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Canada’s Arctic Council Protest: Ripple Effect?

By Libby Leyden-Sussler

A “ripple effect,” the spreading effect or series of consequences caused by a single action, is a very real phenomenon in the sea of international politics. One major foreign policy decision can catapult itself into effecting a whole slew of subsequent actions. Such is the case in the recent event of Canada taking a “principled stand” against Russia’s takeover of Crimea by not attending an Arctic Council meeting that was held in Moscow at the end of April.

Prior to this latest development, there has been no shortage of tension between the West and Russia over Ukraine. “The Canadian government has pushed a relatively offensive agenda against the Russian incursion into Crimea and the Ukraine,” explains Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an Arctic expert with the Danish Institute for International Studies.

“For instance, Ottawa pushed for an expulsion of Russia from the G8 early on. Canada has decided to take a tough stance on this and it sees the Arctic as one of the venues where it has an opportunity to punish the Russians.”

As the conflict in Ukraine developed, all eight members of the Arctic Council continued to maintain a facade of normalcy, using the most recent successful senior-level meeting in Yellowknife as proof that nothing would change.

The Arctic Council, up until this point, has evaded great controversy. “So far, the Arctic nations have agreed to see the region as isolated from other matters. They all have an interest in keeping a good working relationship with one another and the Arctic Council has been characterized by a spirit of cooperation,” says Rahbek-Clemmensen. “The Canadian boycott is a move away from this consensus and it will affect how the nations deal with one another. The size of the impact depends on Russia’s reaction and whether the other Arctic nations decide to follow suit.”

Russian military forces near Ukrainian military base.

When the conflict first began, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, ordered a number of military exercises to make it known that his country was stepping up its presence in the Arctic. He also announced he would build a new naval base, purchase new military equipment and create a state agency to co-ordinate Arctic policy. All of these actions could potentially increase Russia’s lead in an Arctic arms race.

At the end of the day however, cooperation with Russia is in Canada’s interests. “It’s only when one starts to consider Canada’s extra-regional interests—the relationship to the United States, a general wish to strengthen NATO and to punish Russian aggression—that the boycott makes sense,” concludes Rahbek-Clemmensen.  

Regardless of how Ottawa decides to proceed, there is no doubt that maintaining business as usual for Arctic cooperation, despite the Ukrainian crisis, will be no seamless feat. Instead, the level of cooperation concerning the Arctic region will vary according to the interests of the different states. They could decide to use the Arctic as an arena for penalizing Russia further, or use it to engage Russia in dialogue. Smaller Arctic coast states, such as Denmark and Norway, will probably not go down the same route as Canada. Their relationship with Russia is too important to them to jeopardize it.

But the U.S. might decide to join the boycott if the conflict continues to escalate. With all that said, it’s important to note that Russia is the largest of all Arctic actors. Having it on board on the region-related agreements is essential to ensure continued development in the Arctic. Will the Canada's "ripple effect" continue, or will the Arctic Council overlook the increasingly hostile situation in Crimea?

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Libby Leyden-Sussler is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
 
[Photos courtesy of Arctic Council and Wikimedia]

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