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Arctic Circle

The Ukraine War: Arctic Council Steps into Unchartered Territory

By Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan, Lecturer of Strategic Studies, Deakin University; Fellow, Modern War Institute; Co-Director, Project 6633

The Arctic Council’s 2021 Strategic Plan was celebrated for its forward-thinking ambitions. Members envisioned an Arctic in 2030 to be a “region of peace, stability and constructive cooperation”. While Russian actions in Ukraine are at odds with liberal-rules based norms and interests, it is an unavoidable fact that the Arctic Council was crafted to leave politics at the door. The decision made by seven of the eight permanent member states; Canada, Finland, Iceland, the Kingdom of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United States to suspend, via ‘pausing’ Arctic Council engagement, cooperation with Moscow might signal robust moral and value-based positions – but in the long-term this will prove to be a catastrophic choice. Arctic-rim states are trading short-term moral stances for long-term strategic interests in the High North.

The permissibility of Russian actions in Ukraine (since 2014) and liberal-western value-sets aside, this is not the first time in the Arctic Council’s history that a permanent member state (or states) have sidestepped United Nations processes and waged war. Washington’s own count since the 1996 conception of the Arctic Council includes: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Syria. Arctic states like Denmark have even made reparations to Iraqi citizens after legal proceedings found Danish forces in Iraq indeed failed to prevent atrocities. Yet, Arctic Council affairs endured.

12th Arctic Council Ministerial meeting - Family photo

The Arctic Council was crafted to leave politics at the door.

Morality of state actions aside, the collective benefit of a functioning Arctic Council ought to be protected. The adequate operation and facilitation of Arctic-rim stakeholder interests inside the Arctic zone had till now been rather protected. The Council’s 2021 Strategic Plan also spoke of the need to enhance the Council’s ability “to efficiently respond to emerging challenges and opportunities in the Arctic”. The Ukraine-Russia War isn’t the first conflict an Arctic-rim state is engaged in, nor will it be the last. Cutting ties with a stakeholder controlling over half of the Arctic essentially suspends any capability to deal with any issue inside the Arctic.

The choice of the liberal-western Arctic states to essentially pull the pin on engagement and dialogue with Russia in the Arctic was likely arrived at with intentions to reset and recalibrate functional dialogue with Moscow, at a later stage. Whether poor intelligence or misaligned assumptions played a part here, it is evident Moscow appears rather unbothered by this unprecedented decision to pause Arctic Council engagement. My point is, Arctic states party to the ‘freeze’ of Arctic engagement must at least acknowledge exactly what the region is in for. Make no mistake, this is not an argument for reestablishing military ties via the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable (ASFR) nor is it about rewarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with political dialogue. This is a case for maintaining the Arctic’s current status-quo and protecting the current air of low tensions within the region – as facilitated by the Arctic Council.

Russia has merely shared its displeasure with this decision, and underscored its plans to implement its enduring domestic Arctic agenda. I suspect this agenda will now be even harder for Arctic-rim states to diplomatically shape. This decision to pause Arctic Council engagement will open up new options for Moscow to bring in ‘new’ partners into the theater. But it is not just about China.

This decision to pause Arctic Council engagement will open up new options for Moscow to bring in ‘new’ partners into the theater.

Arctic-stakeholders surely looked further ahead to consider the implications of a vastly more crowded and competitive Arctic? Non-Arctic stakeholders like India, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and much of Southeast Asia (via ASEAN) have their sights set on the Arctic. Namely in terms of long-term resource and transportation strategies. India and Southeast Asian states are eyeing Russian Arctic LNG, as is China of course, and the UAE is very interested in tapping into the Northern Sea Route. This decision to pause engagement with Russia via the Arctic Council has the potential to backfire and threaten Arctic-rim state strategic interests for the long-term.

Overall, the short-term political gains achieved by freezing out Russia from the Arctic conversation will ultimately result in long-term strategic peril in the High North. It is now rather unlikely that the permanent member states of the Arctic Council will ‘show up’ for the next senior Arctic officials meeting in Arkhangelsk, scheduled for May. Our worst fears for the Arctic status quo are already taking shape via the ease at which Moscow has shrugged off the significance of Arctic dialogue and cooperation. I fear Arctic states have all but given Russia an ‘off ramp’ from enduring Arctic collaboration and cooperation. Moscow has a diversity of other states looking for a seat at the Arctic table, and certainly voting accordingly in the United Nations General Assembly context. Just look to China, India, the UAE and various Southeast Asian states’ continued abstention on efforts to condemn Russian behavior.

For the Arctic, fears of tensions beyond the theater spilling over have all but been welcomed into reality. Morality aside, the Arctic Council was crafted to leave politics at the door. In rewriting its own functionality, the Council has at once become both irrelevant for Moscow and robbed the Arctic of a robust, operational mechanism for Russia-West dialogue. Being on the right side of history is important, however, it is uncertain the extent to which sacrificing dialogue with Russia in the Arctic is actually in the collective regional strategic interest.

No. 3/2022, 15 March 2022

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Dr. Elizabeth Buchanan

Lecturer of Strategic Studies, Deakin University; Fellow, Modern War Institute; Co-Director, Project 6633

Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is an Australian polar geopolitics expert. Her research interests include Arctic and Antarctic geopolitics, energy security, Russian grand strategy, and strategic studies. Dr Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies with Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College. Elizabeth is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point Military Academy. In this role she contributes to the U.S-Australian military dialogue focusing on polar geopolitics. She is the inaugural Co-Director of the Modern War Institute’s Polar Security Research Initiative - Project 6633.