Cooperation with Russia in the Arctic is Virtually Impossible Says US Official

Ice Camp Sargo
Ice Camp Sargo, located in the Arctic Circle, during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. (Source: U.S. Navy photo/Specialist 2nd Class Tyler)

Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has ended decades of cooperation and collaboration in the Arctic, a US State Department official stated at a high-level event on the region. The US aims to resume projects in the Arctic Council that do not involve Russia and specifically emphasized working closely with Norway going forward.

The US continues to step up its Arctic engagement. After announcing the nomination of Mike Sfraga as the country’s first-ever Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Region earlier this week, officials of the US Arctic Research Commission (USARC) released their goals for 2023-24 during an event at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute.

The event represented the first-ever public rollout of thee Commission’s goals, as noted by keynote speaker Alaska Senator Murkowski (R).

“The emphasis that is placed on the Far North is really ramping up, it is really starting to happen on multiple levels,” explained Murkowski.

In the nearly 40-year history of the USARC it was the first time that the commission released its two-year goals as part of an event. 

“This is the first time there is this big public push. Why? Because we need to share what we are doing in this space. People want to know,” elaborated Murkowski.

Russia has the most territory and population north of the Arctic Circle.
Derek Chollet, Counselor at the US State Department

Apart from presenting the USARC’s goals, which for the first time includes a chapter on Arctic Economics to better understand where the region’s potential, such as Arctic shipping, may or may not lie, the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the Arctic was a core issue.

Derek Chollet
Derek Chollet is the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)
Derek Chollet is the Counselor of the U.S. Department of State. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

“Russia's unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine has upended decades of cooperation and collaboration. Among the eight Arctic states, Russia has the most territory and population north of the Arctic Circle. It is an important Arctic nation. But Moscow's decision to invade its neighbor, an independent and sovereign state, makes cooperation virtually impossible for [the] foreseeable future,” outlined Derek Chollet, Counselor at the US State Department. 

He outlined how the significantly more challenging international situation – vis-à-vis Russia but also China – impacts and is interconnected with the Arctic.

However, this trend of more complicated cooperation in the Arctic precedes last year’s invasion, Chollet elaborated.

“Even before launching the largest European conflict since the Second World War, Moscow began an aggressive program of remilitarization of the Arctic. It began building or modernizing bases, expanding its icebreaker fleet and developing and testing dangerous naval weapon systems. This ran counter to maintaining the High North as a region of low tension.”

A closer alliance

These challenges extend beyond Russia alone.

“The People's Republic of China continues to pursue influence in the Arctic,” stated Chollet. 

The country is now heavily involved in the development of the region’s natural resources and receives significant volumes of Arctic gas and oil from Russia. 

Closer political and military cooperation between Russia and China in the region is also worrying development.

“Beijing stood side by side with Moscow, as declared in their February 4, 2022 manifesto, and together they have increased military cooperation in the Arctic. Last October saw a joint Russian and PRC patrol in the Bering Sea. This is of concern to the United States as well as to our allies and partners throughout the region and beyond,” State Department official Chollet warned.

We do not anticipate that Russia will change.
Derek Chollet, Counselor at the US State Department

Need for closer cooperation

Relating the geopolitical issues back to the efforts and goals of the US Arctic Research Commission, Chollet explained that the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on scientific cooperation has been significant. 

“Unfortunately, we do not anticipate that Russia will change its behavior anytime soon. Adjusting to this new reality forced upon us by Moscow, we resume the Arctic Council's projects not involving Russia,” Chollet painted a path forward.

He also emphasized the importance of working with US Allies in the region for both security and research purposes and specifically mentioned the relationship with Norway.

“We are working with Norway and other like-minded Arctic states about the way ahead. We are redoubling our cooperation with like minded Arctic states on security, research, natural resource development and the environment,” Chollet concluded.

The remarks align with a recent assessment by the Norwegian intelligence service which sees Norway’s geopolitical standing enhanced over the past year.

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