One Arctic or Two? Polar Geopolitics in the Wake of the Ukraine Conflict

15.5.2022 8:32

The ongoing attacks by Russia against Ukraine continue to shock us all. Whatever the outcome of this conflict, and we do not even have a concise view of how long the fighting could last, we are already facing many of its political and strategic consequences, including here in the Nordic states.

Much speculation has already begun about what could be the longer-term consequences of this war. One such area of debate is what will happen to Arctic international governance, given that Russia represents almost half of the Arctic region.

All standing northern co-operative bodies have taken various steps to react to the war in Ukraine. For example, the parties to the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, (European Union, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), have suspended all activities involving Russia. The only standing inter-governmental forum representing the entire circumpolar Arctic, the Arctic Council, (the five Nordic states, the United States, Russia and Canada), took a slightly different approach. On 3 March, seven members of the Council announced that they were condemning Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and that cooperation with the Arctic Council would be ‘paused’, even as Russia continues to serve as chair of the forum until May 2023. Yet, at the same time, the seven Arctic governments also stressed the importance of continued Arctic Council cooperation. The ‘A-7’ countries are now considering how the Council can continue to function under such unprecedented conditions. Despite Council cooperation with Russia being an impossibility at present, especially as long as Moscow is holding the chair position, it is important to note that the A7 states are not calling for Russia to be expelled from the group. This signals the importance that the A7 has placed on the Arctic Council as an institution to which Russia can later return.

One set of analyses argue that the war in Ukraine means that the Arctic international co-operation will begin to move into two directions: with closer cooperation between the Western states in the Arctic, and intensified regional cooperation between Russia and China. Examples of the stance do include the strengthening of security ties amongst Western powers, and the likely NATO application from Finland, and perhaps from Sweden. It is also suggested that China and Russia, which signed a joint statement underscoring a ‘no limits’ relationship mere weeks before the Ukraine invasion began, may deepen their coordination in Arctic affairs to push back against the West.

There should be some caution, however, in predicting a ‘Sino-Russian Arctic alliance’ as a result of the current situation in Ukraine. Beijing has declared a de facto neutral stance on the conflict, and although Beijing has rarely missed an opportunity to point at NATO as being primarily responsible for ‘forcing’ Russia to militarily intervene in Ukraine, the Chinese government is highly wary of being caught in the same farrago of sanctions the Putin regime is now facing. In the Arctic, Chinese energy firms like Sinopec have indicated that they are scaling back their plans in Siberia, while scientific cooperation between the two powers has also reportedly stalled since the war began. Facing public backlash from its ‘zero-Covid’ policies at home, and with a pivotal National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party to be held later this year, China cannot risk international punishment for a closer alignment with Russia, and so has been forced into a ‘not too hot, not too cold’ approach to Moscow, which is hardly conducive to an Arctic alliance.

It remains too early to say anything definitive of how the Arctic governance landscape will be developing. Yet, we argue that it is not at all a foregone conclusion that we are heading towards the emergence of ‘two Arctics’. While the Ukraine conflict has dealt a serious blow to Arctic cooperation, other security issues remain, including the region-wide emergencies accelerating in number caused by climate change. The Arctic Council, and its institutions and legal agreements that have been negotiated under its auspices, may well continue, even if it is via interim arrangements to keep the various parts of the Arctic Council moving on without Russia. The circumpolar Arctic remains too critically important to the entire world to have its interests simply placed on hold.

Prof Timo Koivurova
Research Professor, Arctic Centre, University of Lapland
Dr Marc Lanteigne
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Tromsø

Published originally in the Polar Connection (11.5. 2022)