It would be an understatement to say that Canadian-Russian relations are less than friendly at the moment. From the ongoing conflict in Ukraine to recent events in Syria, tensions seem to abound between Ottawa and Moscow. As a result, one might expect Canada and Russia to be at odds when it comes to the Arctic. After all, the Arctic encompasses strategically located—and often disputed—swaths of territory along interstate borders.
Further complicating state sovereignty is the maritime nature of the Arctic, which renders ownership of Arctic territory ambiguous, in terms of international law. Canada’s and Russia’s economies also rely on natural resources that can be found beneath the Arctic ice. To boot, Canadian and Russian national identities have long been tied to the notion of a vast Arctic north, as expressed in literature, song, and political discourse. In Canada’s case, the words “the true North strong and free” in the national anthem come to mind. As well, in 2007, then-Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper positively compared Canadian economic development in the Arctic to Canada’s historical westward expansion, drawing on Canada’s history to promote and justify Canada’s presence in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, as recently as 2011, statements from the Russian government described Russia as a “natural Arctic nation” and declared that “the Arctic is our region.” These words suggested that the Arctic is Russian territory, rather than a region encompassing multiple countries and cultures. Such instances suggest that economic interests and nationalism in Canada and in Russia provide powerful political rationales for pursuing control over Arctic territory.
Yet, the current political reality in the Arctic is vastly different from what one would expect upon hearing these pronouncements. Recent years have seen substantial cooperation between Canada, Russia, and other nations in the Arctic. Despite the fact that many territorial disputes remain unresolved, this region constitutes an exceptionally peaceful area of the globe. How have Canada and Russia managed to cultivate relatively cooperative relations in the Arctic? And will these relations stand the test of time?
As cliché as it might sound, one must understand the history of Canadian-Russian relations in the Arctic in order to understand the region’s current political landscape. During the Cold War, the Arctic—the only geographic region where the Soviet Union directly bordered Canada and the United States (US)—became the site of potential nuclear conflict. Spurred by the Soviet threat, Canada engaged in joint military initiatives with the United States to defend North America’s Arctic Coast. But, as the tides of the Cold War shifted, so too did Canadian-Russian relations in the North.
In the twilight years of the Cold War, as the Soviet economy was slumping, governments and political scientists began to envision the Arctic as a “zone of peace” defined by international collaboration. Scholars like Oran Young hoped that Arctic cooperation would defuse tensions between West and East. In the meantime, October of 1987 saw the US and USSR sign a nuclear stockpile reduction agreement, foreshadowing the end of the Cold War. Against this backdrop, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for peace in the Arctic as well as joint research and environmental initiatives in the region.
In spite of the other Arctic states’ initial misgivings regarding Gorbachev’s proposal, a series of negotiations and agreements eventually led to the creation of the Arctic Council in 1996. The organization was created to facilitate interstate cooperation on Arctic issues unrelated to defense and security, especially environmental protection and scientific research. The Arctic Council today consists of the eight Arctic states (Canada, Russia, the United States, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden) as well as numerous observers, non-governmental organizations, and Indigenous organizations.
Meanwhile, Canadian and Russian interests in the Arctic seemed to be shifting.
With the end of the Cold War—and the Soviet threat—it appeared that Canada no longer needed to open its Arctic waters and territories to American forces as a necessary bulwark against Soviet nuclear attack.
As Canadian identity shifted away from Canada being a player in the Cold War, Canadian interests in the Arctic were free to move beyond security concerns into now more pressing areas like sovereignty and economic development. Russia likewise found itself focused on domestic economic strife, as the once-dominant spectre of nuclear war in the Arctic faded away.
As a result, economic pursuits, rather than military-security issues, came to dominate Russia’s Arctic policy. Indeed, Kristian Åtland, a Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, remarked in a 2011 study that Russian military activity in the Arctic has seemingly declined since the Cold War. In 1985, Åtland writes, Russian submarines in the Arctic conducted eighty patrols in that year alone. Conversely, in the early 2000s, Russian submarines conducted five to ten patrols per year. Despite these promising developments, Canadian-Russian tensions in the Arctic did not immediately evaporate after the Cold War. In fact, in 2007, they seemed ready to reach a boiling point.
The Lomonosov Ridge Incident
In 2007, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on Lomonosov Ridge. This resource-rich area in the Arctic Ocean is claimed by Canada, Russia, and Denmark. While Moscow claimed that the flag had merely been planted to highlight Russia’s technological and scientific achievements, the event seemingly struck a nerve in Canada. Canada’s then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter McKay unfavourably compared the flag incident to fifteenth-century colonial territory grabbing.
As tensions surrounding the Lomonosov Ridge incident mounted, several representatives within the European Parliament advocated for the creation of an Antarctica-style treaty for the Arctic. This proposed treaty would make the region an international common with a ban on resource extraction. Such a treaty could have dire economic consequences for Canada, Russia, and the other countries bordering the Arctic Ocean and its vast natural resources. Thus, the five countries located along the Arctic coast—Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland—set about devising an agreement of their own.
The resulting product was the Ilulissat Declaration. This agreement stipulated that sovereignty over Arctic territory is to be determined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a set of rules outlining when states may access, use, and claim sovereignty over areas of the ocean. The Ilulissat Declaration represented a turning point in Canadian-Russian relations in the Arctic. Rather than accusing Russia of seizing Arctic territory, the Declaration affirmed the signatories’ commitment to resolving territorial disputes in the Arctic Ocean peacefully.
The Declaration also emphasized that the Arctic will remain a region divided among sovereign states. These key specifications, coupled with the aforementioned Arctic treaty proposal, hint at the Ilulissat Declaration’s underlying purpose. For Canada, Russia, and the other Arctic states, the agreement served as a way to prove that the Arctic did not need to be internationalized. Rather, the Arctic states themselves could maintain peace and order—as well as control of the natural resources and transport routes within their claimed Arctic territory. In other words, Canada and Russia have a vested mutual interest keeping the Arctic divided among sovereign states, lest an Antarctica-style treaty wrest control of the Arctic’s resources away from both countries.
Evidence of this pragmatic alliance can also be found in other international Arctic institutions, like the Arctic Council. As noted, the Arctic Council hosts several observers, Indigenous groups, and non-governmental organizations. While some of these groups—particularly Indigenous organizations —have contributed to Arctic Council policy in the past, the organization remains largely centered on the eight Arctic states. The Arctic Council’s founding document describes the organization as a forum to “promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States,” with observer states and non-state members relegated to secondary roles.
In fact, number—and hence influence—of Indigenous organizations cannot exceed that of Arctic member states. Permanent membership in the Arctic Council is reserved for the eight Arctic states. Non-Arctic states can only aspire to permanent observer status (which, unlike permanent membership gives them no voting rights in the Arctic Council) . As well, only the eight Arctic states can serve as Council Chair. Ultimately, the very interests that would seem to engender competition between Canada and Russia are responsible for the two countries’ apparent good relations in the Arctic.
The Future of Canadian-Russian Relations in the Arctic
But will this Arctic alliance endure? In an era where the world’s political norms are being tested by new forms of nationalism and populism, it almost seems conceivable that Russia’s resurgent nationalism and growing economic woes could lead Moscow toward the north. Indeed, February 2017 saw increased Russian military activity in the Arctic. However, Russia’s recent interactions with Canada regarding the Arctic have largely conformed to the cooperative mold created by the Arctic states.
As well, increased international trade, the advanced state of modern ships, and climate change have meant that non-Arctic states and transnational companies have unprecedented access to Arctic waterways and shipping routes. China, Japan, and South Korea have the capabilities to extract Arctic natural resources and have publicly contemplated doing so. For this reason, Arctic countries like Canada and Russia have all the more reason to act collectively to safeguard their Arctic sovereignty.
Further, the Arctic’s diplomatic architecture has evolved over the years to address new issues and challenges. The 2011 Agreement on Search and Rescue, for example, marks the Arctic Council’s first legally binding document. The agreement also constitutes the Arctic Council’s first foray into matters related (albeit indirectly) to its member states’ armed forces. According to Heather Exner-Pirot, a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, this agreement could even serve as a stepping stone to expand the Arctic Council’s mandate to defense and military cooperation. Today, the Arctic Council, related institutions, and the Arctic itself continue to evolve, while tensions between Canada and Russia mount elsewhere. Therefore, unraveling what makes Canadian-Russian relations in the Arctic tick could prove key to Canada’s foreign policy.