direct, “You have to understand that if accidents - like an oil spill - happens in the Arctic ocean, all the Arctic states’ coastlines are at risk.”

According to Alexander Sergunin, professor of International Relations at St. Petersburg University, this and other “soft security” concerns have come to dominate the security doctrines of the Arctic states, including Russia’s. Today they largely prevail over “hard security” concerns and are the main drivers of military presence in the Arctic.

"Sometimes the Russian official discourse has a double nature," Sergunin told Russia Direct. "The more assertive discourse - ‘the Arctic is ours and we will not cede an inch of it to others’ - is designed for domestic consumption. The more cooperative stance is aimed at the international audience because there is understanding among the Russian political, business and academic elites that the Arctic problems cannot be solved by a single state and multilateral regional cooperation is needed.”

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Third, in a context of increased geopolitical tensions elsewhere in the world, the Arctic remains a place where Russia can promote itself as a soft power and a force for good, counterbalancing the depletion of its political capital, notably in Ukraine and Syria.

“There are all reasons to believe that Russia follows international law when it comes to the Arctic," Kullerud told at the congress’ press conference. "Russia has been extremely compliant with the law of the sea, just like the other Arctic states. We see very clearly that the countries of the circumpolar North are united around a common strategy. That is why is it possible to say that the Arctic is a region of love and peace.”

According to Kullerud, the international press likes to “play the card of territorial conflict” and some perhaps have an interest in promoting this “storyline.” However, he said, "there is no territorial conflict - except perhaps between Canada and the U.S. All other conflicts have been settled and everyone is working together. You can ask any of the Arctic governments, and if you do not believe the governments, you can ask all the experts on Arctic issues and Arctic law … It may be very boring from a journalist’s point of view, but that is how it is.”

Scientific diplomacy versus geopolitics

There is indeed a conflict in the Arctic: a conflict of narratives. This is not benign, as confrontational narratives can become self-fulfilling in international politics. For this reason, events like the UArctic Congress are key. They constitute one form of grassroots peace politics - so-called scientific diplomacy.

Scientific diplomacy brings together scientists from countries whose political elites may be locked in conflict. It weaves ties between these countries based on concrete projects, and it creates and maintains common interests. It creates communities with shared goals and values, deeply committed to working together, who can then use their influence as respected experts to influence their respective political elites.

Scientific diplomacy, of course, is not immune from a trickling down of geopolitical tensions. Yet, it has a potential that must be treasured and nurtured, if international relations are to become more harmonious.