Diplomatic Chill

A new cold war in the warming arctic?
May 1, 2014

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to unfold, there is increasing concern that a new Cold War is about to break out in the rapidly warming Arctic.

For the last 18 years, eight Arctic states and six indigenous peoples organizations have cooperated on environmental and sustainable development issues, sometimes influencing global agendas. Positive examples include the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, which first raised the alarm about rapid warming rates in much of the region, and the work of this project on trans-boundary persistent organic pollutants (POPS). The latter was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the 2001 Stockholm POPs Convention.

In late March, the Arctic Council, which Canada currently chairs, met in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. If Ukraine was on the minds of any of the participants, they certainly didn’t mention it. And though Canada had been pushing to expel Russia from the G8, there appeared to be no immediate fallout for Arctic cooperation.

The good faith is challenged by heightened rhetoric from many directions and, if unchecked, threatens to militarize a region many hoped would remain a “zone of peace.”

Conflict and cooperation

In early April, Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, argued in the Globe and Mail that Russia’s moves in Ukraine threaten Canada’s Arctic strategy. He warned of spillover effects in the Arctic that will require the federal government to take its perceived security interests more seriously.

There has been much high-blown rhetoric about the Arctic in the last few years. Articles and commentary abound on the “race for resources” in a region opening up due to climate change. Others have pointed to the Arctic as a potential flash point between Russia and other states. Russia is seen as playing geopolitical hardball by planting flags at the North Pole and expanding its military reach in the region. Canadian politicians have also been known to turn up the rhetoric when talking about potential Russian threats to Canada’s northern borders, as when fighter jets were scrambled in 2009 to intercept two Russian bombers skirting Canada’s perimeter two hundred kilometres northeast of Tuktoyaktuk.

But according Timo Koivurova, director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland, the Arctic Council might continue to be insulated from wider geopolitics.

In a recent interview, Koivurova, a longtime observer of the council, said Arctic states managed to continue their cooperation on environmental and sustainable development issues through the war in Chechnya and the short conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. While admitting the Ukraine situation is “very serious,” Koivurova pointed out that Arctic cooperation is “low key and focused on science.” Arctic environmental and sustainable development issues, the bread and butter of the council, “are not so sensitive.”

Koivurova explained the main source of tension in the Arctic, where one country’s continental shelf ends and another’s begins, is being handled through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is the international treaty process that the five coastal states—Canada, the United States, Denmark/Greenland, Norway and Russia—point to as a way of resolving any potential conflict in the region. As late as February this year, the five nations committed to finding a way to prevent unregulated fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

“No Arctic cooperation without Russia”

Notwithstanding this positive cooperation, it is possible the general atmosphere created by the crisis in Ukraine, and fired up rhetoric, could affect the work of the council. As Koivurova said, given its size and importance in the region, “there is no Arctic cooperation without Russia.”

In mid-April, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Ukraine’s woes are “patently, without any doubt whatsoever, strictly the work of Russian provocateurs sent by the Putin regime.” This was followed by Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s announcement that Canada would boycott an Arctic Council meeting on black carbon and methane in Moscow.

The minister said that while Canada still supports the work of the council, its absence this time is the “result of Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine and its continued provocative actions in Crimea and elsewhere.” A couple of days later, Prime Minister Harper announced Canada will respond to a NATO request for support in Eastern Europe by sending six CF-18 fighter jets to Poland, to contribute to the alliance’s enhanced military presence in the region.

Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State and possible future candidate for president, told a Montreal audience recently that Canada and the United States should form “a united front” to counter increased Russian aggression in the Arctic. But as the U.S. administration and European Union search for a diplomatic solution, Canada appears increasingly isolated in its stance.

Principle or legacy?

None of this is especially good news for Arctic cooperation. The federal government’s provocative approach in Ukraine might also be counterproductive.

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom argued recently that the Prime Minister is striking a “Churchilian” pose over Ukraine and wants to burnish his foreign affairs legacy as he enters the twilight of his tenure. “That Canada alone can do nothing to stop Russia is immaterial. The point is to be seen as prescient, to be on the right side of history,” he wrote, adding that the goal has eluded the Prime Minister before.

“Indeed, in far too many cases Harper has ended up on the wrong, or at least the indeterminate, side of history,” wrote Walkom. He includes the Prime Minister’s support for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and a longer war in Afghanistan, “that the Canadian public eventually tired of,” as examples. Harper also “went out of his way to scupper international action against climate change,” said the columnist.

“Unfortunately for his legacy, he did so just as the practical effects of climate change—including summer droughts and vicious winter storms— were becoming obvious. His rock-hard support of Israel has endeared him to many Jewish voters in Canada. However, history’s verdict on Israel and the Palestinians has not yet been rendered. And now Ukraine.”

One could also add, and now the Arctic.

We cannot afford to militarize

The trouble with this black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach to Ukraine is that while it might make the Prime Minister, and the domestic audience he is playing to, feel better it does not serve Canada’s interest in the long run. In fact this posture almost certainly undermines the government’s stated ambition of strengthening the Arctic Council.

The government has invested a lot of political capital in ministerial trips to Canada’s North, and to talking about the importance of the region to Canada’s identity and security. Unfortunately, the military and coast guard are a long way from being able to effectively patrol and monitor what is going on in those millions of square kilometres that make up the Canadian Arctic. Nor should we want to invest those kinds of resources if it means a destabilized relationship among Arctic nations.

The Arctic was once one of the most militarized regions on the planet, its territory the centre of Cold War strategies by East and West alike. The era of modern cooperation can be said to have begun with a speech by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, in which he called for a “zone of peace” to be created in the Arctic. The kind of cooperation that has been taking place in the Arctic is truly unique and it should not be sacrificed lightly.

John Crump is a CCPA research associate and an expert on Arctic and global environmental issues.