Navigating Arctic Governance and Cooperation Following Ukraine War
An Interview with Mathieu Boulègue
“We don’t have any form of dialogue with Russia at present, and because there is no confidence to be had with the Kremlin at this stage, there is more space for tactical errors. This dynamic is feeding a lot of insecurity. There are fears of mounting escalation, as well as for the potential degeneration of escalation into wider confrontation.”
How is the war in Ukraine impacting Arctic governance, cooperation, the security interests of Canada, U.S., and NATO? How can we navigate an Arctic context that is structurally much more conflictual?
Since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine, management of the Arctic in general has become more complicated—more specifically around the European High North. This has had spillover effects for European security, transatlantic security, and North Atlantic security. The first invasion in 2014 has had a negative impact on good governance in what was and is still called an exceptional area—one of low tension, as described by the Norwegians. Despite geopolitical tensions, the Arctic eight still had the capacity to discuss the day-to-day management of a deeply impacted Arctic, which must contend with the climate emergency and the complexity of operating in the environment.
The 2014 invasion of Crimea was a blow to cooperation and stability in the region, but we still managed to make things work. However, Russia’s full-scale invasion—the second invasion of Ukraine—happened in February 2022, dashing all the hopes that the (now) Arctic seven had concerning potential collaboration or discussion with the Kremlin. Furthermore, what you have is a track record of bad behavior from the Kremlin in the region when it comes to escalation, provocation, sabre-rattling and brinkmanship. To add insult to injury, the seven non-Russian coastal states are slowly becoming NATO territory. Therein lies the beauty of Russia’s narrative. They tend to see NATO everywhere and feel vindicated by NATO’s posture as it creeps closer to the Russian border.
It is because of Russia’s actions that we will soon welcome two new members to the Atlantic Alliance, which is vindicating Russia’s force posture and position. It has also made any form of dialogue, transparency, and predictability even harder than before. There is no trust, no confidence, and no dialogue to be had with the Kremlin. We are in a situation that is slowly creating a divergence in terms of the future of Arctic governance, because geopolitics is catching up to this new reality. Compounding all of this are climate and migrant emergencies, and the management of a changing Arctic. Without the biggest player in the room, it makes things even more complicated. This is where we are at this critical juncture of Arctic management.
What are Russia’s core national interests in the Arctic? Do those interests pose any challenges to Canada’s interests or security?
Russia views the Arctic as a new border to defend. The Arctic zone of the Russian Federation—commonly understood as Russia’s Arctic—is a concept that was left behind in 1990s, because Russia had priorities other than creating a new approach to this region. Russia abandoned its national interest in the Arctic for about fifteen years, until the mid-2000s, when there was a rekindling of interest in Arctic affairs. This renewed interest was a result, not only of energy exploration and exploitation of the Northern Sea Route to ensure passage through the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, but also for security reasons. From a military security perspective, it’s a simple equation. Climate change is creating a more accessible Arctic. A more accessible Arctic means more human presence, and more human presence means more NATO. There’s always a vindication loop that Russia has—NATO is out to get us, they’re expanding their borders, there will be more North American security to be sought, and therefore less security for Russia.
This is the same security dilemma that we see in other theatres of operation—it is not necessarily specific to the Arctic. What makes it unique in the Arctic context is that you’re not just fighting an opponent, but managing challenges related to geography and distance. If you have a new border to defend, then you need to protect it, and you need to enforce sovereignty there by all means necessary. For Russia, that means preparing for all contingencies the way Russia does best—militarize the hell out of it. This is what is uniquely Russian in their approach to managing the Arctic. The need it to be highly securitized and re-appropriated through the military, and through military understanding.
For Canada, the security implications of Russia’s interests are more connected to NATO security and the approaches in the North-Atlantic than the Canadian coastline specifically. There are similarities between what happens in Russia’s backyard with the Northern Sea Route and Canada’s backyard, the Northwest Passage. Nobody wants too much snooping around in their own backyard—no Arctic NIMBYISM. There’s no overlap between the way Canada approaches the Arctic and the way Russia does, but in a way, there is a similar understanding in what governance should look like. This has changed with the war, of course, and Russia is now becoming so toxic and so rouge that there is no coming back. However, I would argue that Canadian security is less impacted by Russia’s actions in the European High North, or even in the Pacific Arctic on the other side of the world. It’s more about NATO security, because of course, NATO security impacts the national security of Canada. It’s more a question of proxy security than direct security. The only elements where you would have a genuine impact is on NORAD, the modernization of NORAD, and the need to have a strong and committed NORAD between the U.S. and Canada.
Is it possible that escalating tension will lead to an escalatory dynamic between Russia and NATO partners? How does Russia perceive NATO’s actions in the region and how has this informed Russia’s policies?
Once again, the impeccable track record of Russia’s narrative is that whatever we do at the NATO-level will be used against us. You can try and reach a form of strategic communication where you justify a defensive posture and communicate that it’s not about the Kremlin, but they don’t care. They want to see it as case-in-point that NATO is not a force for good. All of Russia’s activities are used to deny, contest, or hamper the Alliance and its activities—notably military exercises in the region, specifically in and around the North Atlantic.
The Alliance itself is starting to ask itself the right questions about what it should do in the Arctic. However, they’re doing it in a way that is not driving ideal policy at this stage. Russia understands the Arctic, fundamentally, as a continuum, between the European Arctic on one end, to the North Pole, along the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation, to the Pacific, the Bering Straits, and down to China. They have the luxury of space and geography because of the nature of their coastline, and therefore they think in terms of a strategic continuum. Russia also sees theatres through the lens of a continuum. What happens in the Black Sea or Baltic Sea equally impacts what’s happening in the European High North. Russia has a vision of the Arctic that is the result of an expensive geography. They focus, not just on the European High North, but also north of the North Atlantic.
They have this ability to leverage their own strategic interest through this continuum from different theatres, which we don’t have in our western approach at NATO, because we tend to see in terms of flanks. We don’t have the space or luxury to cultivate the same approach. We fundamentally fail to perceive certain aspects of Russia’s thinking when it comes to the Arctic in our analysis, which creates space for misunderstanding and miscalculation. We don’t have any form of dialogue with Russia at present, and because there is no confidence to be had with the Kremlin at this stage, there is more space for tactical errors. This dynamic is feeding a lot of insecurity. There are fears of mounting escalation, as well as for the potential degeneration of escalation into wider confrontation.
How can we mitigate the risk of miscalculation and tactical error that could lead to escalation as a result of rising tension and competition in the Arctic?
Before February 2022, I would have told you we need to depoliticize our relationship with Russia when it comes to Arctic management. I would have advised taking the relationship for what it was—day-to-day management, which consisted of efforts to understand the rules of the road. The advice I would have given to policymakers before February 2022 has completely collapsed, because I don’t think we should be reaching out to the Kremlin at this stage. Fundamentally, what we need to do is make sure that the region encompassing the Arctic seven—which will soon be NATO territory—has contingencies in place, as well as enough depth of analysis, knowledge, and understanding of the Arctic, so that we can collaborate in a much more effective manner. Right now, we don’t have a lot of contingencies in place.
There are contested definitions of what the Arctic is about. We don’t have the luxury of space and geography that Russia has. There’s a tendency to think about the Arctic in terms of what is happening in the North Atlantic. We should be thinking beyond that. It’s not just NATO, but also the Arctic rim-states. We need circumpolar logic, not just Arctic logic. There should be increased intelligence sharing, a greater pooling of resources, and an enhanced effort to understand what the comparative advantages are for rim countries operating in the Arctic. We need to ensure that we have a strong and secure circumpolar front—not just a Nordic front, but a full 360 approach. We also need to have the capacity to communicate to the Kremlin that we are not against them, but we are prepared for whatever contingencies may arise.
The NATO 2030 reports calls for increased situational awareness across the high north and the Arctic as well as for the creation of a proper Arctic strategy. There have also been calls for NATO to take the lead in military security affairs, create a NATO maritime group, and an Arctic command. Is NATO the ideal forum to discuss military security affairs in the Arctic? To what extent should NATO be present in the region?
Once again, there is differential between pre- and post-February 2022. Before Russia’s invasion, I would have told you that NATO is not necessarily the best place to discuss military security, because this will antagonize the Kremlin in such a way that they will see NATO everywhere. De-facto, NATO has become, whether we like it or not, a place to discuss military security, because this will impact the whole of the North Atlantic, north of the North Atlantic, and the entirety of circumpolar security, which includes Canada. It really depends on where we place it. Is it at the level of operations? Does it need to be at the level of internal think tanking? Do we really need a strategy for the Arctic? Can it just be an extension of the North Atlantic? We don’t have answers to these questions yet.
I would be cautious about the future place and role of NATO in the region because we still don’t know how necessary NATO will be. How much NATO do we want? There will be some divergences in interpretation of the role of the Alliance, not least between the Arctic seven in the circumpolar countries, and for countries that still have an interest in being present in the region. Some members of the alliance might not have a similar interest in discussing or engaging in military security terms. There is also a risk in creating new clubs further to the flanks we have discussed, as well as the risk of discrepancies in approaches to policy for NATO.
The Arctic is a unique environment. Unless you are Arctic enabled and Arctic hardened in your ability to operate, it’s a huge challenge to be there in the first place. Trident Juncture 2018, for instance, was a stress-test in a pre-winter environment for the Alliance to operate a military exercise there. The results weren’t great, because it isn’t just a military exercise you need to do—there are a lot of logistics to prepare in order to operate within the environment.
How would you define Russia’s relationship with China when it comes to the Arctic?
In a way, Russia is a gatekeeper for China in the Arctic, because China’s natural access to the Arctic is through the Bering Strait. There is a Pacific dimension here and it impacts Canadian and American security. China and Russia have a unique relationship when it comes to the Arctic because they do not get along when it comes to long-term policy, i.e., determining what Arctic governance should look like. Russia wants a nationalized division of the Arctic. China is pursuing a free-for-all, global commons logic when it comes to Arctic management. They’re expanding and projecting their ambitions 50-100 years onwards, when the central Arctic Ocean will be open for navigation. It’s impossible to say at this stage when this will happen because of the nonlinear process of climate change, but there will be a point when the central Arctic Ocean will become a new navigation route.
China’s long-term strategy does not benefit Russia, because China is slowly trying to dictate its approach to Arctic governance and Arctic rules by becoming a major player. China is quite active when it comes to Greenland, as well as fishing issues with Svalbard and Norway, for instance. China is trying to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time to make sure they prepare the ground for the future, which does not benefit Russia. In the short term, Russia is a client state to China. Approximately 20% of cargo going through the Northern Sea Route consists of energy exports to China. It’s interesting to see that Russia has also been trying to push for more Chinese presence in energy development, mostly on the Yamal Peninsula, for oil and gas projects and for mega-projects that now have fallen victim to sanctions, prices in the market, and access to technology. It is very much a clientelist relationship because Russia needs China to be present as an Arctic player for the development of the Northern Sea Route. However, China doesn’t need Russia to be there because they can leverage time and wait for decades, if need be, to have this new transit route that will bypass Russian waters anyway.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Mathieu Boulègue is Senior Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme. Mathieu specializes in Eurasian security and defence issues, with a focus on Russian foreign policy and military affairs. His research portfolio includes Russian warfare and military industry, Ukraine, Russia-NATO relations, and Russia-China defence and security relations.