Op-Ed: Why military security should be kept out of the Arctic Council

Ice Camp Sargo, located in the Arctic Circle, serves as the main stage for Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2016. (Source: US Navy/Creative Commons)
As geopolitical tensions grow in the rest of the world, the Arctic Council remains an effective forum for international cooperation between arctic states, including Russia and the US.

As geopolitical tensions grow in the rest of the world, the Arctic Council remains an effective forum for international cooperation between arctic states, including Russia and the US.

This is largely due to the members’ commitment to keep the forum depoliticized. Bringing military security issues into the Arctic Council could risk damaging the current cooperation and coordination between arctic states and indigenous communities on important issues such as climate change, environmental issues, health, and scientific research.

When the Arctic Council was established as a high level forum in 1996, the main goal was to enhance cooperation on environmental protection and sustainable economic development in the region. The Arctic Council has proved to be a successful forum for interstate cooperation in the region, but as the geopolitical situation in the world has changed some have argued that the Arctic Council is due for a change. In a recent report by the Washington, D.C. based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Heather Conley presents a scenario in which the Arctic Council is redesigned into an OSCE-like structure. Under this design, the Arctic Council would cover three main areas—an economic dimension, a human dimension, and a security dimension.

Although it is true that both the world and the Arctic looks different today than in 1996, traditional hard security issues have been left out of the Arctic Council for a reason. In times when tensions between Russia and the West are rising in the rest in the world, it is particularly important that these tensions do not spoil one of the few remaining arenas where these countries still participate in constructive cooperation; the Arctic. That being said, arctic states must still be prepared to face the new security challenges that are arising in the region.

A changing Arctic: economic resources and increased commercial activity

Environmental change is opening the region for increased economic, military, and human activity. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, affecting communities through melting sea ice, thawing permafrost, and coastal erosion. The Arctic is believed to hold vast amounts of undiscovered oil and gas resources, causing various media outlets to predict a "race for the Arctic." While natural resources are of great interest for arctic countries, exploration activities  have not lived up to these predictions.

First of all, arctic nations have expressed and practiced a commitment to international law in the region. The most relevant legal regime is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs who has the sovereign right to explore and exploit marine resources. Countries that have begun resource exploration and exploitation in the region, such as Norway, Russia, and the US, have done so within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Secondly, most arctic resources are located in undisputed areas of the Arctic. That is to say that, for the most part, these resources can be found within the already settled EEZs of the arctic coastal states. Thirdly, these resources are not easily accessible due to the challenging geographic and climatic conditions, the large amounts of initial capital required, and the high cost of extraction. This, coupled with recent low oil prices, has caused many oil companies to pull out of the Arctic. For instance, Shell pulled out of the Chukchi Sea after only a month of exploratory drilling in the fall of 2015. Following this, Statoil also pulled out of the Alaskan Arctic due to high costs and low oil prices.

Another aspect focusing attention on the Arctic region is the possibility of transpolar shipping. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the Russian coast, for example, reduces the sailing distance between some ports in Asia and Europe by 40% compared to the route through the Suez Canal. The reduced sailing distance has spurred interest from Asian countries, and in the fall of 2015 China’s biggest shipping company COSCO announced plans to launch regular services along the NSR. However, numbers show that international shipping through the NSR has decreased in the last few years. The navigation season of the NSR is currently too short for investments in ice-class vessels to be economically viable, and even Russian officials have stated that the NSR cannot be an alternative to the Suez Canal. The NSR is nevertheless essential for domestic shipping in Russia, and is expected to become even more important in transporting Russian oil and gas.

Although the narrative of a race to the Arctic is incorrect, the changes in the Arctic that are opening the region to increased commercial activity in a harsh and remote environment require safety and security measures. The extreme climatic situations combined with very limited satellite communication—this is because the current orbital configurations limit the effectiveness of communication satellites in the Arctic—require that countries cooperate in order to ensure safe and secure activity in the region.

A changing geopolitical environment

“Russia shows increased willingness and ability to use a wide range of instruments to achieve its political goals, and the modernization of its military powers enhances the ability to influence, also in the High North,” reads a recent report by the Norwegian Intelligence Service. There is no doubt that the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has had a negative effect on the general geopolitical climate between Russia and Western countries. The sanctions regime is still intact and has been adopted by all  members of the Arctic Council , either through membership in the EU or NATO. Additionally, the Russian military has been modernized during the past decade. For example, since 2008 there has been a modernization of the Russian Navy (particularly the Northern Fleet), a reopening of military bases in the Arctic, large military exercises, and creation of Arctic brigades and command centers. The re-establishment of military infrastructure in the Russian Arctic has been a cause of concern, especially for neighboring countries like Norway and the Baltic states. Not least, the intervention in Ukraine, and recently in Syria, show that Russia is a military power capable of going to war.

However, it can be argued that the concerns over Russia’s role in the Arctic have been alarmist rather than alarming. First, the opening of the Arctic region gives Russia a legitimate reason for modernizing and prioritizing Arctic capabilities in order to secure its borders and protect its economic activities in the region. With increased commercial activity in the region comes the need to prepare for threats such as piracy, terrorist attacks, illegal fishing, and illegal arms transportation. After the Cold War, the military bases in the Russian Arctic were to a large extent abandoned and it is understandable that the Russian government sees the need to modernize aging infrastructure.

Second, how much the Russian military activity in the Arctic has increased over the last few years is up for discussion. According to the head of the Norwegian Joint Command Headquarters Lieutenant General Haga Lunde, “the situation in the High North is close to normal compared to the activity of the last years.” The US Department of State’s Special Representative for the Arctic, Admiral Papp has stated that “everything we have seen them [Russia] doing so far, is lawful, considered and deliberative. So we’ll just continue monitoring it and not over-react to it.” It is also likely that the new focus on the intervention in Syria, and the recent conflict with Turkey, will take the focus at least partly away from the Arctic. Facing economic troubles, it will be difficult for Russia to keep up military spending both in the Arctic and elsewhere. Third, the climatic conditions make traditional forms of warfare very difficult in the Arctic. Retired Chief of the Canadian Defence Staff, Gen. Natynczyk said in 2009, “If someone were to invade the Canadian Arctic, my first task would be to rescue them.”

While neighboring states and their allies should monitor Russian capabilities in the Arctic closely, it is incorrect to label these developments an “Arctic problem.” Russia’s military modernization in the Arctic is part of a larger Russian strategy as a global power and a more assertive foreign policy. The West (NATO in particular) is naturally a big obstacle for this strategy, and the military build-up in the Arctic is a part of a general “balancing” act with NATO rather than specifically related to the Arctic. This is also reflected in Russia’s updated national security strategy (2015), where the word “Arctic” is mentioned only three times: once in connection to the region’s resources, once with regards to international cooperation, and once describing the need for improved infrastructure. The foreign policy focus lies on “consolidating the Russian federation’s status as one of the leading world powers.” It also explicitly identifies the expanding NATO as a threat to Russian national security and asserts that the US and its allies are trying to contain Russia in order to maintain their role in the world. Russia’s willingness to cooperate with NATO countries in the Arctic, however, suggests that it has a different view of the West here than in other parts of the world.  

The Arctic Council and security

A footnote in the Ottawa Declaration establishing the Arctic Council in 1996 states that the Council should not deal with matters related to military security. In 2008 the five Arctic coastal states (US, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark) reaffirmed their commitment to the current institutional framework in the Arctic through the Ilulissat Declaration, declaring that they see “no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic region.” Additionally, the official Arctic policies of all of the Arctic coastal states underline strong commitment to international cooperation and law in the region—including those of the US and Russia.

Despite the exclusion of military security, the Arctic Council has come a long way in facing some of the softer security challenges, such as environmental security and emergency preparedness in a region with increasing commercial activity. This is exemplified by two important legally binding agreements: the 2011 Search and Rescue Agreement and the 2013 Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response Agreement. These both clearly move into the realm of human and environmental security. Additionally, in the fall of 2015, the eight Arctic states (including Russia) established the Arctic Coast Guard Forum (ACGF) in order to improve the response to coast guard missions in the region, such as search and rescue, enforcement of regulations, and emergency response. The ACGF is independent of the Arctic Council, but will complement several of its working groups focusing on economic development and environmental safety. Coast guards perform important military or semi-military tasks in the region, such as national law enforcement and upholding a naval presence.  Although the ACGF faces many challenges, it shows that the arctic states are able and willing to cooperate on security issues with a clear military component even during turbulent political times. Beyond specific tasks like search and rescue, the ACGF will develop relationships and contribute to information sharing that will ultimately work as a confidence building measure between the Arctic states.

Is the Arctic Council immune from geopolitical tensions?

Following the Ukraine crisis there were some initial signs that the Arctic Council was affected by the new geopolitical climate. In April 2014, Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. However, it has been argued that this incident is not convincing proof of a spillover effect. All other meetings of the Arctic Council and its working groups and task forces were held with all Arctic states present. The process of developing the ACGF came to a standstill after the annexation of Crimea, as representatives from Russia were not included in two expert meetings in 2014. The reality is that without Russia the Arctic Council or the ACGF would be pointless, and would instead further contribute to the tensions between Russia and the West. At the same time, Russia depends on a positive relationship with other Arctic states—for example for advancing economic development in the region.

These attempts to use the Arctic as a proxy for external geopolitical challenges suggest that bringing hard security issues into the Arctic Council may be counterproductive. By discussing or implementing rules on military conduct in the Arctic, arctic states will face disagreements that may spill over to other important issues under the purview of the Arctic Council. What will happen if some states do not abide by the rules? Will possible sanctions contribute to further exacerbating the relationship between western countries and Russia?

That being said, arctic states cannot ignore the fact that there may be a need for additional confidence building measures and rules about military conduct in the future if the military modernization in the region continues along with a difficult political environment. However, such efforts should be made outside of the Arctic Council in order to minimize the possible effects on the Council’s work. The ball is now in the West’s court. As a part of the international reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in eastern Ukraine, a large part of military cooperation between NATO states and Russia has been suspended. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea, the US announced that it would cancel planned military exercises with Russia and other arctic nations, such as the biannual Northern Eagle exercise. Russian participation in other northern exercises or visits have also been cancelled or affected. In addition, important platforms for security cooperation between Western countries and Russia have been cancelled, suspended or held without Russian participation, such as the Arctic/Northern Chiefs of Defense meetings and the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable.

This makes it difficult for arctic states to take further measures to cooperate on military security issues in the region. If the arctic NATO states are serious about continuing peaceful cooperation in the Arctic, they may want to consider reopening some of the forums for military cooperation. The first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council since June 2014 that was held this month is a step in the right direction. Although Russia and NATO did not bridge any major differences during the meeting, they were able to discuss issues related to military activities and express differences.

All in all, increased military presence in the Arctic is something all arctic states should closely monitor. The military modernization and the difficult political environment is a major reason for arctic countries to consider military cooperation and other confidence building measures where Russia is included. The longer they wait to do so, the harder it will be to create such arenas. However, bringing these issues into the Arctic Council is counterproductive and may spoil the existing cooperation on other important issues that are vital to the safe, secure, and sustainable development of the region.

This commentary was originally posted as a part of The Arctic Institute’s Security in Dialogue Series on June 2, 2016.