Present geopolitical situation – a challenge for Arctic cooperation?

One of the very interesting and pressing topics of the Arctic conference, was the Ukrainian crisis of last year, and the impact that it poses to the future of Arctic Cooperation.

Text: Sana Ahmed // Photo: Press

On the panel discussing this important issue were Professor Alexander Sergunin from St. Petersburg State University, Gunnar Sætra from the Institute of Marine Research and Professor Alyson Bailes from the University of Iceland. The discussion was moderated by Arild Moe.

Professor Sergunin initiated the session by discussing the negative impacts of the Ukranian crisis on the relations between the Russian Federation and Arctic Council. He noted the consequences such as drop in the regional trade, fall in the energy sector, effect on the Northern sea route, as well as skewed funds for indigenous peoples and suspicion towards civil society operating within the country as destabilizing factors for the future of Russia’s relationship with the Arctic countries. In addition, the increase in military presence in Russia has heightened the regional security concerns. The regional governance in the Arctic has also been greatly affected with the eruptions of disputes within countries such as Canada and Denmark.
However, Russia is looking for trade partners outside the Arctic zone in China, India and Vietnam. This is a good news for the country but it cannot ignore its Arctic relations, warned Professor Sergunin and advises the country to prioritize the Arctic politico-economic affairs above the conflict of interests over the Ukrainian issue. He suggested
both Russia and the Arctic countries to look for common interests such as climate change, maritime regulations and reviving the regional governance institutions such as the Arctic Council as well as the BEAC. Further, he requested the Arctic countries along with the European Union to lift unnecessary sanctions on the country.

Professor Alyson Bailes, however was of the opinion that the Ukrainian crisis does not have a major impact on the relations between Russia and the Arctic council as the two strive to work on common or non-contending issues. Professor Bailes referred to the research studies as well as the widely stated opinions in the Norwegian media in comprehending the opinion that the people and government of Norway want to have normalized relations with Russia and do not want to engage in a conflict with the country. However, one of the observer states to the Arctic Council – Poland has been critical of the actions of Russia which might give rise to the Baltic states voicing their
discontentment with the country too.

Professor Bailes also stated the importance of the Arctic Council in the Ukrainian crisis despite the criticisms that the regional body has faced in relation to its feeble stance. The Council enables desecuritization as a well as depoliticization. There is a careful and restrained handling of the Russian matter in the Arctic Council, advocated Professor Bailes. She also noted the important role of the Arctic Economic Council which oversees the IMO shipping codes, fisheries as well as the matters pertaining to oil and gas. The stable relations between Russia and specifically Norway were further emphasized by Gunnar Sætra which related to the cooperation between the countries, started almost twenty years ago to manage the ecosystem in a more efficient way and thus enjoying the resultant benefits out of the gas as well fisheries industry.

After the panelists had the chance to deliberate their ideas, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Of the many questions that were raised by the researchers, academicians, politicians as well as students in the audience, the common query underlying most of them was towards the concrete measures which both Russia and the Arctic states need to take in order to make the cooperation work smoothly. Professor Bailes responded to this saying that Russia’s actions towards Ukraine have been self-destructive, especially during the unfortunate period of the rise of oil and gas prices. Russia could thus face potential isolation. «The Arctic could be the last reservoir of strength for sustained cooperation in the longer term», stated Professor Bailes.

However Professor Sergunin was of the opinion that despite the risks it faces, Russia is not necessarily in a desperate situation, especially when one looks at the Asia-Pacific background of the country, both culturally and geographically. Through its potential ties with growing economies such as India, China, Vietnam as well as the membership in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the Russian Federation has benefit positing options.

Nonetheless, all panelists were of the opinion that the Paris Conference later this year (November 2015) can be a significant opportunity for Russia to manage the criticisms it faces and evolve a sustainable strategy for the future. Gunnar Sætra concluded that one of the main responsibilities lies with the media in showing a clearer picture rather than stating their opinions on the already sensitive
terrains that Russia walks on today.