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Defrosting the relationship: the US and Russia in the Arctic

14 September, 2021

by Hamish Cruickshank – Research Assistant

On June 16, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin met for the first time during the US-Russia summit at in Geneva, Switzerland. Relations between the two states have deteriorated considerably over the past decade, reaching lows not seen since the Cold War as a result of election interference, cyber-attacks and withdrawals from decades old arms agreements. While Biden has said that he won’t be seeking a ‘reset’ in relations, the meeting was seen as a chance for the new US President and the longstanding Russian leader to potentially stabilise bilateral ties and repair some of the damage done under the Trump administration.

Unsurprisingly, the talks produced little of substance beyond a joint statement, in which the two leaders agreed to work together to establish further arms control agreements via a bilateral strategic stability dialogue. Ukraine, Navalny, and cyber security were among the other topics discussed by the two heads of state, but as Biden said after the talks, “there wasn’t any strident action taken”.

One area where some common ground was attained was in regard to the Arctic. As two of the five littoral Arctic states and respective members of the Arctic Council, the High North is an increasingly significant priority for both states. The mass erosion of Arctic sea ice as a result of climate change is opening up new economic possibilities in the form of natural energy deposits and transport routes, along with fresh governance and security issues. While many have viewed the High North as the next great arena of great power politics where both states will compete for supremacy, it is one area where US and Russian interests coincide and a sphere where the two states “can and should work together”.

The geopolitical importance of the Arctic

Since 1979, sea ice in the Arctic has receded by an average of 27,000 square miles a year and this unprecedented erosion has caused the oldest and thickest ice in the region to decline by roughly 95% over the past 30 years. This drastic transformation has drawn eyes back towards the High North after it fell off the global agenda following the end of the Cold War.

As the ice has receded, new economic opportunities have emerged. The Arctic is estimated to hold 30% of the world’s natural gas reserves and 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil. Russia has led the way in attempting to tap into these vast energy reserves, mounting numerous projects and ventures to access the estimated 48 billion barrels of oil and 43 trillion cubic meters of natural gas within the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF). On top of these vast energy reserves, the receding sea ice is also revealing new shipping possibilities that can cut transit times drastically.

As economic opportunity has appeared, so too have new security and governance dilemmas. Borders have become exposed and new national interests have manifested which require sufficient security infrastructure in place. These factors are the crux behind the Arctic’s growing geostrategic importance.

Two strategies

For Russia, the Arctic has become a pivotal facet of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy over the past twenty years. While the region fell off the agenda after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it began to regain a more central position as the twenty-first century progressed. In 2008 the ‘Basics of the State Policy of the Russian Federation for the Period Till 2020’ was adopted and served as Russia’s primary Arctic Strategy. This strategy was succeeded in late 2020 with the ‘Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and Provision of National Security for the Period up to 2035’.

Russia’s 2008 Arctic Strategy emphasised the growing importance of the High North for Russia and outlined the Kremlin’s strategies for developing the region. The 2020 Strategy built on the foundations of the 2008 Strategy and established a three-part plan to develop Russia’s Arctic region, tap into its vast economic potential and bolster the state’s military and security infrastructure in the region to protect Russian interests.

As Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in 2008, the Kremlin’s goal is to “turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base of the twenty-first century” and the new strategy establishes how the Russian state seeks to achieve this, through working with the state’s commercial energy sector to develop the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as a transport corridor and develop offshore oil and gas capabilities. While both strategies promote international cooperation and emphasise Russia’s commitment to abide by international law in the Arctic, the 2035 strategy emphasises the “growing conflict potential” in the High North and prioritises the “constant growth” of Russian combat and security capabilities in the region to safeguard Russian interests in the AZRF.

With Russia assuming the Chairmanship of the Arctic council this year until 2023, it is likely will use the coming years to vigorously promote its interests in the region, under the established theme of “Responsible Governance for a Sustainable Arctic”.

The Arctic has also grown in importance for the United States. In the late 2000s, the US also established itself as an “Arctic Nation” in George Bush’s ‘National Security Presidential Directive’ and the first American Arctic Strategy was published under the Obama Administration in 2013, in the form of the ‘US National Strategy for the Arctic Region’. This strategy outlined an ambition to safeguard the Arctic environment and resources and strengthen relations with the other littoral Arctic states in the name of ‘responsible Arctic stewardship’.

Under the Trump Administration, the US adopted a more assertive stance in the region. Public discourse shifted in tone and figures including then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labelled Russia an “aggressive” actor, and criticised what it viewed as a developing Sino-Russian ‘axis’ in the High North. The 2013 strategy was followed by the Department of Defence’s Arctic Strategy in 2019 and the US Army’s Arctic Strategy in 2021. The tone and approach shifted in these documents also, with Russia identified as a destabilising actor in the Arctic. Both strategies subsequently call for the US to strengthen its military and security forces in the region and stake a more dominant position in Arctic governance.

While the Biden Administration will continue to enhance American military capabilities in the region, it has also signalled that it intends to treat the region as a zone of multilateral cooperation, seeking to work with allies and partners to tackle environmental issues and climate change. The US and Russia have historically cooperated on a number of topics including fisheries management, environmental issues and search and rescue capabilities, and the next few years offer an opportunity to continue this and move beyond the regression in regional relations seen under Trump.

Tension points

Regional cooperation between the US and Russia is in everyone’s best interests. The Arctic has been a zone of intergovernmental cooperation since the end of the Cold War and regional stability is imperative for the protection of the region and its economic prospects.

However, a number of issues remain that may stand in the way of peaceful and productive bilateral US-Russian relations in the Arctic. Firstly, both states have been developing their military and security forces in the region for some time now. Russia in particular has made significant enhancements to its military and security forces in the region, bolstering The Northern Fleet (the Russian Navy’s Arctic-based force) with new nuclear submarines and ships and renovating and strengthening the dilapidated Soviet security infrastructure which atrophied after the Cold War concluded. A senior State Department official recently said that “There’s clearly a military challenge from the Russians in the Arctic,” and the US are closely monitoring Russia’s military ‘build-up’ in the region.

On the other hand, Russia has questioned NATO’s “advance into the Arctic” and questioned the increasing number of bombers and submarines in the area. With the Arctic Council maintaining no security function, the risk of the classic ‘security dilemma’ developing – whereby actions taken by a state to increase its own security cause reactions from other states – grows.

The Kremlin has proposed adding a security dimension to the Arctic Council agenda to counter this and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said that this would be an agenda priority for Russia during its Chairmanship. While no members have yet backed these plans, to ensure stability and prevent an overt militarisation of the arctic, such a development would be in the region’s best interests.

Shipping routes have also been a source of tension for both states in the Arctic. The US has long expressed its worries about Russia’s desire to impose restrictions on shipping along the Northern Sea Route. As Arctic sea ice continues to recede, the Russian government is hoping to further promote the NSR as a viable international transit corridor and boost annual transit volumes from 1,3 million tons in 2020 to 30 million tons in 2030. Such a development would also see Russia impose further maritime regulations on international transit along the NSR.

While Putin stated that it is the duty of a coastal state to “provide peaceful passage”, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently spoke of the Kremlin’s ‘unlawful maritime claims’ and reaffirmed the US view that Russia’s policing of the space is in violation of international law.

Lavrov responded, “it is our territory, our land” and cited Russia’s duty to protect its coastline, indicating that this issue is far from reaching a resolution. However, with Russia now chairing the Arctic Council, now would be the best time for both states to establish a meaningful dialogue over the issue and work to establish some form of common ground.

Another area of contention comes in the increasing presence of China in the High North. In 2018, China published its first official Arctic Strategy paper. The strategy described china as a “near-Arctic state” and signalled an intention to grow the state’s role in Arctic governance. China has also worked with Russia on a number of projects in the Arctic. Rosneft and Gazprom have agreed to cooperate with Chinese partners in the Arctic seas and China has been a significant investor in the Yamal LNG Project.

The Trump Administration viewed these developments as the sign of an emerging axis in the region and former National Security Advisor John Bolton called on the US Coastguard to help counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Under Biden, the US has continued to dismiss any of China’s claims to Arctic legitimacy and will continue to push back against China staking a greater claim in regional governance.

Despite this, it is important to realise that the Sino-Russian relationship in the Arctic is heavily predicated on economics. Moscow requires Beijing’s capital to realise its Arctic energy ambitions and Beijing has keen interests in tapping the economic opportunities the Arctic can provide. The dynamic is more of a business partnership, and while the US should continue to watch against growing Chinese influence in the High North, an Arctic axis remains far off at present.

Preserving stability

Bilateral relations between the two states show little sign of improving, but the Arctic remains one area where both the US and Russia can continue to cooperate and make further strides towards regional development. While tensions and sticking points remain, both states have an overt interest in maintaining regional stability and safeguarding national interests.

With Russia taking up the chair at the Arctic Council and the Biden Administration seemingly favouring a far more cooperative posture in the High North than was seen under Trump, now is the opportunity for both states to make some inroads into improving overall bilateral ties by prioritising cooperation in the Arctic.

About Hamish Cruickshank

Hamish Cruickshank has an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Edinburgh and recently completed a master’s degree with distinction at the University of Amsterdam where he specialised in Russian and Eastern European Affairs. He produced his master’s thesis on Russia’s Arctic turn and examined the transforming security dynamics of the High North. Hamish has a strong interest in international relations and security studies and has conducted considerable research on Russian foreign policy, Eurasian geopolitics and Arctic security.