Sustainable Development In The North: No Return To Pre-War Reality In Arctic Cooperation With Russia

Russia’s attack to Ukraine has quickly ceased Arctic countries international cooperation with Russia in the Arctic region. On March 3rd, shortly after Russia began its war, seven member states of the Arctic Council, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the United States, announced that cooperation in the Arctic Council must be paused as a protest to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine even as Russia currently serves as a chair of the Council. In June, the Arctic states said they would resume work in the forum in projects that do not include Russia. Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic in during the past 10-15 years has also been increasing geopolitical instability in the Arctic region which all the Arctic countries have been aiming to avoid after the end of the Cold War. 

Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. has disapproved the decision of the seven Arctic states to continue the work of the Council without one its member state. Ambassador Anatoly Antonov declared in RIA novosti decisions without the participation of Russia to be illegitimate and to violate the principle of consensus. The study led by the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland defines that there will be no return to the pre-war reality according to the report released on October 11th and commissioned by the government of Finland. The study describes that “the situation in the Arctic has changed dramatically, although the region is still in a state of peace. Even before the war of aggression, relations between Russia and the West had deteriorated for several reasons.” 

The fact that Russia has attacked to a sovereign country and violated international law and brought war to Europe are acts that the seven states in the Arctic Council cannot ignore. Evan T. Bloom writing in Arctic Today explains that cooperation in the Arctic is not appropriate or feasible at the moment because governments at odds with Ukraine cannot be expected to make progress on environmental rules where trust is needed. Arctic Centre describes that even though Arctic political cooperation is in a temporary state of suspension, the Arctic states continue to cooperate through legal agreements.

Yet, the Western-led isolation of Russia can have a serious backlash for the rest of the Arctic states and even globally as well. Without Russia’s participation in the research of climate and environmental issues in the Arctic Western parties will lose access to valuable research information of half of the Arctic region concerning the future development of climate change yet in future satellite technology can be used to obtain specific data from example concerning the sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 

As Arctic Circle Mission Council writes, paradigm shift from military tension of the Cold War to political stability due to growing concerns about environmental degradation has been central to the development of states relations in the region. Arctic Council, established in 1996, has been described as a success story in how it has managed to support this transition and peaceful relations and continuous dialogue between Russia and the West. International Institute for Strategic Studies has described that the Arctic has been one of the few areas on which Washington and Moscow could work productively on crucial climate and environmental problems.

As Arctic Centre has emphasized, paralysis of international cooperation and research in the Arctic is problematic because sustainable development in the region requires extensive international and regional cooperation. The state of the environment and climate know no national borders. In fact, according to a recent study published in Communications Earth & Environment journal Arctic region has warmed nearly four times faster than the globe since 1979. Jonathan Bamber writing in The Conversation describes alarming facts well-known for the researchers of the Arctic: Arctic contains climate components that are extremely sensitive to warming, such as permafrost and Greenland ice sheet. 

It is difficult to predict how the relations in the Arctic will develop as the war in Ukraine is still on-going and the NATO membership applications by Finland and Sweden are a “red flag” to Russia as researcher Timo Koivurova from Arctic Centre describes. There have even been speculations by researchers that the recent events in the Arctic Council could lead to two separate regions in the Arctic governance, to the Western and the Eastern coalition. In the latter Russia would collaborate with China and India. In September, the seven Arctic states have started to plan cooperation again and in March 2023 the chairmanship of the Arctic Council shifts to Norway which increases the possibilities for resuming international cooperation again and finding alternative ways to cooperate, at least among the parties of the rest of the Arctic Council.