Stephanie Pezard (RAND): Emerging Challenges & Strategic Competition in the Arctic

Q: what are Russia and china’s ambitions in the Arctic and what steps are they taking to secure these interests? Is cooperation with Russia in the Arctic still feasible?

Stephanie Pezard: Russia and China have very different ambitions in the Arctic, which are sometimes aligned. Russia’s ambitions mainly center around its own Arctic region. It seeks to defend the Kola Peninsula where you have the Northern fleet with a good part of its strategic deterrent; protect the Northern Sea Route; protect the industrial infrastructure that they have; and build a more important military presence. military presence has been significantly downsized since the end of the Cold War. A lot of their assets and infrastructure fell into disarray.

Yet Russia has been rebuilding militarily, which I think is a concern for the US in particular because of how it could impact NATO allies in the region—Norway for instance. Russia’s interest is really limited mainly to the so-called “European” Arctic. So, it is also a matter of access to the North Atlantic that Russia absolutely wants to preserve, but there’s not so much Russian activity in the “North American” Arctic. There are some Russian aircrafts coming a little too close to the identification zone, but that’s a limited number of incidents overall.

China, on the other hand, has more of an economic and investment-oriented interest in the Arctic. They are conducting research into the long-term impacts of climate change in the region. So much is happening there. China has conducted scientific research in the Arctic since the mid-90s. They have had a research station in the region since 2004 and because climate change is going to have such a huge impact on China, on its coastal cities, on its economy, they’ve devoted significant resources towards understanding the region.

They’re also very interested in the prospects for possible navigation through the Arctic that would cut days and nautical miles off the usual shipping routes, so there’s an economic prospect for them as well. There is also the prospect of mining various minerals and for fisheries as well. China wants to be involved in all these areas and has been trying to invest more in Arctic nations over the past 10 years. There has been concern over China’s economic involvement, because it could mean more political influence, possible legal changes and eventually some military presence. These are all prospects though; we’re not seeing it yet. These are long-term concerns that a number of Arctic nations have.

Cooperation with Russia has been very limited since Crimea, but while it’s been suspended at the high-level and military level, you still have cooperation at the operational and working level between coastguards, for instance. There are also joint exercises between the Russian and the Norwegian coastguards to prepare for potential incidents in the Arctic. Discussions have taken place between the US and Russia to ensure safer navigation routes in the Bering Strait. Cooperation is still going on at security and operational level and is very fruitful.


Q: How are Canada and the U.S working together to address the emerging challenges in the Arctic region? How is China’s interest in the region being addressed?

Stephanie Pezard: I think the threat from China is still very speculative. China clearly has long-term prospects for the Arctic. Their Arctic strategy indicates a desire to build serious infrastructure and use it as a serious shipping route. The question is, what will be the political, military and economic impacts of China’s goals? There has been concern about China calling itself a “near- Arctic state”, which might have been perceived as China trying to elevate itself to the same level as the Arctic states.

Mike Pompeo clearly pushed back against this at the Arctic Council meeting so it opens up the broader question of “Who should be involved in Arctic governance?” Is it just the Arctic nations or is it any nation that thinks that it has a stake in the region? The number of nations vying for a stake in the Arctic will likely only increase as the effects of climate change become more apparent.

I think the US and Canada’s views are generally aligned in regard to how inclusive they want Arctic governance to be. I think they’d both prefer to keep it to Arctic nations rather than open it more broadly. China is nonetheless involved as an observer, but observers have a limited role in the Arctic council. The US and Canada can work together diplomatically to have a common voice on these issues and to what extent China should play a role in Arctic decision making.

Stephanie Pezard: Diplomatically, Canada and the US are working together in international forums like they Arctic council. Militarily, they conduct exercises together to make sure that they are capable of fighting together in the harsh environmental conditions of the Arctic, which is a very different ball game from other types of contingencies that they might be facing. This lower level day-to-day coordination and collaboration on issues that include the Arctic is mainly about surviving the conditions, ensuring that anyone going through the region is not endangering the Arctic and its population, or itself.

The main issues are safety, search and rescue, as well as good stewardship of the region—preventing pollution and disaster preparation, whether a ship accident or pollution incident. We tend to pay more attention to potential military threats, but on a daily basis, cooperation is still prevailing and is bringing safety to the populations in the region.


Q: What is NATO’s role in the Arctic, what should it be and how much can Canada and the US rely on alliances to address Arctic security?

Stephanie Pezard: NATO’s role is to ensure that if anything happened to one of the NATO members, other nations could adequately address the challenge and assist that nation. NATO has been involved in more exercises to prepare for Arctic conditions or near-Arctic conditions. For instance, we saw the very large-scale exercise, Trident Juncture in late 2018, which rehearsed various scenarios of NATO solidarity and exercised interoperability. Now, NATO’s presence in the Arctic has been sporadic, increasing but still sporadic. There’s still the potential for additional tensions with Russia if NATO was to come too close to Russia. I think NATO is clearly very conscious of that and is trying to ensure additional security of NATO members without creating additional security risks, which is a very fine line to walk.


Q: What does the recent appointment of James Dehart as the US coordinator for the Arctic region tell us about America’s strategy in the Arctic going forward? How significant is the appointment?

Stephanie Pezard: was an interesting development, because the position had been left unfilled since 2017. It is part of a renewed interest on the part of the US for the Arctic, which has also been evident through the reopening of a US consulate in Greenland, development aid to Greenland, and through Mike Pompeo’s speech at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting last year. There was also the freedom of navigation operation in the Barents Sea a couple of months ago. This is one of many steps that signals an increased US interest in the Arctic and willingness to be more present in the region.

The fact that is a diplomat is interesting, because the previous Arctic coordinator was a former commander of the Coast Guard. In the past there were mostly concerns at the operational level. There has been a shift toward classic diplomacy. I think it’s going to be very interesting. This really is an opportunity for the US to have more of a unified voice on the Arctic.


Q: Last year Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Canada’s claim to the Northwest passage is illegitimate. What does this say about Canada’s relationship with the US in the Arctic right now?

Stephanie Pezard: I think for the longest time the US and Canada have agreed to disagree on the status of the Northwest Passage, but this might become more difficult as the US pushes for a different interpretation of the Northern Sea Route for Russia. How can you tell Russia that they absolutely cannot interpret it way and call it internal waterways when you let Canada do it? It’s possible that the US is willing to live with this tension. I think that the US support for freedom of navigation is really a basic principle of US foreign policy, so the US is really likely to maintain that position on the Northwest Passage and the situation is likely to stay the way it is. Unless, Canada changes its mind on the matter, but I am not seeing that. I think they will continue to agree to disagree. This is a small matter in a way, the US would probably continue living with these discrepancies between how it views the cases of Canada and Russia. The US may become more vocal on this issue, but it is unlikely to damage the US-Canadian relationship. The US-Canadian relationship is highly valuable for both countries.

Stephanie Pezard is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. Her research focuses on European security and transatlantic relations; Arctic security; strategic competition; measures short of war; security cooperation and security force assistance; deterrence and use of force; and French defense and security policy.

Pezard received her M.A. in contemporary history from the French School of Political Science (Sciences-Po) in Paris and her Ph.D. in international relations (political science) from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.


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