Ukraine Crisis and the Arctic: Penalties or Reconciliation?
By Andreas Østhagen, April 30, 2014

Canada’s recent decision to boycott an Arctic Council task force meeting held in Moscow is a direct example of how the Ukraine conflict is starting to impact Arctic cooperation. Given its prominent position in the Arctic, however, Russia is integral to most schemes for the region’s future development. As vocalized by both former US Secretary of State, Clinton, and the current Prime Minister of Iceland, Gunnlaugsson, the Ukraine crisis might have a severe and unintended impact on Arctic cooperation [1].


The impact of the events in Ukraine for Arctic cooperation will be neither straight forward nor harmonized across the region. Instead it will vary according to the interests of the different Arctic states. They could decide to use the Arctic as an arena for penalizing Russia further or use it to engage Russia in dialogue. Currently, officials dealing with Arctic affairs are asking themselves what exactly these consequences will be, deciding whether to take further action (like Canada) or issue warnings (like Iceland).

Economic Development

First, the immediate and direct impact of decisions taken outside of an Arctic context could hamper Russia’s strongest interest in the Arctic, namely economic development. Sanctions put in place by the European Union and the United States have the potential to affect the multitude of European and American companies engaged in developing the vast resource potential in the Yamal, Nenets and Kara Sea regions. Highlighting this, on April 28 sanctions were put in place by the US on Rosneft’s president, Igor Sechin [2].

This summer ExxonMobil alone is scheduled to conduct some of the most expensive exploratory drillings in the history of offshore oil and gas development in the Kara Sea through its joint venture with Rosneft [3]. BP is similarly dependent on Rosneft after TNK-BP was incorporated into the Russian oil giant in 2013, leaving BP with 19.5 percent of Rosneft’s shares [4]. Should further sanctions be put in place limiting western companies dealings with Russian energy companies, from either the Russian or the EU/US side, Arctic economic development in Russia will take a hit.

Cancelling Cooperation

In terms of direct cooperation in the Arctic sphere, exclusion of Russia or the boycotting of various Arctic meetings by one or several of the Arctic states have the potential to derail the relatively well-established modes of collaboration that have developed in the Arctic. Canada’s decision not to attend the Arctic Council task force meeting in Moscow last week is a minor, but still significant symbol of how Arctic cooperation is affected by the international crisis further south [5].

Similarly, Russian officials were not invited to take part in a pre-meeting to the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum in Sydney, Novia Scotia on March 31, where the establishment of an Arctic Coast Guard Forum was discussed. The planned Northern Chiefs of Defence (CHODs) meeting scheduled for June in Iceland seems likely to be postponed as well, as could be expected. The Northern CHODs forum is one of the few arenas, in addition to the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable, where all the Arctic states convene to discuss hard security matters. Consequently several of the informal and formal arenas where civilian and military issues in the Arctic are discussed are put on hold.

Various Interests
Yet, Russia’s participation in the high level Senior Arctic Officials (SAO) meeting under the Canadian chairmanship in Yellowknife on March 25-27 proceeded as planned. In the Arctic Coast Guard Forum meeting it was also pointed out that any coast guard forum for the Arctic without the Russians present would prove futile, given Russia’s predominant role in Arctic maritime matters. For the United States and the Scandinavian countries such an approach seems only logical, given adjacent maritime borders that involve shared fish stocks and natural resource deposits. This highlights the importance of maintaining a working relationship with Russia on specific issues for some of the Arctic states, albeit these interests vary amongst the Arctic countries.

For decades Norway’s collaboration with Russia on the joint management of fish stocks in the Barents Sea has been promoted as a model for dealing with Russia on a sensitive topic that entails both a civilian and a military dimension [6]. Similarly, the 2010 maritime delimitation agreement was highly motivated by a desire in both countries to develop potential petroleum resources in the former disputed maritime area. Related cooperation between Russia and Norway has expanded since [7].

Although Sweden and Finland do not share a maritime border with Russia, Finland in particular has an extensive land boundary and is dependent on a rational working relationship with its larger neighbor. Just in terms of border crossings, Finland issued 1.3 million visas to Russia in 2013, a third of all Schengen entry visas going to Russia, according to the BarentsObserver [8]. As argued by Finland’s Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade, Stubb, Finland is heavily dependent on Russia’s economic trajectory and the consequences of the Ukraine crisis might be severe for the Finnish economy [9].

In the Bering Sea the US and Russia have a long standing collaboration on research and management of fish stocks, in particular with regards to the Alaskan Pollock [10]. For the last 19 years Russia and the US have worked together in this maritime area, and as ship traffic is increasing, the need for collaboration is only set to increase [11]. Combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the area has already been stated as one of the main goals in the US’ Arctic Implementation Plan from January 2014 [12]. Also, as most vessels frequenting the Bering Sea are fishing boats, the potential northern movement of fish stocks due to temperature increases as seen in the North Atlantic will force the vessels to move further north and demand even greater coordination and collaboration between Russian and US coast guards, similar to what has developed in the Barents Sea.

Russia’s Primacy in the Arctic

The different Arctic states all have their own «special» relationships with Russia, with varying degrees of interdependency and collaboration. Related, it is less counterproductive to Canada’s Arctic interests to take a strong stance towards Russia than it is for some of the Scandinavian countries. The seven Arctic states excluding Russia also do not form any cohesive block against Russia, in part due to the fact that membership in international organizations vary between NATO and the EU (5 NATO members and 3 EU members – only Denmark overlaps).

Yet, coordinated efforts to exclude Russia from specific Arctic forums have been – and will probably continue to be – put in place. We should, however, not forget that Russia is the largest of all the Arctic actors, measured in everything from population to economic activity and resource potential. Efforts to deal with environmental pollution, search and rescue, and common standards in the Arctic have also been developed with a lowest common denominator approach, depending on all the Arctic states engaging and signing up to the agreements. Therefore, having Russia onboard on Arctic-related agreements is not only preferable, but also essential to ensure a responsible development in the Arctic.

Conclusion – An Arena for Penalties or Reconciliation?

In sum, Russia is dependent on a positive Arctic development, while the country is also integral to most of the development in the region. The other Arctic states undoubtedly have an obligation to act on proceedings in Ukraine, yet on a lower working level many of them are heavily dependent on continuing business as usual in various areas where Russia constitutes an essential partner. Therefore, the somewhat inconsistent responses with regards to various Arctic domains are likely set to continue.

In previous periods of high tension between Russia and the west, the Arctic has actually served as a theatre for continued cooperation. A good example of this is the 2008 Georgia crisis where collaboration in the Arctic was almost unscathed, arguably also serving as an arena for normalizing relationships as the crisis ended. What role will the Arctic have this time around? That depends on the extent to which Russia will continue to paint itself into a corner, and whether the other Arctic states choose to use the region as an arena for penalties or reconciliation.

[6] See for example Hønneland, Geir (2007), “International Cooperation and Arctic Governance: Regime Effectiveness and Arctic Governance”, London & New York: Routledge.