Russia, which accounts for half of the Arctic region, is one of eight nations that make up the Arctic Council (the others are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and United States), along with representatives of six Indigenous Peoples’ organisations.
During the Cold War the Arctic was a heavily militarised region and a focus for competing East-West strategies. However, former Soviet President Gorbachev’s 1987 speech in which he called for a “zone of peace” to be created in the Arctic, set the tone for a new era of cooperation and the founding of the Arctic Council about a decade later.
While the crisis between Russia and Ukraine is creating political fault lines that may yet spill over into the Arctic Council, for now at least, it seems to be business as usual with Russia participating at the eight-country Council meeting currently taking place in Canada.
Iceland has questioned whether Russia’s strong-arm tactics in Crimea might spill over into Arctic affairs. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, during a recent trade mission to Canada, said “Clearly, it has made many players in the Arctic quite worried about developments and whether they might be a sign of what is to come”.
After referring to the activities of the USA and Russia in the Arctic, Norway’s wish for NATO to establish a military presence in the Arctic High North as a strategic counterweight to Russia, and Canada’s claims, we read about a NATO Defence College Research Paper (July 2013), which suggests that “a strong case can be made for NATO to develop a High North policy framework now given the pace of development over the last four years”. The author, Brooke A. Smith-Windsor, concludes that “the safety, security and defence implications of a warming Arctic are real and cannot be ignored” and outlines three options for renewed NATO engagement in the region.
Its briefing paper ends:
In an earlier NATO Watch Briefing Paper on the Arctic, we made three recommendations and we would like to reiterate these in the light of recent developments:
1. The UN Convention on Law of the Sea is a crucial agreement for framing future economic development in the Arctic region and environmental protection issues must not be downgraded by pressure from political and economic interests.
2. Emergency and disaster preparedness in the region are a natural corollary to economic exploitation but they should not be used as a cover for militarising the Far North. For that reason, an expanded Arctic Council is the more appropriate body to promote regional development rather than NATO.
3. NATO member states should develop greater transparency with Russia on military deployments.