Arctic Experts: "Cannot ignore potential risk"

Professor Michael Byers (University of British Columbia, Canada) is one of the world’s leading experts in Arctic politics, and Elana Wilson Rowe is a Russia expert and Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs. (Photo: Hege Eilersen)
"There is definitely reason to question whether the tense relationship between the USA and Russia may affect cooperation in the Arctic", says Russia expert and Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI) Elana Wilson Rowe and Michael Byers, one of the world’s leading experts in Arctic politics.

"There is definitely reason to question whether the tense relationship between the USA and Russia may affect cooperation in the Arctic," says Russia expert and Senior Researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs (NUPI) Elana Wilson Rowe and Michael Byers, one of the world’s leading experts in Arctic politics.

Last week, international media reported that the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) inspectors have finally been able to collect samples from the Syrian city Douma, where a chemical attack allegedly claimed 40 lives on 7 April.

The horrendous images from the alleged gas attack just outside Damascus was condemned all over the world.

One week after the attack the USA, France and Great Britain bombed Syrian military facilities and headlines about a potential ‘large-scale war’ were all over the news. Experts and analysts all over the world speculated as to how Russia, as Syria’s ally, would react.

While the conflict may appear to be far away from a geographical point of view, both the USA and Russia are Arctic states, holding significant interest in the High North in terms of natural resources, geopolitics and security policy.

Is there any risk that the conflict can spill into the Arctic? Or will the Arctic remain a zone of peace?


Russia still dissatisfied

For years, Russia has strengthened its military presence in the High North and she keeps marking her dissatisfaction with Norway’s and NATO’s security policy. As late as in his recent ‘State of the Union’ speech, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin pointed to NATO as a threat to Russian interest while also demonstrating the country’s new nuclear weapons.

"The first thing we all think about when it comes to Syria is, of course, how horrendous this civil war has been, with more than 400,000 dead and millions of refugees. However, it also carries the potential for even more substantial consequences, simply because of the effect this conflict has had on other countries outside the region. That is why there is reason to ask how it will affect the Arctic too," says NUPI’s Senior Researcher Elana Wilson Rowe to High North News.

Rowe, having international relations in the Arctic as one of her areas of expertise, says there have been several periods in which cooperation in the Arctic has been far easier than what it is today.

"However, we should also keep in mind that Arctic cooperation has always taken place against a backdrop of security policy rivalry between Russia and NATO."

""Everyone"" refers to Gorbachev’s speech in 1987, in which he opened the door for cooperation in the Arctic. However, we forget that in the same speech he also vehemently opposed NATO’s activity and presence in the Arctic. I therefore believe it is important to keep in mind that cooperation in the Arctic has not happened in a political climate of trust, but has rather been historically challenging.


"Weapons have always been there"

Michael Byers, professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, is one of the world’s leading experts on Arctic politics. He reminds us that cooperation in the international High North has always existed in surroundings characterized by military competition.

"The nuclear weapons have been there through the emerging of the Arctic Council, and the nuclear missiles have been in their silos through the last 30 years of cooperation following Gorbachev’s landmark speech. We do not change from complete competition to complete peace just like that."

"The situation consists of several layers, and both factors are present at the same time. What has happened at the Crimea and in Syria does not represent a fundamental change. We have always had these contradicting tensions," he says, and uses international space cooperation to illustrate his example:

"Ever since the 1970s, Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts have cooperated in outer space. And they still do, in a small and intimate place, for six months at a time."

"It is normal, so when things go wrong – as they do in Syria – it does not mean that we see a complete change in the relationship between the countries. You can do two things at the same time. Or, as we say in North America: You can walk and chew gum at the same time."

Cannot ignore potential risk

Elana Wilson Rowe says that formal cooperation through the Arctic Council has only to a limited extent been affected by the conflicts in the Crimea and in Ukraine.

High North politics and Russian foreign policy are among Rowe’s areas of expertise, and the senior researcher says that she in her work also looks at Russian media’s rhetoric on Arctic issues.

"Their rhetoric is mainly focused on peaceful cooperation rather than on the bright future view for getting good PR from Arctic cooperation. There has never been much discourse on the Arctic being a zone of conflict. However, I do believe we have to consider which risks there may be," says the NUPI researcher.

"On the one hand, one could argue that the Arctic has been, and can remain, an arena and channel for discussing other political issues too," she says and brings out an example:

When Arctic Council had a high-level ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden in the spring of 2013, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also took the opportunity to discuss the civil war in Syria. Rowe says that can be explained through it being an appropriate meeting place, as well as through it being considered a more ‘positive’ platform for dialogue.

"If I am to put on my "risk glasses" and assess how the Arctic may change, one could question cooperation and ‘attention’ from the great powers. Russia and the USA have been regional drivers in key moments," she says.

"What will happen if the Arctic as a region does not remain as important, for instance if there were to be lack of funding, political will or diplomatic attention," she asks.

"On the other hand, it is promising to note that even in the last few years, there have been a.o. two important agreements signed in the region. These are the fishery agreement for central Arctic areas, as well as an agreement that is to ease the opportunities for scientific cooperation between the Arctic states. Both Russia and the USA have lead the work to reach these agreements," she reminds us.


"Both sides want peace in the north"

Colleague and professor Byers also points to the Russian economy.

"I believe it is worth noting that the Arctic is a vast, dangerous, remote and expensive place for doing anything at all, including building up military forces and installations. Russia is far weaker today than she was during the Cold War, and it is not in Russia’s interest to have a conflict in this region. The country has enough challenges to the west, south and east," he says and adds:

"Vladimir Putin is a rational man. He wants to keep his northern flank quiet and inexpensive. And I believe the United States and Canada are making similar calculations."

"The USA cannot make up its mind about whether or not to build a new icebreaker. However, it has no problems deciding to build new naval warships in the central Pacific region, or to invest in new nuclear bombs. If we look at where investments are made, the Arctic is definitely a low priority. I believe both sides want to keep this a peaceful zone," Byers says.

The fact that High North policy keeps spilling into and overlapping with international geopolitics that is one of the reasons why Arctic politics is so interesting, Rowe says.

"We have several expert networks, Barents cooperation and to some extent also a broader people-to-people cooperation. When there are problematic high-level political issues, there are still other areas in which cooperation continues or is even strengthened, or declines. However, I do believe – and this is perhaps a particular challenge for Norway, being Russia’s neighbor – that it is all about making it clear that we disagree with and worry about Russia’s actions at the Crimea, while at the same time we have several points of contact and shared challenges," the NUPI researcher reflects.

People-to-people cooperation may suffer

She asks herself how we, both as citizens and as a community, can discuss these issues without constructing a strong image of Russia as an enemy. On a societal level, it takes a long time to change these perceptions, she says. Perhaps they will never quite fade away.

"The people-to-people level is important, however, it will not remain boundlessly robust against a broader deterioration or degrading of the relationship," she remarks and continues:

"People who are interested in being involved with people-to-people cooperation may then experience that that is not well received by the authorities, for instance on a regional level, that this is not something that is wanted."

Byers finds it interesting to look at the different views. He argues that the West has been ‘demonised’ by Russia to a far higher extent than the other way around.

"Russia is not ‘demonised’ by the USA today, despite evidence of election interference in 2016. In fact, the new American president has regularly made statements indicating goodwill towards Russia and her leader."

"We should also keep the role of domestic politics in mind, and remember that government leaders often use the Arctic or ‘the others’ as domestic policy tools. This happens, for instance, in Russia and Canada through their using the Arctic as a means for connecting with nationalist sentiments."

"When we talk about the Arctic and all these calculations, we should always keep these diffiferent levels in mind. A geopolitical point of view can be driven by something as simple as a domestic election," he summarises.

The Arctic is not an issue in American politics today, he says.

"It is an issue in Russian, Norwegian and Canadian domestic policy – but not in the USA. On a political level in the USA, the Arctic is a quiet, faraway place that helps keep international relations stable."


Very special neighborhood

Norway has a quite different relationship with Russia than do e.g. Denmark and Canada, the professor says. Being close neighbors, Russia and Norway are in many ways predestined to cooperate, for instance in case an accident should occur in the Barents Sea and search and rescue operations are needed.

Also read: We Are Doomed to Cooperate, Russian Ambassador Says

"Norway and Russia also have to cooperate in order to avoid accidents or negligence that could lead to conflicts," he says.

Despite most East-West defense cooperation being discontinued, there are still ‘open lines of communication’ between the leadership of the Russian Northern Fleet and the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Joint Headquarters.

Given the relationship between NATO and Russia, I perceive the front line between Norway and Russia to be a good place for day-to-day cooperation, Byers says and brings out an example, this time from December 2014 and the peak of the crisis in the Ukraine.

"A South Korean fishing vessel sank on the Russian side of the Bering Sea. But local Russian officials did not contact Moscow first. Instead, they called  the US Coastguard, simply because it had the nearest equipment and personnel – on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The US Coastguard did not immediately call Washington. They first sent two vessels and a plane to help – in Russian waters. This never became a high level issue because it was all about search and rescue. Incidents like this happen regularly between Russia and the USA, and between Norway and Russia, and these are important relations," the professor stresses.

Byers argues that one sees more or less the same cooperation in the Norwegian/Russian relationship as in the relationship between the USA and Russia around the Bering Strait.

"It is all about being neighbors."

As for NATO’s extensive expulsion of Russian diplomats following the Skripal case in England, he says it is probably just as well that Norway, like Sweden and Finland, has ‘only’ expelled one Russian diplomat.

"You don’t want to expel too many of them, because it is useful to know what they are up to," the professor says with a smile before – in a more serious tone – placing it all into a larger context.

"All this reflects how complex these relationships are. We spy on each other, we try to influence each other’s politics, and we maintain military forces that are ready to fight each other; yet at the same time we cooperate when it comes to environmental issues and search and rescue."

"It is like I said before; we can walk and chew gum at the same time."

"That is what makes this so interesting. I believe that relations are worse now than they were five years ago, however, it is a question about the degree of deterioration rather than any change in the character of the relationship," he says in summary.

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