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Towards a US-Russia Partnership in the Arctic

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Autumn Gonzales

Hear me out: The United States and Russia should pursue mutually beneficial relations in the Arctic. This region is one of the last frontiers yet to have recognized territorial boundaries and operates on vague international norms open to dispute. The US has sovereign territory in the Arctic and other interests including natural resources and trade routes. The time is now to start seeking advantageous bilateral partnerships to secure greater US influence in the Arctic. The US and Russian Federation have common Arctic interests: international cooperation, conflict avoidance, and denying China economic potential via trade routes. To further American prosperity and values, the US should seek greater Arctic influence via partnering with Russia rather than continuing to couch Moscow as an adversary.

US Arctic Interests

The US is an Arctic state. What happens in the Arctic, from international maritime trade to military aerial maneuvers matters to Washington. Increasing Arctic activity begets competition, and competition may eventually lead to conflict. Neither the US or Russia desires an Arctic fight. Washington’s continued insistence that Russia is a threat in the Arctic only advances toward conflict.

If the Northern Sea Route (NSR), Northeast Passage (NEP), and Northwest Passage (NWP) are left to the international law to regulate, China will be able to instate its Polar Silk Road and obtain unparalleled economic potential. It is imperative for the US to pivot its focus to this region in an effort to influence future Arctic activities. Moscow is vying for Arctic control via the NSR and is taking advantage of the ambiguous international norms in the region. The US has a choice to make: proactively collaborate with Russia or continue the tired Soviet-era rhetoric of labeling Putin and the Russian Federation an enemy. In looking at Russia’s evolving Arctic rhetoric, there is far-less threat than there is opportunity.

Russian Policy Analysis

Russia views the Arctic as a leveraging point to international great power status. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Transport and Energy in Russia focuses on Arctic cooperation, whereas the Russian Security Council and Ministry of Defense emphasizes concern towards national security and thus lean towards military control over the region.

The 2008 Russian Arctic strategy document – the Foundations of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period Until 2020 and Beyond – was approvedby then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and still signals Russian Arctic ambition today. The Foundations of the State Policy emphasizes peaceful Arctic cooperation. In 2013, Moscow expanded their official Arctic strategy and included less ambiguous lines of effort towards defending Russian territory like “developing the Russian icebreaker fleet, modernizing the air service and airport network, and establishing modern information and telecommunication infrastructure”. Russia’s 2020 iteration (2020-2035) contains similar rhetoric as the 2013 version, emphasizing natural resource protection, establishing trade routes, and mitigating “territorial vulnerabilities” due to melting ice. However, the latest version dedicates greater discussion to evolving national security and threat perceptions.

Although Russia’s additions to its Arctic strategy focus on defending its “primordial homeland”, the narrative of international cooperation, promotion of peace and stability, and mitigation of military confrontation permeate the verbiage. Putin emphasizes a multipolar international order and sees Arctic cooperation as dependent on regional powers promoting collaborative governance on the international stage. For Putin, US forward basing and NATO involvement are seen as deliberate attempts at encircling Russia and thought to be antidemocratic. This presents an opportunity for the United States to reframe the conversation and revisit its long-held perception of Moscow as an anti-West adversary.

Russia is proactively preparing itself to cooperate with the US in the Arctic. Whether or not these public statements should be trusted, the international community has heard them. In order to mitigate tensions and promote international cooperation Russian claims it seeks, the US should pursue a balancing approach rather than continue to label Moscow as the enemy. Emphasizing the multipolar international system allows each regional power to defend its homeland and collaborate bi- or multilaterally with other powers in contested regions to mitigate conflict.

Why has the US not partnered with Russia thus far on anything of consequence?

The US has sought to spread democracy throughout the globe because democracies promote peace and traditionally work well together. However, Russia may never be a functioning democracy. Russia is an opportunistic state seeking to restore its great power status. Moscow claims to be a democracy but fails to meet Western standards. Fostering a more productive relationship with Russia requires the US to accept that Russia will never a Western democracy. But this does not mean Russia should forever be a threat to the West. There are more pressing security threats to the Arctic than that of Russia’s desire to return to great power status and defend its homeland.

If the US treats the Arctic as a partnership venue rather insist upon its ideological differences with Moscow, Washington may be able to divest Moscow from emerging economic relations with Beijing.Adopting an Arctic balancing approach allows Russia the maneuverability to operate in the region absent perceived challenge. This will promote favorable US-Russian relations, serving as a compelling incentive for Russia to help distance China from the Arctic equation.Consequently, international security threats from China and its growing economic coalition will be weakened.

The Perils of Arctic Action v. Inaction

Russia’s innate opportunistic proclivity means its will continue pushing the politico-social boundaries. Take the Lomonosov Ridge dispute for instance. The Russian Federation took advantage of ambiguous international norms and rules and submitted a territorial extension proposal to extend its territory via the Lomonosov Ridge to Greenland’s exclusive economic zone. The UN is starting to look favorably on this. Washington can use this situation to support Russia and garner Putin’s trust. This will cause friction between the US and Greenland (an autonomous island within the Kingdom of Denmark – a NATO member and US ally), but the benefits outweigh the cost, especially if the United Nations deems Russian’s proposal justifiable via sufficient evidence.

This is purely a value proposition. Denmark is a relatively weak NATO member state that the US derives minimal value from, whereas Denmark gains significant security benefits from the US at little cost. Partnering with Russia and letting it have its Arctic claims in exchange for the de-escalation of European tensions, as an example, is more beneficial than supporting Denmark. By publically voicing support for Moscow’s claims, the US can display a multipolar foreign policy that it has lacked in recent decades that may consequently enhance international support for the US, at least in Russia’s eyes as the most likely would-be Arctic adversary

This support can be utilized in various foreign policy facets such as trade, strengthening relations, and pivoting other nations away from dependency on China. Currently, some nations may be turned off by the perceived over-involvement of the US in other countries’ affairs. Taking a step back and employing a balancing approach to American foreign policy will empower others. Whether or not China’s Belt and Road Initiative is actually utilizing debt-trap diplomacy is arguable. However, indications of such speak to China’s evolving global power and influence over weak and vulnerable states. If the US approaches the Arctic ambiguity with a multipolar, internationally empowering methodology, it will starkly contrast with China’s BRI and Polar Silk Road plans. A new, favorable light will be shed on the US and can be advantageously utilized to garner influence in various bilateral relations that may advance Washington’s position relative to Beijing in evolving international discourse.

Avenues for Bilateral Cooperation with Russia

The first issue that needs to be resolved is deconflicting US and Russian Arctic ambitions. The Russian rhetoric revolves around mitigating territorial vulnerabilities, advancing regional resource extraction (mainly oil and gas), and improving the living conditions for the native population. Additionally, the latter involves preserving the Arctic ecological balance and environmentally friendly policies. Moscow is principally interested in investing energy sector technologies, which fall under Western sanctions. This is where the US has an opportunity to collaborate with the Russian Federation. According to the US Air Force Arctic Strategy, stability and diminished security threats, protection of the homeland, and cooperating bi- or multilaterally with other arctic nations are the main foci. The US has an opportunity to promote American prosperity via a bilateral relationship with Russia in the Arctic in via several courses of action (COA): work bilaterally with Russia to help develop oil and gas extraction in the region; be a proactive force in the bolstering of ecological conservation laws; or be a stronger proponent of internationalized yet controlled trade routes through the Arctic.

Although ecological safety seems to be of great importance to Russia in its strategic rhetoric, the Russian actions taken in the Arctic do not logically follow this strategy. Consequently, US bilateral pursuits emphasizing environmental protection laws with Russia are not the most prospective route. However, Washington has an obvious interest in fostering relations with states controlling the earth’s natural resources, specifically oil and gas. Moscow sees energy-dependence as one path to becoming a great world power. When these two points are placed in the context of the fact that the Arctic harbors an estimated 13% of the world’s conventional oil and 30% of its conventional gas resources, it would be in each nation’s benefit to invest in developing the technology in the region to extract them. The US can start the diplomatic conversations required to start such a project and be a significant source of financial investment considering America’s world-renowned economic prowess. This gives the US an initiation advantage and provides an inlet for it to stake claim to some of the Arctic prosperity. Additionally, Russia claims most of the Arctic waters and by proxy any future trading routes through the region. The US can seize the opportunity to prove itself as an invested Arctic state and initiate mutually beneficial international trade travel laws. In this scenario, the US can leverage Russia’s precarious relationship with China to provide reasoning behind stricter shipping laws. This benefits Russia by diminishing security threats from a more frequently traveled trade route, while simultaneously denying China seemingly limitless economic potential which is also favorable to the US.

Acting on the Discovery of Mutually Beneficial Arctic COAs

There are several converging and diverging desires to be considered between Washington and Moscow when it comes to the Arctic. Multipolarity (or at least international cooperation), stability, definitive rules which mitigate security threats, and denying China unlimited access to Arctic waters are some desires that coincide between the nations. On the other hand, the desires start to diverge when it comes to militarizing the region and the potential territorial expansion efforts that Russia seems to be toying with. However, when the economic incentives eventually subside or become subordinate to security threats, great power competition will ensue. In order to be prepared for this possible competition, the US must play a proactive role in promoting stability via positive relations with Russia vice injecting continued tension through antagonistic rhetoric.

There are more converging aspirations in the Arctic for both the US and the Russian Federation than there are diverging ones. Putin has placed himself in the international spotlight by publicly stating that he seeks international cooperation and a multipolar system in the Arctic region. Partnering with Russia in the Arctic is not only possible, it is necessary. If left unattended, the politically ambiguous Arctic will become the perfect environment for great power competition to formulate and has the potential to be a serious security threat to sovereign American soil. Now is the time for the US to come to terms with Russia as a potential partner for the greater good and to promote American prosperity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and are not the official position of the United States Air Force or Department of Defense.