Ukraine and the Arctic Council

When the Arctic Council meets this week in Yellowknife, participants will no doubt be thinking of the Ukraine. But they probably won’t be talking about it, at least during the official sessions.

Ukraine will be on their minds because Russia, which accounts for half of the Arctic region, is one of the eight nations making up the council, along with representatives of six Indigenous Peoples’ organizations.

There has been much high blown rhetoric about the Arctic recently. Articles and commentary abound on it the “race for resources” in a region opening up due to climate change. Others have pointed to it 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.

Since the Crimean crisis began, Canadian politicians, including Foreign Minister John Baird, have used heated language and compared the Russian takeover to the Nazi invasion of  Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. 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. Will this kind of talk influence the discussions around the mostly amiable Arctic Council table?

The Arctic Council, currently chaired by Canada, may continue to be insulated from wider geopolitics, says Timo Koivurova, research professor and director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law, Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Rovianemi, Finland. In a recent interview Koivurova, a longtime observer of the Arctic Council, said that the 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 the Ukraine is “very serious,” Koivurova pointed out that Arctic cooperation is “low key and focussed on science.” Arctic environmental and sustainable development issues — the bread and butter of the council — “are not so sensitive.”

Koivurova said the main source of tension in the Arctic — where one country’s continental shelf ends and another begins — is being dealt with through a process established through the UN Law of the Sea. This is the international treaty process that that the five coastal states have pointed to as a way of resolving any conflict in the region. As late as February this year, the five — Canada, the United States, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and Russia — committed themselves to finding a way to prevent unregulated fishing in the central Arctic Ocean.

Nevertheless, it’s not so much the specific activities of the Arctic Council that could be affected by the situation in the Ukraine but the general atmosphere. Given its size and importance in the region, “there is no Arctic cooperation without Russia,” Koivurova said. 

A potential casualty in all this is Canada’s efforts to strengthen the Arctic Council during its chairmanship, which ends next year. The best approach would be to focus on local and regional issues, he said, and leave the larger geopolitical issues out of it.

The Arctic was once one of the most militarized regions on the planet, its territory the centre of Cold War strategies of east and west. The era of modern cooperation can be said to have begun with a speech by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 in which he called for a “zone of peace” to be created in the Arctic.  The Arctic Council came along about a decade later and was founded on the principle the larger geopolitical questions are not discussed. For a decade and a half this strategy has worked. Whether the council can remain aloof from the tensions created by the crisis in the Crimea remains to be seen.

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

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