Protecting the Arctic Council from Crimean Flu

Whatever issues Canada may have with Russia elsewhere in the world, the Arctic is no place to air them, argues Vanessa Gastaldo.
By: /
July 24, 2014

Minister of Defense Rob Nicholson has confirmed that, in recent weeks, the Royal Canadian Air Force was dispatched to monitor Russian aircraft movements near Canadian airspace. This is just one example of many steps being taken by the Canadian government in response to the crisis in Ukraine including Ottawa’s steps to suspend military-to-military relations with Russia, announce economic sanctions and place travel bans on Russian and Ukrainian individuals who have “taken violent action aimed at undermining Ukrainian sovereignty.”

However, as tensions continue to rise and this conflict threatens to spill into the Arctic, we must not lose sight of the fact that Canada and Russia have joint security issues in the region that cannot be resolved without cooperation.

Standing firm in one area (the Canadian government urging Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine) does not mean that you forget, or forgo, cooperation in other areas, especially if it is in your national interest. During the Cold War, for example, Prime Minister Trudeau allowed U.S. cruise missile testing over Canadian territory. At same time, however, Ottawa’s foreign policy prerogatives also meant reaching out and offering cooperation with Russia in other areas such as scientific and cultural exchanges.

In 1987, with the Cold War still at its height, Secretary Gorbachev made his Murmansk speech concerning the “zone of peace” In the Arctic. The Finns picked up on the idea of Arctic science and environmental co-operation and at the same time nongovernmental organizations began promoting the importance of Arctic arms control. Ottawa, in turn, initiated the idea of an Arctic Council. The same policy should guide us today: the democratic world should respond forcefully to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to Ukraine, but continue to make solid offers of cooperation in other realms of international relations when appropriate—avoiding the temptation to “link” separate negotiation processes.

The key to détente and the eventual end of the Cold War was a rejection of the concept of linkage, favoured by hardliners, which set out that bad behaviour in one area had to lead to non-cooperation in all others. The importance of rejecting “linkage politics” and promoting the importance of cooperation is especially pertinent following present events and in the continuing viability of the Arctic Council.

The Arctic Council remains the strongest vehicle for advancing Canada’s understanding of shared, non-military security challenges with Russia and other regional partners. The subject discussed at the meeting are also vitally important and include climate change and the impacts of a growing international presence in the region to global trade, energy resources and the environment. The potential impact of the crisis in Ukraine on Arctic cooperation reminds us how work on establishing long-lasting cooperation in a variety of spheres must not be interrupted by geopolitical challenges elsewhere.

Indeed, we can look to the Arctic Council as a particularly important example of the mutual benefits of rejecting linkage politics. It is in the mutual interest of all Arctic states to have the appropriate plans and capacity in place to prepare for search and rescue, respond to oil spill emergencies and protect the Arctic’s natural resources.

As Arctic scholar Heather Exner-Pirot has argued, the Arctic Council has not yet – and must not – fall victim to the “Crimean flu.” Nor should Arctic cooperation be viewed by Moscow as a dead end. The policy of the Arctic Council state members, along with the Permanent Participants, should be to continue to offer Russia a full and bold agenda of Arctic cooperation (and it may also provide an opportunity for backchannel communication related to other international challenges).

Thus far, efforts to implement the agreements on search and rescue and oil spill response negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council are a sign that Arctic states have prioritized cooperation in spite of political differences. Moreover, cooperation in areas including environmental protection, most notably with Norway, continues in spite of suspensions of military-to-military activities between Russia and many NATO countries.

Last month, Canada welcomed delegations from Arctic states, including Russia, and indigenous Permanent Participants to Ottawa to continue talks on an agreement to prevent marine pollution. This agreement will be the third for the Arctic Council in six years. Arctic states and their residents no doubt recognize the importance of developing best practices for using modern technology and equipment to protect the region from the risks of rising demand in shipping, tourism and offshore resource extraction. Through the negotiations, Russia and Norway have submitted a joint proposal for a legally binding agreement. However, the extent of legal force that is agreeable to all parties has yet to be determined with the final agreement slated to be signed in 2015.

Participation from all Arctic states and indigenous Permanent Participants would not be possible without concerted efforts by all to focus on areas of mutual concern, even when relationships are strained. Encouraging cooperation is almost always in Canada’s national interest and providing opportunities for cooperation will be essential to adequately prepare for continuing challenges facing the Arctic.