Working Together for Arctic Security


By Erica M. Dingman

Russia has long been skeptical of a NATO presence near any of its borders, and the Arctic is no exception. The melting Arctic sea ice is transforming the geopolitical significance of the Arctic region. At stake for the eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States—is access to marine passages and natural resources, which include an estimated 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

On November 17, the Atlantic Council hosted a talk entitled, Transatlantic Approaches to Security in an Evolving Arctic, which emphasizedNATO’s place in Arctic relations. Allies maintain that a NATO presence is necessary to create lasting conditions for peace and security. But Russia rejects a NATO presence asserting that such an action constitutes “Arctic militarization.” Still, there is little to suggest that Russia wants to return to Cold War antics. The Ilulissat Declaration illustrates the level of cooperation. Signed by the five Arctic coastal states—Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States—the Declaration recognizes the collective responsibilities of the Arctic Five, and will hopefully set an important precedent of peaceful resolution in a resource rich area. While tensions remain between NATO and Russia, Arctic politics are a rare example of potential rivals working together.

Although the Arctic is not governed by a single regime, multilateral organizations such as the Arctic Council were created to deal with issues regarding the environment and as a forum to discuss social and economic challenges. In terms of an orderly approach to off shore resources, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an important instrument in the determination of extended rights. With the exception of the U.S., all Arctic nations have ratified UNCLOS and are submitting data to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Just prior to the signing of a 2010 landmark treaty between Russia and Norway on maritime delimitation and cooperation in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean, President Medvedev expressed Russia’s skepticism of NATO, “The Arctic can manage without NATO. The Arctic area is part of our common wealth. It does not have any connection to military objectives. It is a zone of peaceful cooperation. The presence of military factors can raise additional questions.”

Norway, however, is trying to convince Russia to collaborate with NATO in the future security of the Arctic, an attempt to show Russia that a NATO presence is intended for pan-Arctic security. As a small Nordic nation tucked alongside Russia, Norway takes a pragmatic view toward its neighbor. Accordingly, The Norwegian Government’s High North Strategy states, “Norway’s policy with Russia is based on pragmatism, interests, and cooperation.” 

When Russia released a detailed report of its plans for national defense spending between the years of 2010 and 2013, military spending totaled $66.3 billion. In terms of the Arctic, one explanation is that if Russia builds its Arctic naval presence, it’s an additional means of increasing the nation’s de facto Arctic presence and increasing its reputation on the international stage.

But nevertheless, based on official documents, Russia’s Arctic strategy emphasizes pan-Arctic cooperation and energy security associated with access and security of natural resources. Far less attention is given to hard security issues. To make up for a decline in onshore hydrocarbon resources, Arctic resources are increasingly important to the nation’s economic interests. This suggests that Russia wants to eliminate factors that could potentially lead to a heightened resource conflict.

Russia is the largest Arctic coastal state and has much to gain by keeping the Arctic as a region of multilateral cooperation and collaboration. Not only are resources at stake but also the vast potential for commercial shipping and tourism as the Arctic sea ice turns to water. The port of Murmansk, Russia is preparing to become a major shipping container hub for northern Europe and northwest Russia. Furthermore, linked to the port of Churchill, Canada, and known as the Arctic Bridge, this could develop into a major trade route linking Europe, Eurasia, and North America.

Russia does not want to be vilified or pushed out into the cold. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s need to rebuild its economy, Russia has touted Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 sentiment of the Arctic as a “genuine zone of peace and fruitful cooperation.”

Russia and Norway have generally maintained good relations; even at the height of the Cold War era minimal communications remained open. Today the two nations conduct joint naval and air exercises in the Arctic to exercise operational cooperation. The 2010 military drills simulated the release of an oil platform from armed extremists and various other operations. In May 2011, the third Arctic military exercise, known as the Pomor exercise, was conducted primarily in the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea. Those exercises included boarding operations, search and rescue, air defense, navigation, and communication procedures. Head of the National joint headquarters, Norway’s Lieutenant General Bernt Iver Ferdinand Brovold, said, “Last year I said that we had gone from sailing together, to dance together. Now we have learned an even more advanced dance.”

Though not without complexity, relations among the eight Arctic nations—Canada, Denmark via Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States—are characterized as cooperative and collaborative. Little suggests the likelihood of a turn for the worse. However, with the presence of militaries hanging on the sidelines, Arctic relations could be tested but will hopefully serve as a constructive example of pan-national cooperation for other areas rich with natural resources. 



Erica Dingman is a freelance writer and researcher whose work focuses on the Arctic, Inuit, and Canada-United States relations. She holds a master's in International Affairs from The New School.

[Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB]

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