Troy Bouffard: What Do Russia’s Ambitions Mean for the Stability of the Arctic Council?

The following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with Troy Bouffard.

Can Russia encourage cooperation in the North while chairing the Arctic Council, despite its recent rhetoric on its claim to Arctic Territory, and despite NATO exercises in the region? 

The Arctic Council doesn’t discuss military matters. They don’t have this crushing distraction of military security matters to think about, which has allowed to operate with great efficiency and focus. Military security matters can ruin opportunities for cooperation, because of the unanimity required for decision-making. The Arctic Council is a consensus-based organization, if any member state objects to an item it is tabled or discontinued. There is lots of intrigue about the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council, but it is likely to remain business as usual.

Russia lead the positive interdependence aspect. They can facilitate and lead through effective communication, friendliness, and also strive to decrease obstruction. Russia can coordinate efforts, facilitate divisions of labour, share power, and deal with conflicting interests. That is something you would see in positive interdependence role such as this. The Arctic Council is currently one of the most effective examples in the world of a cooperative institute. The role of chair is naturally collaborative, as is the council itself. Outside of the Arctic Council is where things get interesting.

What objectives has Russia laid out in its 2035 Arctic Strategy? Are Russia’s recent claims to the Arctic a legitimate threat to Canadian Arctic sovereignty? 

In October 2020, when Putin published the Strategy for Developing Russia’s Arctic zone and Ensuring National Security up to 2035, it caught our attention. It really looked like the culmination of a lot of work that Russia had developed and established right in time for the chairmanship. Russia has learned that it is difficult to address challenges in the Arctic. With this strategy, Russia seems to have done its homework. It is the most realistic strategy could have published. Even more telling is that in March, Putin ordered Prime Minister Mishustin to publish an implementation plan within a month, right before the Arctic Council in May.

That implementation plan broke down the strategy in terms of priority items. Russia, through this publication, consistently prioritizes the management and control of the Northern Sea Route, which is very concerning for us. Other priorities that consistently appear are Russia’s ambitions to develop, produce, and protect the natural resources of the Arctic, especially within the maritime domain. One of the highlighted items that comes up first is a need to stabilize and reverse the decreasing population they have in the North. Russia has a lot of grand economic and development plans in the North that depend on a stable population and workforce. Instead of using the old Soviet method of forcing populations to the North, Russia outlined a very pragmatic plan to reverse this phenomenon. People do not want to be in the North for several reasons. Russia has promised to provide better health care, infrastructure, roads, and schools. The government has articulated incentives for anyone who would want to live in the North—that’s very telling.

Officially, there are no ‘threats’ we could point to, because all of Russia’s actions are articulated and stated consistently through behavior in terms of defense, protecting, and developing its natural resources. Russia has been very consistent about using this language, but at the same time, we’re all concerned that they’re developing significant capabilities. Russia is developing a sophisticated air defense network that includes maritime platforms and sensors in the islands. These are capabilities and infrastructure that take years to develop. Although we see no intent, the situation can evolve very quickly—all of a sudden you have a seemingly benign capability along your coast that can be used for fairly threatening purposes.

Russia could use its northern coast as an avenue of approach to attack in the Arctic, but that is extremely unclear at this point. However, we can see the direction this is going. Right now, Canada and North America more generally are being challenged to figure out what we’re going to do about this, and it is very long-term. North American defense and NORAD modernization causing significant political and economic issues for the U.S and Canada. The systems we currently have in North America to deal with sensors, detection, identification, and discrimination are outdated and cannot keep up with today’s growing threats, especially cruise missiles and hypersonics. Russia realizes we are in a bad place because we’re still trying to decide, as a binational defense partnership, what the solution to this problem is. It is a very difficult topic, because it’s going to be very expensive. We’re talking about modernizing the defense system. We’re in a bit of political turmoil regarding how to go forward with a solution for the continent.

Can the Arctic remain a region of cooperation, particularly regarding environmental security, despite the inevitability of climate change rendering shipping routes and resources more accessible? 

The support and motivation to cooperate is only strengthening. Most nations understand that dealing with the Arctic is expensive, technically challenging, and dangerous. It makes sense to work together. You see the five littoral nations that have sovereign authority and jurisdiction over the Arctic, working very closely together—four of those being founding members of NATO, the other one being Russia. You’re not going to see a situation like this anywhere else in the world. Its rare for Russia to engage in this level of cooperation.

I think we’ll see more interest in protecting the Arctic Council too. It is vulnerable to geopolitics and geoeconomics. Member states are happy it exists, but also realize that working together under the best conditions is still extremely hard. I don’t think anyone wants to imagine what it would be like to address some of the challenges we’ve discussed without the Arctic Council. There has been a concerted effort to ensure the council as well as multilateral cooperation in the Arctic is preserved. I think climate change is solidifying this, because it is a threat or challenge multiplier in the Arctic. It will only strengthen our collaboration.

Former Secretary of State Pompeo confirmed intent to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) through NSR/NWP. What are the implications and potential precedents involved? Is the Biden administration taking a different approach to Arctic security? How is Canada impacted? 

This is one of the biggest sources of tension in the Arctic. Freedom of navigation is the top maritime priority of the U.S and has been since 1979. Freedom of navigation operations are considered an operational law. The U.S, typically through its Navy, will conduct maritime assertions to challenge what we consider excessive maritime claims. Those claims often involve what are considered or defined by a nation as internal waters. There are little inlets and coves along the coastline where freedom of navigation through innocent passage or transit passage don’t have to be recognized. They don’t have to be honoured or respected. They do have to be in territorial waters though. When nations start claiming waters a little bit beyond the norm, as stated by the UN Conventional Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that’s where the U.S and other nations will classify those as excessive maritime claims.

Sometimes, great effort must be made to establish and emphasize that an excessive maritime claim isn’t recognized. Precedents could be set that potentially impact freedom of navigation as an international principle. That’s when you start seeing vessels entering contested waters, which is done deliberately to send a very strong message. We see this clearly in the South China Sea every day. Russia considers its entire Northern Sea Route, which is from the coastline to the EEZ boundary between Cape Dezhnev to Novaya Zemlya, as internal waters. They don’t call them internal waters, but they behave exactly as if they are. That is a huge issue for us. If we allow Russia to stake that claim does that set a precedent worldwide?

Regarding the Northwest Passage, the U.S considers them to be international straits. Nonetheless, Canada’s excessive maritime claims clearly align more with international norms. These are the two issues in the Arctic, where freedom of navigation is an issue. They need to be considered completely separately. Russia would love to see this become an issue between the United States and Canada, but it’s not. We have had an agreement and a treaty since 1988. These are not similar situations.

Troy Bouffard has been a full-time faculty instructor at UAF in the UAF HSEM program since 2015. He is the designer and instructor for the Arctic Security graduate concentration and graduate certificate in the Masters of Security and Disaster Management program.

Troy is also the co-investigator and program manager of the USNORTHCOM/ALCOM Arctic Defense and Security Orientation (ADSO) program started in 2014.  ADSO is the primary educational program to responsible for baselining DOD knowledge of the Arctic region through an operational focus. Troy is also a Russian linguist (advanced beginner – 4th year/C1), published as well as cited in Russian outlets. Other “languages” Troy knows highly relevant to Arctic security involve significant experience with diplomacy, operational, and academia/research endeavors – all of which have guided his contributions and continued pursuit of relevance critical to the topic.

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