Op-Ed: Coast Guard Cooperation with Russia in the Arctic

The Coast Guard wessel CG Svalbard W303 and the Russian wessel "Arctic Princess" in Recherchefjorden outside Svalbard in winter season. (Photo: Torbjørn Kjosvold/Forsvaret)
HNN’s correspondent Andreas Østhagen writes about Coast Guard cooperation with Russia in the Arctic and how this has been largely untouched by the Ukraine crisis.

When the relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated in 2014, military-to-military contact between the parties halted. Despite this, most forms of cooperation between the various coast guards in the Arctic have been untouched. Why?

Beyond the virtue of maintaining cooperation for the sake of dialogue, the vitality of this specific form of cooperation lies in the so-called soft security tasks intrinsic within the coast guards’ role as maritime stewards. In addition, meticulous low-level regime-building has been taking place in the Arctic between Russia and its maritime neighbours for decades.

Holding two opposing ideas at the same time, both Norway and the United States have recognized that cooperation on low-level coast guard issues can be kept separate from a strong symbolic response in reaction to Russian actions in Ukraine.

You don’t get to choose your neighbours

Due to its territorial vastness, Russia shares a maritime boundary with a total of 14 countries.  Two of the most prominent in terms of length and maritime space are found in the Arctic, namely with Norway in the Barents Sea and the United States in the Bering Sea.

As international negotiations concerning the extension of maritime exclusive economic zones (EEZs) were finalized in the 1970s and 1980s, the demand for cooperative mechanisms in the Bering and Barents Seas increased. Efforts to deal with migrating fish stocks and joint emergency preparedness and response were developed between the US and the USSR, and Norway and the USSR, as the countries claimed their new maritime boundaries.

In turn, these efforts have come to define much of the bilateral relationships in the Arctic. At the end of the Cold War these measures were further formalized. The Joint Fisheries Commission between Norway and Russia expanded its mandate in the 1990s. The maritime border between the USSR and the US was settled in 1990, while an agreement concerning fisheries in the so-called Donut Hole was agreed upon in 1994.

At the start of the new millennium, cooperative measures in these two border regions were given new attention as the Arctic rose in international prominence and emerged as a global hotspot. In Norway, the elevation of the Arctic as the number one strategic foreign policy priority coincided with the failed arrest of the Russian trawler Elektron in 2005, and the subsequent focus on maritime activities in the Barents Sea.

In the United States, arctic affairs came to the fore in tandem with Shell’s offshore efforts in the Chukchi Sea. The focus turned to enabling the US Coast Guard to deal with an expected increase in maritime traffic, while the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2015-2017) has placed ocean governance at the top of the agenda. Many of the US’ efforts have targeted Russia specifically, with an aim to expand cooperative measures between the two countries.

Norway and the US have thus both emphasized the importance of the maritime dimension of their Arctic engagement and, in doing so, recognize the need to cooperate with Russia due to their integral role in the bilateral border relations.

The softer side of things

Central to our understanding of coast guards is the concept of soft security. This entails moving away from a narrower definition of security revolving around the security of the state itself.  Albeit part of the armed forces, the coast guards are arguably not primarily hard security actors. Instead, they serve as the police of the sea. Coast guards are also not one coherent entity, as the institutional set-ups span from military to civilian.

The Norwegian coast guard, for example, reports that it spends between 60 and 70 percent of its resources on fisheries inspections. Coast guards enforce national legislation aimed at protecting the states’ interests while providing public services at sea. This does not downplay the role they can and do play in military operations when required. On an everyday basis, however, the tasks coast guards perform a whole range of tasks, many of which are civilian in nature.

As relationships with Russia came under scrutiny in both Norway and the US, maritime collaboration was considered indispensable. Had the cooperation only consisted of traditional military tasks, the states would have had less of an incentive to continue cooperation. The fact that coast guards perform a whole range of civilian tasks, however, sheltered them from the larger deterioration in relations that took place—in particular regarding military cooperation.

For example, when a South Korean fishing vessel with 60 crew on-board sunk in the Bering Sea 109 nautical miles off the Russian coast of Chukotka on November 30, 2014, the Russian Kamchatka Border Guard District requested US Coast Guard assistance. Several US Coast Guard assets participated in the search for survivors, and so-called low level contact was upheld.

The Arctic Coast Guard Forum

In a multilateral context, the establishment of an Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) provides another example of how coast guard issues are kept separate from broader geopolitical developments. The stated purpose of the Forum is to develop relationships between Arctic states on a practical level and to form a community focused on operational activities. The ACGF can help enhance this collaboration as activity increases. Particularly the sharing of information and identification of best practice are areas of focus for the Forum, which can help tackle the overarching capability and capacity problems in the Arctic.

In 2014 representatives from the Russian coast guard could not obtain visas to participate in two ACGF expert meetings in Sydney, Canada—home to Canada’s Coast Guard College—and the establishment of the proposed Forum was placed on hold. However, after the initial halt setback, the Forum was formally established between all eight Arctic states in October 2015, with the US hosting the meeting at the US Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. During this process, both Norway and the US stressed the need to keep political channels open and practical cooperation in their maritime border areas unharmed. This was precisely a result of the perceived need to separate between the high and low level of political cooperation.

Two opposing ideas

For both Norway and the US, coast guard cooperation with Russia is placed in the context of long-standing bilateral relationships as maritime neighbours in the Arctic. Having formalized cooperation through the exchange of information and joint exercises, the cost of tearing down decades of relationship-building in the Arctic was considered too high by both Norway and the United States. Neighbouring states are dependent on dialogue across borders which, in turn, must be kept somewhat separate from the domain of overarching international diplomacy. That this cooperation survived the tensions over the on-going conflict in Ukraine is indicative of as much.

Coast guard cooperation in the Arctic serves as a pragmatic example of how regional relations cannot be reduced to simplistic foe or friend depictions. Scott Fitzgerald argued in 1936 that the test of first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Balancing the need to react to Russian actions in Ukraine with a pragmatic understanding of the value of low-level cooperation, decision-makers in both Norway and the United States seem to have passed his test.

This commentary was originally posted as a part of The Arctic Institute’s Security in Dialogue Series on June 7, 2016.