No cold war in the warming Arctic

The 28th Russia Conference delved into how the opaque super power is balancing its security interests, need for economic development, and respect for indigenous people’s rights, in a region under rapid transformation

From the annexation of the Crimea, to the ongoing conflict in the Syria, the West and Russia are increasingly at odds with each other. The breakdown in relations, has affected the balance of power  and increased the likelihood for further conflict. The election of Donald Trump as President of the US has caused further uncertainty. Trump has declared that the US cannot guarantee the safety of other NATO members unless they increase their investment in the military alliance.

All these question marks hung over the 28th Russia Conference in Copenhagen last month. Organised by the Danish-Russian Society (Dansk Russisk Forening), this year the focus was on the Arctic region’s energy and security interests. Denmark plays an important role in the region due to its autonomous territory Greenland.

The Arctic is undergoing a rapid transformation due to climate change. Diminishing sea ice is  opening up new trade routes and possibilites for resource exploitation. Unresolved territorial claims also increase the risk of military confrontation.

But Kristian Søby Kristensen, senior researcher at the Danish Center for Military studies, said at the conference that despite Russian sabre rattling around the world, Russia’s Arctic policy has been characterised by diplomacy.

READ MORE: Interests or values – Denmark questions its international role

“Between 2007 and 2008 Russia rediscovered its Arctic interests and the expectation of increased economic activity has since driven cooperation forwards. There has been willingness to submit to binding agreements through the Arctic Council,” Kristensen said, referring to agreements on oil spill response and search and rescue cooperation.

“This demonstrates the potential of the Arctic Council. Conflicts that have lingered for years have been solved through cooperation. In 2010, for example, Norway and Russia settled a dispute about how to divide the Barents Sea,” he says, adding that if there is a conflict in the Arctic, it is more likely to be a spillover from another region, rather than a conflict over Arctic interests.

The Arctic Council
With rapidly escalating climate change, the Arctic Council is likely to become even more important in the future. Established in 1996, it facilitates cooperation between the eight Arctic countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Russia, USA and Canada. The council deals with potential disagreements but importantly, its founding charter prohibits it from addressing military or security issues.

Nils Wang, Rear Admiral and Commandant of The Royal Danish Defense College, said Russia cannot afford to deviate from its strategy of cooperation and compliance with international regulations in the Arctic. He expects Danish-US relations and Arctic cooperation to remain strong, even if Russia’s relationship with the US changes under the incoming Trump administration.

“I don’t think the overall strategy of the United States will change. Perhaps it will become more inward-looking for a time, but I cannot see the fundamentals of American foreign and security policies changing,” he said.

Trump has been critical of the US’s role as global policeman. He argues it’s a costly role, and has berated NATO members for not spending two percent of GDP on defense – NATO’s contractual minimum. Wang, however,  is not concerned that changes to NATO strategy could open the door to military confrontation in the Arctic.

“95 per cent of the estimated resources in the Arctic are on legally settled land. There is nothing to fight about.”

Russian Arctic policies
Rather than a potential conflict zone, Professor Aleksander Segunin from Moscow State University argued that Russia’s Arctic strategy is to maintain peace and stability in the region by fighting climate change and through promoting sustainable industry. Segunin, however, claims that it is not just climate change that occupies Russian interests in the Artic.

“As much as we would like for it to be different, a military presence is still important in the region,” he said.

READ MORE: The enemy of my enemy is my friend

The Arctic remains a key strategic location as Russia’s northern fleet’s home dock is located there, and Søby Kristensen points out that it is vital for the country’s interest to maintain a force in the region.

“The Kola Peninsula [In the far Northwest of Russia] is the basis on which Russia can act as a major power. Russia needs to be able to defend its political potential in that region,” he said.

Nexus of environmental, security and indigenous rights 

While Russia and the West carefully size each other up in the Arctic, respect for the rights of indigenous people in the Arctic hasn’t always been a high priority for the Arctic nations, according to Associate Professor in Arctic Studies, Frank Sejersen from the University of Copenhagen. He said states have often viewed the Arctic as either a vast natural wilderness or a frontier to be developed, rather than as the homeland of its indigenous populations.

Sejersen adds that the Arctic region is increasingly being regarded as “territory that belongs to the nation-states”. This approach is reflected in the government’s comprehensive foreign policy report from May, which depicts Denmark as an Arctic power rather than merely head of The Danish Realm that happens to include Arctic territories.

Aleksej Kolesnikov, from the Embassy of Russia in Copenhagen, said Russia was also committed to increasing their funding in Arctic research, and improving the livelihoods of indigenous peoples of the region. But when asked on whether the Russian government had consulted indigenous peoples about resettling them in modern homes, he said: “a balance always needs to be struck in such matters”.

According to Sejersen the indigenous Arctic peoples, such as the Sami and Inuits, often struggle to have their rights recognised because they aren’t integrated into political institutions. Amid the talk of security and military strategy, indigenous people have been reduced to an afterthought, rather than a key consideration.

Their rights and standard of living needs more attention now than ever. For while climate change might open up the Arctic to trade and military conquest, the loss of sea ice and warming seas are already directly affecting the lives of those who live off the bounty the Arctic supplies. And maybe addressing that issue is something the West and Russia can come together on. M

Features, News

By Stubbe Wissing

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