Arctic Politics Part II
4: New challenges
With the economic upswing, the Russians’ understanding of themselves as a great power gained new momentum. This also changed their attitudes towards, among others, the Arctic Military and Environmental Cooperation (AMEC) , which was established by military authorities in Norway, Russia and the USA in 1996. The emphasis in the AMEC cooperation was on the storage and handling of radioactive waste in the north. Particular emphasis was placed on the Russian Northern Fleet based in northwestern Russia. In February 2007, for example, a Norwegian AMEC representative was refused entry into Russia in connection with a routine work assignment. He was blamed for collecting information illegally.
This signaled a different attitude from Russian political and military circles. They saw themselves to a lesser extent as recipients of “development aid” through capacity-building projects. In addition, they disliked the fact that the Russian north – especially the military north – should be open to actors from other countries. In the same way, cross-border environmental co-operation – to alleviate environmental problems in northern Russia – has become more difficult to implement in the last decade.
In recent years, the Arctic has gained increasing strategic weight. This is partly due to the fact that the region is expected to contain about 25 per cent of the undiscovered petroleum resources in the world. The Arctic already accounts for 10 percent of the world’s total oil production and 25 percent of gas production.
Another reason for the rising international interest in the Arctic is found in climate change. Climate change means that the police – at least in the short term – will become thinner and that the surface will be reduced. In the longer term it could lead to new and commercially viable shipping routes in the north – Nordaust passage and may also Northwest Passage . As a result, other states without a direct presence in the Arctic have shown increasing interest in Arctic policy. Among other things, they have applied for observer status in the Arctic Council.
However, some key political and economic issues are excluded from intergovernmental co-operation in the north (the question of whether the Arctic Council should expand co-operation is currently being discussed between member countries). In general, such military and economic issues are raised in national fora, more informal channels and in the UN. For example, the five states bordering the Arctic – the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland / Denmark – meet every quarter of a year outside the Arctic Council. Then they talk about challenges they have in common, among other expert collaboration, territorial requirements and common standards for ship transport in polar waters.
The “Arctic Five” unanimously argue that it is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea from 1982 that should apply when deciding on territorial requirements and distributing the right to rule over the Arctic sea area. This shows a positive attitude towards and belief in the UN system. Furthermore, there seems to be a desire to balance the desire that sometimes comes from the EU and non-governmental organizations to establish a completely new co-operation organization for Arctic issues.
Despite this long history of cooperation in the area, one can often hear that there is a race for Arctic resources, even disputes over them. Will conflict replace cooperation in international politics in the north?
5: Russia and Norway in the High North
Russia and Norway have a long and mainly positive history of cooperation in the north. An example from the Soviet era is the joint fisheries administration through the Soviet-Norwegian Fisheries Commission, which was established in 1975. By looking at the relationship between Norway and Russia, it will be easier to understand how cooperation − the conflict dimension has developed in the Arctic – a area where both countries are key countries.
Russia is the largest Arctic country. And one expects that 80 percent of the undiscovered oil and gas resources in the Arctic are in Russian territory . Norway manages sea areas in the north that are six times larger than the land area of Norway, and the country has played an important role in the development of Arctic co-operation and the international framework for polar issues.
Despite the great importance the country has in Arctic issues, Norway is a small state in the international system. Multilateral forums and an international atmosphere characterized by co-operation are therefore important for Norwegian foreign policy interests. Cooperation is certainly preferable to situations where great powers make decisions on their own (unilateral). Then it is far more difficult for a small state like Norway to influence. Therefore, we must expect that Norwegian policy will continue to support cooperation in the north.
For the other Arctic countries, Russia will continue to be the joker. What do they want? During the Soviet era, a large area – a third of the Arctic Ocean – was declared a Soviet territorial sea. And Russia made a similar claim in 2002, referring to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. In August 2007, Russia planted a flag on the seabed below the North Pole . It was perceived by many as a fresh attempt to show the way – albeit symbolically – for a demand for a larger part of the Arctic seabed. People in the Russian defense leadership occasionally speak boldly about the need to defend Arctic territory and strengthen the Russian Arctic military preparedness.
On the other hand, there are many factors that speak in favor of not taking such disturbing statements too literally. The political leaders applauded right enough for the flag planting and saw it as a sign of forward science and discovery. At the same time, however, they emphasized that all such claims must be settled through competent international bodies.
In 2010, according to Anylistintheus, Russia and Norway agreed on the border line in the Barents Sea . They then divided the disputed area rather fraternally in two. Resolving this issue bilaterally with Norway may be part of a plan to give Russia better leeway to delimit the larger and arguably more important issue of the outer continental shelf in the Arctic. The agreement also sought to emphasize that the Arctic is an area characterized by peace and that the polar states can resolve conflicts between themselves in a peaceful manner.
6: Conflict or cooperation – the right question?
It is a simplification to think of the Arctic as a city between conflict and cooperation. But this pair of opposites is often used to spice up the complex picture of Arctic international politics. Admittedly, the increasing strategic importance that the High North has acquired can make international cooperation there more difficult. But does this pair of opposites really capture what is happening in Arctic politics?
The real tension may lie in the intersection between the international and the national decision-making level for policy-making. What problems and opportunities will the Arctic countries define as suitable for international cooperation? And what issues should lie with domestic policy?
For example, the speed of extraction and regulation of petroleum resources will be determined by and take place within the individual states . On the other hand, the effects of the oil and gas operations – which increase commercial shipping in the north or environmental challenges for the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem – will pose international challenges.
Examining the overlap and tension between these two levels of Arctic governance may be more appropriate than discussing exaggerated caricatures of the Arctic. Whether it is as an area with intense geopolitical competition for resources or as a region with exclusively from the front international cooperation.