Russia has more land than Canada

Arms race in the Arctic

Since the announcement of the new Arctic Strategy for Russia by President Vladimir Putin in February 20131, a worrying arms race has been observed in the Arctic. The Russian armed forces are in the process of putting old Soviet bases on the Siberian coast and on the offshore peninsulas and islands back into operation. During the ice-free months, the navy and air force transport large amounts of military material to the northern areas in order to make abandoned airfields, abandoned shack settlements and ports filled with junk functional again. In addition, modern monitoring and communication centers are being built.

The “retrofitting” of the western Arctic states, on the other hand, seems very modest. Norway, a neighbor of Russia, is limiting itself to an organic growth of its military potential stationed in the northern provinces, but has increased its training activities - especially with its NATO partners. Since the Ukraine crisis, however, joint exercises with Russian armed forces have been suspended.

Since the Canadian government focuses on ensuring its sovereignty and security, it has primarily strengthened its ranger force, which consists of indigenous personnel, and is increasingly allowing them to practice together with the Canadian armed forces in order to increase their operational capability. In the USA, there is growing pressure, especially from the Senators from Alaska, to procure new heavy icebreakers suitable for use in the Behring and Beaufort Seas, in addition to the medium-sized icebreaker “Healey”, which is mostly used as a research vessel, or the mothballed ships of the To make coastguards "Polar Star" and "Polar Sea" afloat again.

Many observers see the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria as new evidence of increased aggressiveness in Russian politics. Could the Arctic become a “sideline” to global crises? Or could there be a fight for raw materials?

In the far north, however, the risk of a military conflict has not increased. Most of the deposits of raw materials of interest to Russia are located on its territory, on the continental shelf or in the Exclusive Economic Zone of Russia. The Arctic sea borders are not in dispute either. The differences of opinion about the status of the territorial waters around the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago are also unlikely to be attempted by force to be resolved by Russia. During a trial of strength with the Norwegian coast guard in a fishing dispute, Moscow gave in very quickly a few years ago.

In view of the close political and military ties between the USA and Canada, it is difficult to imagine a military solution to the dispute between the two North American states over the course of the maritime border in the Beaufort Sea. Tensions between the USA and Canada arise due to the different views on the international legal status of the Northwest Passage (NWP), which leads through the Arctic archipelago of Canada. Ottawa regards this as a national sea route; it claims sovereignty over this and makes passage dependent on prior approval. The USA and most other states, on the other hand, assume that it is an international waterway in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. In the meantime, the USA and Canada have agreed on the face-saving formula of an "agree to disagree", i.e. they acknowledge that they have different views on this issue.

More serious are the claims of Moscow on the Lomonossow ridge off the Siberian coast, on the northwestern slope of which the North Pole lies. Russian prestige thinking is involved here and a compromise is therefore difficult. Russia's claims are largely covered by a clause in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, according to which coastal states can, under certain conditions, make claims to shelf areas that represent extensions of their continental shelf.


A conflict-free space

However, the Arctic is currently a largely conflict-free area. Neither the dispute between the USA and Canada in the Beaufort Sea nor the squabbling between Ottawa and Denmark / Greenland over the national affiliation of Hans Island in the Nares Strait should be forcibly settled between the two allied countries. It has already been explained why neither Canada nor Russia should try to resolve their differences militarily. Overall, this means that while there are hot spots in the Arctic, the countries concerned prefer a peaceful settlement to a violent one.

Two developments have contributed to the cooperative relationships between the countries bordering the Arctic. On the one hand, climate change and the associated warming and its consequences affect all Arctic states in a way that only allows joint solutions. On the other hand, they can make use of a regional institutional set of instruments created for this purpose in the 1990s.

The adoption of an Arctic Environmental Strategy (AEPS) served to preserve human habitat and the biosphere, from which the Arctic Council (AR) developed as a coordination group in 1996. Founded to implement the AEPS, it became an important forum for voting among the eight Arctic countries: Denmark with Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Canada, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA. Although it was set up as an intergovernmental forum for consultation and not as a supranational organization, the cooperation is close. Within this framework, several treaties were agreed between the Arctic states, which were then concluded under national responsibility. These include the Treaty on Rescue at Sea, the Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Marine Oil and a mandatory “Polar Code” with regulations for shipping in Arctic waters.

With the institution of the Senior Arctic Officials as a permanent body of civil servants to prepare the biennial ministerial meetings and to implement its decisions, the establishment of a secretariat in Tromsø and the appointment of an Icelandic general secretary, the council received stronger institutional structures. The further institutionalization desired by the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, has so far failed due to resistance from the North American partners and Russia. They do not want to accept any restrictions on their sovereignty with regard to their arctic regions.

The Ukraine crisis has so far had little impact on the peaceful situation in the Arctic region. Interestingly, when it assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May 2015, it was the US that insisted that tensions with Russia should not escalate. Washington acted on the Canadian government so that it was limited to symbolic gestures. Ottawa only sends high-ranking officials instead of the Foreign Minister to the meetings of the AR and its committees if Russian representatives also take part.

The Norwegian government canceled joint maneuvers with Russian forces. For its part, Moscow resumed its patrol flights over the Atlantic and increased domestic political pressure on international and foreign-funded institutions, which it requested to register as a "foreign agent" and whose activities it restricted. This law got RAIPON, the Russian organization of the indigenous peoples of the north, into trouble. Since it receives little financial support from the Russian Federation, it can only carry out its international work with the support of its partner organizations abroad. The Arctic region itself has remained largely shielded from conflicts in other regions.


Reasons for cooperative behavior

A particular success in 2010 was the treaty to end the conflict between Norway and Russia over the course of the common border in the Barents Sea. After more than 40 years of negotiations, it was settled amicably in 2010 with the Norwegian-Russian Barents Agreement. The motives for entering into the Barents Sea Treaty and Russia's willingness to compromise are easy to explain. A study by the US Geographic Service, published in 2008, indicated that the North Atlantic and the Barents Sea are among the most promising oil and gas reservoirs in the world. Geologists encountered extremely productive gas fields off the Norwegian coast and in Finnmark. "Snøhvit" (Snow White) is particularly well-known and is bordered by other deposits. The gas is liquefied in plants, some of which are built below sea level, and then loaded onto special liquefied gas tankers and shipped.

Several large gas fields were also prospected in the eastern Barents Sea off the Novaya Zemlya peninsula. For the development of the Shtokman field, for example, Russia needs Western technologies and loans. However, investments by foreign companies are only possible if the ownership structure has been clarified beforehand. This was the main motive for Moscow to give way in the border dispute. Economic interests spoke in favor of a compromise on the border issue and made the agreement with Oslo easier.


Opportunities for collaboration

A milestone in the cooperation was the agreement reached in 2015 for shipping within the framework of the International Maritime Organization of a mandatory maritime “Polar Code”, which laid down guidelines for the construction, equipment and manning of ships in transit in the polar regions. Contracting parties are not only the Arctic states, but the code is open to all seafaring nations to join. However, the Arctic states decisively advanced and shaped the negotiations.

A more symbolic success was the adoption of a declaration in which the five riparian states undertook to refrain from commercial fishing in the central area of ​​the Arctic Ocean until a regional fisheries agreement has been concluded. They could do this easily too, as there is hardly any fishing in this area so far. Another joint step was the establishment of a Coast Guard forum to coordinate the work of the national coast guards, which met for the first time in October 2015 at the American Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut. The tasks of the coast guard are to prevent violations of the national territory, to prevent unauthorized access by terrorists and migrants and to provide rapid assistance in emergencies at sea.

The Sea Rescue Agreement (SAR) negotiated for years by the AR members, in which the Arctic states undertake to provide assistance to ships in distress or to crashed aircraft, as well as their crews and passengers, is of great practical importance for shipping in the Far North come. During the drafting process, the AR states made sure that this agreement was drafted only by themselves. Offers of advice and assistance from the UK and German governments, both of whom have extensive experience in the SAR field, have been rejected.

However, given the long and sparsely populated Arctic coasts of Russia and Canada, implementation of the agreement is fraught with difficulties. While Canada and the USA lack sea-going icebreakers for rescue operations, Russia lacks suitable logistics on the Siberian coasts along the Northern Sea Route. The removal of the large amounts of Russian nuclear scrap - decommissioned and sunk in the Behring Sea or nuclear submarines that are rotting away in the ports, some with still functional reactors on board, as well as radioactive sea marks - can only be done within a foreseeable period with international help, for example possible with Norwegian and German support. However, the government in Moscow is trying hard not to ring this up. An admission of one's own ineptitude goes against the leadership of a country that is constantly striving to demonstrate its superiority, since it sees itself in the role of a victim surrounded by enemies.


Russia is arming

Many observers are following with concern the growth of Russian armaments in the Arctic, which is being promoted both on the coasts of the Barents Sea and along the Northern Sea Route and the islands and peninsulas off Siberia as far as Chukotka and the Bering Strait. After the end of the Soviet Union, the bases were dissolved, the soldiers withdrawn and mountains of scrap, rusted ships and empty oil drums left behind. The bunkers, in which nuclear missiles were once stored, have become tourist attractions.

In the summer of 2014, however, there was brisk shipping traffic for the transport of military equipment between the few ports on the coast and the offshore islands. During the ice-free months of the following year, the Russian armed forces worked hard to restore the old airfields, observation stations and accommodation.

When trying to assess the dangers of Russian armament, it is important to distinguish between capabilities, possibilities, and intentions. A closer look at the military measures first confirms the Russian insurance that these are strictly defensive measures. The Russian bases on the coasts of Siberia, on the White Sea and on the Kola Peninsula as well as on the offshore islands, which are indeed substantial, are necessary to secure the passage as well as to implement the sea rescue agreement agreed in the Arctic Council. Of course, with its armaments in the Arctic, Russia is also pursuing the goal of projecting power and the intention of preventing the West from interfering.

However, Russia's far-reaching claims to parts of the Arctic coastal shelf may raise concerns. Many observers fear that in the event of a negative decision by the UN Continental Shelf Boundary Commission on the affiliation of the Lomonosov Ridge from Russia's point of view, Moscow could oppose this legal ruling and thus trigger a conflict. However, since the UN Commission is overwhelmed with applications in accordance with UN maritime law, it should take another five years for a decision to be reached.

What would it look like? It is conceivable that a squad of Russian paratroopers would then land in the disputed area and hoist the Russian flag on the ice. However, since such an action would have no legal effect - just like the placement of a plaque with the Russian national colors under the North Pole in May 2007 - the other states with claims to this area (Canada and Denmark for Greenland) would hardly resort to military countermeasures. Rather, they would send armored protest notes to Moscow - which also had no effect. Only the lucrative tourist trips to the North Pole by Russian nuclear icebreakers with mostly well-paying European guests would be made more difficult.


National interests come first

The willingness to cooperate between the Arctic states always ends, however, where either other core interests come into play or the national sovereignty over their Arctic areas is affected. Canada, Russia and the USA in particular are always careful not to allow any breaches of sovereignty in their large, sparsely populated and poorly developed arctic territories. Canada in particular uses its rangers, which are mostly recruited from local Inuit, primarily to assert sovereignty according to the motto of its former President Stephen Harper: "Use it or loose it."

Canada is also the Arctic state that has most heavily regulated the passage through its passages. On his initiative, paragraph 234 was added to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, according to which Arctic states can issue special rules for the passage through ice-covered sea areas and passages.

Russia also has specific regulations for entry and transit through the Northern Sea Route. The rule that applied until a few years ago that every single ship in a convoy had to be escorted by an icebreaker was primarily aimed at obtaining higher fees. Fees will continue to be charged, but they seem a little more appropriate. The issuing of visas and permits for the landing of expedition and cruise ships is also expensive in Russia - and at the same time reserves the right to change already approved routes and landings at short notice.

The harsh arctic climate, months of darkness, and thundering storms further limit shipping and human activities in the polar region. The gradual thawing of glaciers and sea ice not only has the effect of limiting the habitat of polar bears and other marine and land dwellers, but also contributes to the destabilization and retreat of the coastlines.On land, the melting of the permafrost leads to the release of large amounts of carbon dioxide; it undermines the stability of transportation routes, oil and gas pipelines, and human habitation.

Since the challenges posed by the consequences of climate change affect all those bordering the Arctic, they can only overcome them together. This forces the states - at least in the northern region - to forego military threats. You get a greater benefit from mutual coordination and cooperation.

Prof. Dr. Helga Haftendorn taught international relations at the Free University of Berlin until the end of 2000.