The Biden administration, which has sought to isolate Moscow diplomatically on the world stage, is supporting efforts to re-establish technical cooperation with Russia in one of the world’s most challenging geographical regions – the Arctic.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has successfully lobbied to boot Moscow out of various international forums, including the U.N. human rights body and international aviation agency. Last year, President Joe Biden went so far as to call for Russia to be kicked out of the Group of 20 major economies, or G20, a proposal that fizzled due to a lack of support.
But the polar region is the one place where Washington is not icing Russia out completely. Specifically in the Arctic Council, a forum for the eight Arctic states, including the U.S. and Russia, to address common challenges such as climate change, shipping routes and indigenous people’s rights.
“The administration believes the Arctic Council should continue to serve as the premier forum for cooperation among Arctic states, including on sustainability, protecting the environment, addressing the impacts of climate change, scientific research, and on other issues of importance to member countries,” said a senior administration official, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity to discuss security issues.
With no end in sight for the war in Ukraine, the administration is now working with other members of the council — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — to re-establish some of the ties to Moscow that were fully suspended shortly after Russia’s invasion.
As programs ground to a halt last year, Russia remained chair of the council until it handed the baton to Norway in May 2023. Morten Høglund, the council’s chair of the Senior Arctic Officials, said they are aiming to begin work on a technical level.
“The Norwegian Chairship of the Arctic Council is in the process of consulting with all Arctic States and Indigenous Permanent Participants to develop guidelines for the resumption of Working Group-level work with all Arctic States, including the Russian Federation,” Høglund told VOA.
Russia has indicated it wants to remain in the council. During a press conference following the chairship handover, Nikolay Korchunov, Russia's Arctic official, said Moscow wants “comprehensive security in the region” and is “absolutely not interested in escalating the tension in the Arctic.”
“It can all be sorted out by dialogue, which would strengthen the trust,” Korchunov said.
Trust is a tall order for the consensus-based council. With Finland joining NATO in April and Sweden soon to follow, Russian security interests are diametrically opposed to those of the transatlantic allies who now call themselves the Arctic Seven.
Amid increasing challenges, though, such as rapidly melting icecaps, loss of biodiversity, and increased needs for disaster response, there’s little choice but to seek room to collaborate.
The task is now to find the gaps in the current diplomatic freeze and identify areas where scientific cooperation and other forms of non-governmental dialogue are possible, and to prepare for a post-conflict period, said Pavel Devyatkin, a senior associate at the Arctic Institute.
“Practical cooperation can build trust, especially between rivals,” he told VOA. “Though government-level science may be restricted, cooperation at the individual-level is still manageable but has many obstacles such as visa restrictions and closed consulates.”
Rationale for cooperation
The main rationale is Russia’s sheer size. With a land area of about 17 million square kilometers, it makes up 45% of the geographical Arctic, and its coastline accounts for 53% of the Arctic Ocean coastline.
With climate change causing the ice to recede, international shipping is making increasing use of the Northern Sea Route, or NSR, which follows Russia’s coast from the Barents Sea to the Bering Strait. Ships sailing through the NSR need Moscow’s permission and an escort from Russia’s icebreaker fleet, the largest in the world.
However, the “most serious loss would be the loss of Russian data,” said Patrick James, professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Without Moscow’s participation, he told VOA, climatological research will suffer.
This includes research for the council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program that has proven instrumental for global policy. AMAP studies showing the buildup of toxic chemicals in the blood of polar species critical to Indigenous People’s diets helped shape the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Continued Western sanctions have pushed Moscow to increasingly depend on Beijing as a source of financing for energy projects, such as the Yamal LNG Terminal, and infrastructure plans to develop the Arctic region.
“Developing the Northern Sea Route was always a Russian goal,” said Stephanie Pezard, senior political scientist focusing on Arctic Security at RAND Corporation. “And right now, they don't have any partners to do that, except China.”
For Beijing, investing in Russian sea ports will help with access to the Northern Sea Route, she told VOA. China has no Arctic coastline but calls itself a “Near-Arctic Power.”
The degree of Russian-Chinese strategic polar partnership is ambiguous, however, said the Arctic Institute’s Devyatkin.
“Despite the hype around the Polar Silk Road, there has been no shipping from the Chinese Overseas Shipping Company, or COSCO, along the Northern Sea Route since February 2022,” he said. “It is also unlikely that Russia would allow a permanent Chinese military presence in the Arctic to rival its own defensive complex in the region.”
From Beijing’s point of view there is a limit to how much alignment it should seek with Moscow as it tries to promote itself as a responsible stakeholder deserving a voice in Arctic affairs, said Matthew Funaiole, a China Power Project senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
And while the polar region is emerging as a space with plenty of structural tensions, Funaiole said it’s too early to conclude it has become another front for U.S.-China rivalry, the primary theater for which remains in the Indo Pacific.
“The Arctic is not going to supplant that anytime in the near future,” he told VOA.