As temperatures rise in the Arctic, so do geopolitical tensions
Background and Context of Arctic Governance
In the context of climate change and tense global politics, who is responsible for the Arctic? Further, who should be responsible for the Arctic? The eight Arctic states – Canada, Russia, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and the United States of America – have territorial claims in the Arctic, and thus the domestic laws of each country play a large role in how the Arctic is governed. These eight nations comprise the Arctic Council, established in 1996 (Ottawa Declaration, 1996), which provides a platform for intergovernmental (Arctic Council, 2020).
Intergovernmental cooperation increases in importance due to the rapidly changing geography of the Arctic region. As sea ice melts, it is becoming easier to access previously locked-away oil and gas reserves and safer to navigate maritime routes (Käpylä, J. & Mikkola, H., 2016). Certain countries see these changes as having immense economic and political advantages. For example, Russia has been actively working to restore former Soviet Siberian military bases and has been developing new operational bases to cement its political superiority in the Arctic (Wallace, 2019).
The Russian Perspective
Russia’s motivation to secure its presence in the Arctic may not just be about military strength, but their country’s survival (Hille, 2016). Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia invested in building vast permanent settlements, large industrial facilities, and Arctic infrastructure. After the collapse, the money and resources driving these communities dried up. Russia had been using the (NSR) to transport goods to remote settlements but, after the fall of the Soviet Union, use of this passage halted. Due to changing conditions, Russia sees a new opportunity to save some of its infrastructure and recover some economic growth and prosperity that they may have lost (Hille, 2016).
The NSR saves voyagers 10-15 days on average compared to the common route. For two to four months every year the trip is manageable without the use of icebreakers. Russia hopes to turn the NSR into a yearlong icebreaker-free journey just from now in 2030. Russia’s position is made clear by Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister: “The Americans think that only themselves can alter the music and make the rules. In terms of the NSR, this is our national transport artery. That is obvious.” (Astrasheuskaya & Foy, 2019).
Such a strong position is bound to be contested by other countries, like the United States and China, who are all vying for an upper hand. In May of 2019, the U.S. did not sit back and watch as Russia and China made aggressive moves in the Arctic. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed “the region has become an arena of global power and competition and the eight Arctic states must adapt to this new future.” The adaptation in the eyes of the United States is to increase the number of military exercises and icebreakers, and expand their Coast Guard operations (Lee, 2019; Rempfer, 2019).
A Need for International Cooperation
Under the Harper administration, beginning in 2014, Canada’s policy when it came to working with Russia was in effect to give them the cold shoulder. This policy was nicknamed the “empty chair policy” because Canada would make a point not to engage with Russia on “almost all” events and discussions where Russia and Canada had previously worked together (Kroeker, 2020). The Trudeau administration has seen a need to soften this approach and believes in the benefits of cooperation. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion explained that “this re-engagement [with Russia] will aim to help Ukraine, help Europe and the situation in the centre of the continent. And it will serve Canadian interests by allowing us to talk to Russia on key issues like the Arctic” (Dyer, 2016). In 2019, Canada released “Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy,” a people-first plan with eight pillars that promote the health, sustainability, and economic and environmental prosperity of the North. The plan also focuses on increasing dialogue between the Arctic states, specifically Russia (Chater, 2019).
With so many different political interests and governance ideologies in the Arctic, there are many challenges and opportunities for better governance and environmental regulations. A possible solution to these issues is a regime complex, meaning a compilation of non-hierarchical regimes defined in space, in the same issue domain, where the operations of one regime affects the outcome of the other regimes (Young, 2012, p. 394).
The way that the Arctic currently operates already models tenants of a regime complex. For example, the constitutions of the eight states that comprise the Arctic Council address issues governing the land and the UNCLOS governing the sea (“United Nations …,” 1982; Young, 2012). Three things can be done to strengthen the existing bones of the Arctic regime complex. Firstly, the Arctic Council’s role as the primary place to address Arctic governing needs should be strengthened. Secondly, an “operational discourse” (Young, 2012), should provide a clear framework for the regime. Thirdly, a strong forum/platform should be created to hear the voices of non-Arctic states and non-state actors (Young, 2012). To conclude, although governing the Arctic is complex and geopolitical tensions are on the rise, all Arctic actors should try to cooperate to develop main tenants that will encourage the environmental and economic integrity of the Arctic to respond to the ever-changing landscape.
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About the writer
Angelina Giordano is focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, fighting for environmental justice, and creative writing. She finished her BASc. Environment degree at McGill University and is currently working for the Energy consulting firm GEV Corp., and the law firm Giordano & Associates, Ltd. During her time at McGill she was VP Events of the McGill Energy Association, wrote articles for The McGill Tribune and competed on the McGill Figure Skating Team.