The Arctic Factor: Can regional cooperation thaw relations between Canada and Russia?

We asked two of Canada’s leading Arctic experts whether the two nations could mend their rapport through shared interests in the Arctic.

By: , /
February 17, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, Dec. 14, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin

Canada’s Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion recently announced that Canada would seek closer relations with Russia, despite tensions over its actions in Ukraine. In his speech at the Ottawa Forum 2016, Dion specifically mentioned the Arctic as a region - and an issue - where Canada could benefit by re-engaging with Russia. But does Dion’s plan to re-connect with Russia have legs?

On the heels of his comments, we asked two of Canada’s leading Arctic experts — University of Calgary’s Rob Huebert and Heather Exner-Pirot at the University of Saskatchewan for a brief response to one question: Is the Arctic an area of potential cooperation or conflict between Russia and Canada?

Huebert: Arctic represents potential for conflict.

Security concerns are more likely to squash opportunities for cooperation in the Artic, and not the other way around.

Canada has given some very mixed messages in terms of its relationship with Russia. Last month Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion announced that Canada would seek to reengage Russia, despite the ongoing tensions in Ukraine. He specifically mentioned that Arctic could be the place for renewed cooperation. Last week, however, Canada along with its NATO allies, agreed to create a new multinational force to be deployed among the eastern most members in response to an increasingly belligerent Russia. So, within the span of just a few weeks, Canada has said it wants to re-open its relationship with Russia, but has also agreed with its NATO allies to send more military force to Eastern Europe to deter the Russians from taking further aggressive actions!

In his speech, Dion stressed that foreign policy is not black and white. Thus it follows that when Canadian government calls for re-engagement with Russia - while deploying more military force against Russia - it is developing its policy against a background of grey! So what then are the options that the government has before it as it moves to re-engage the Russians in the Arctic? And, more to the point, can it succeed?

The first and easiest action is to make a public display of working with the Russians on the Arctic Council. This is the easiest because Canada never really stopped working with the Russians. There were some incidents where Canadian officials did not attend meetings in Russia and the Russian Foreign Minister made show of not attending the final Ministerial meeting hosted by Canada in Iqaluit. But the Council still made important progress on several initiatives such as the oil spill response plan and the formation of the Arctic Economic Council – all of which required the two states to work together alongside the other Arctic states. So any effort to show re-engagement will only really be about show and not about substance.

The second re-engagement may come with the determination of the limits of the outer continental shelf. Russia has re-submitted its Arctic coordinates to the Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf and Canada is soon expected to do the same. It is expected that there will be overlaps among the areas identified by Canada, Russia and Denmark. If this is the case, Canada, Denmark and Russia will need to negotiate a settlement to resolve the differences that may exist in their submissions. Canada and Russia will have to engage on this issue or they will not be able to have their claims finalized under the terms of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

But all of this may count for nothing. The final area of “re-engagement” will come in the regards to the changing security environment that is now developing in the Arctic. Despite the best intentions of the current government, it is much more probable that the Russian-Canadian security interactions will led to a dis-engagement in the region. Russia is substantially rebuilding its maritime and aerospace forces for its nuclear deterrent in the Arctic region. This, along with the intention to provide for the protection of its Arctic regions, has resulted in a very significant increase in the military deployment of its forces in the Arctic. The Russian government is using this renewed strength to signal its disapproval of the West when disagreements arise elsewhere.

Since 2007, Russian bombers — and sometimes fighter aircraft — have crossed the Arctic Ocean to fly up to the edge of Canadian Arctic airspace. When the Ukrainian crisis escalated, the Russian government increased both the numbers and complexity of these flights towards Canadian, American and Norwegian air space. There have also been violations of Swedish and Finnish airspace and maritime regions by Russian forces. Such actions will inevitably lead to the improvement of Canadian and American NORAD capabilities. This is in turn will then increase Russian perceptions of insecurity. At the same time, the Russian interventions in the spaces of the two neutral Arctic states could lead Sweden and Finland to seek membership in NATO. If that happens — and Canada would need to agree — then it is clear that the relationship between Russia and Canada will take a turn for the worse that cannot be papered over by statements of cooperation. Thus all the efforts to “re-engage” Russia will be for naught.

Exner-Pirot: Cooperation can only deepen.

2015 was a banner year for relations in the region. The question is not whether the Liberal government will re-engage with Russia there, but how it can engage even further.

The Arctic is not an area of potential cooperation between Russia and Canada, but one of longstanding cooperation between the two countries.

Russia and Canada have been cooperating in the Arctic for several decades. The 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears between the five littoral Arctic states was the first formal instance of multilateral cooperation. Later, after Mikhail Gorbachev’s now famous (in Arctic circles) 1987 speech declaring the Arctic a “zone of peace,” the eight Arctic states with territory within the Arctic circle established the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy. This later evolved into the Arctic Council, which remains the region’s preeminent intergovernmental forum, and has provided significant opportunity for joint collaboration between Canada, Russia and the other Arctic states. 

Canada and Russia have cooperated in the Arctic far beyond the Arctic Council, however. They are probably the two Arctic states with the most in common, in terms of the influence of geography, federalism and the role of the Arctic in the nation’s collective psyche. Russia, for example, has been one of the few supporters of Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage lies within internal waters because of the parallels with its Northern Sea Route. And it is often forgotten that bilateral cooperation with Russia was one of only four priority areas for action in Canada’s 2000 Northern Dimension of Canada’s Foreign Policy, which articulated that “No country, except possibly Russia, has more at stake in the far-sighted management of circumpolar relations than Canada… A prosperous Russia is crucial to the stability of the international system, and a sustainable and prosperous North is crucial to the stability of Russia.

The bilateral relationship with Russia deteriorated following Russia’s increasingly forceful presence on the world stage, buoyed by hydrocarbon revenues, notably its incursion in to Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Canada, under the Harper Conservatives, adopted what they called “a principled stance” following the latter, with open and public condemnation of Russia’s actions. However, even the Conservatives quietly tolerated cooperation with Russia in the Arctic and despite some fiery rhetoric the status quo generally prevailed.

Indeed, 2015 was a banner year for multilateral cooperation in the Arctic. The International Maritime Organization concluded negotiations for a mandatory Polar Code for shipping, with Russia, despite having perhaps the most at stake, finding common ground with its neighbours; Russia provided its submission under UNCLOS for an extended continental shelf in the central Arctic, demonstrating both moderation and accedence to established procedures; and an eight-nation Arctic Coast Guard Forum was established, providing a platform for constabulary cooperation amongst the Arctic states including Russia.

I would argue that under Harper there was harshness in our tone with Russia that may have undermined our multilateral interests in the Arctic and certainly didn’t advance them. There are many good reasons to compartmentalize the Arctic region when it comes to our Russian relations, including economic, scientific and political ones. But by and large this has been done.  The question therefore is not whether there is potential for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic under the Trudeau Liberals, but how much further it might go.