Putin and the Institutional Deficit in Arctic Security

See The Simons Foundation's Disarming Arctic Security page for briefing papers on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation.

Putin and the Institutional Deficit in Arctic Security

May 29, 2014

Just trying to understand, never mind defend, Vladimir Putin is once again a serious political offense. Some German commentators even have a name for the offender – a Putinversteher, a Putin “understander.” And they don’t mean that in a good way. But in Tromsø, Norway – some 350 kms above the Arctic Circle, a long way from Kiev and Donetsk but very near to Murmansk – participants in an Arctic marine security workshop assumed the effort to understand and, notably, get along with the Russians to be more a matter of self-interested necessity than the occasion for derision.

That didn’t prevent the Ukraine crisis from insinuating itself into the “Cooperation 66˚ North” workshop on maritime security, co-sponsored by the Norwegian Barents Secretariat and the US Embassy in Oslo, and held at Tromsø’s University of the Arctic. Some last minute tit-for-tat cancellations reduced Russian participation, and the discussions couldn’t ignore the political chill in pan Arctic relations spawned by the geo-political machinations of southern Europe.

Participants were aware of the Canadian government’s appeal to principle in boycotting an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow.[i] The cancellation of a US-Russia hazards-reduction workshop, planned for early June, was reported as “a casualty of the conflict over Ukraine,”[ii] and a string of joint Arctic military exercises has also been cancelled – including “Pomor 2014” with Russia and Norway and “Northern Eagle” with Russia, the US, and Norway, among others.

Side conversations with diplomats, experts, and stakeholders from Russia, the Nordic countries, Eastern and Central Europe, and North America, made it clear that most saw lost opportunity rather than principle in the contrived linkages between the Ukraine and the Arctic. Indeed, the apparent susceptibility of the Arctic to political impositions from unrelated conflicts was raised as evidence of the lack of a durable institutional framework for Arctic security, one that can keep Arctic authorities focused on regional security challenges and made-in-the-region solutions.

One irrefutable reality in the Arctic is that it doesn’t afford the luxury of picking and choosing partners. There are eight of them, eight states with territory above the Arctic Circle, all are members of the Arctic Council, and none is leaving. Russia’s 7,000 kilometers of Arctic coastline and its expansive continental shelf make it a particularly imposing fixture, now and in the future. An American scientist organizing the cancelled Alaska workshop had it right when he offered this bottom line: “Perhaps we can function with a G-7 instead of a G-8, but an Arctic-7 instead of an Arctic-8 would be pointless.”[iii]  Continue reading....


See also: "Arctic security suffers by freeze on Russia" op-ed by Ernie Regehr published by Embassy - Canada's Foreign Policy Newspaper, June 11, 2014 (subscription required).

Ernie Regehr, O.C. is Senior Fellow in Arctic Security at The Simons Foundation, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo.