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A new era in the Arctic

An interview with Professor Marc Lanteigne from the Arctic University of Norway. Interviewer: Mario Giagnorio

March 3, 2020 - Marc Lanteigne Mario Giagnorio - Interviews

View of Kolsky Zaliv and Murmansk in Russia's far north. Photo: Tom Thiel (cc) flickr.com

MARIO GIAGNORIO: Professor Lanteigne, why are the Great Powers heading to the North?

PROF. MARC LANTEIGNE: I think that there are two major reasons why we are suddenly seeing an interest in the Arctic from many countries, including the United States, Russia and China. The first reason is the change in environmental conditions in the Arctic. The region is now opening to economic activity. In Norway, this includes things like mining, oil and gas, but also potentially shipping, fishing, tourism, and raw materials. There is the perception that we are dealing with a new economic area that is appearing very rapidly. This lead to the so-called ‘zero sum thinking’- the idea that we need to get in before someone else does. This was especially the case back when oil and commodity prices were considerably higher than they are now. From a long-turn view point there is a lot of interest in potential economic activities.

The second reason, I would say, is more strategic – with still very difficult relations between the United States and Russia, with China continuing to expand its foreign policy interests. Even going beyond the “Big Three,” we can see other countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, even Singapore starting to say that they play a role in the region at the same time.

You talked about the United States, Russia and China, but there are also the other proper Arctic States like Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Canada, which are the members of the Arctic Council. What is the relation among them and towards the other non-Arctic great powers, like the European Union and China?

I would say the Nordic countries, especially, are very much open to the idea of greater participation by non-Arctic States. They were happy to see the admission of more observers at the Arctic Council, including China, Japan, Italy and Korea, understanding that this is a region that needs a great deal of economic attention. So, there was the perception that outside countries could be potential partners. You saw a little more concern coming from Canada and Russia: these are the two countries that tend to be the most nervous about Arctic sovereignty. In both cases, the Arctic is much part of the national psyche, in Russia especially, because president Putin has identified the Russian Arctic as a major source of income for Russia’s economy going forward. Canada is always traditionally jumpy about its northern sovereignty. The United States has been kind of on the fence, but it stopped with the current government: the United States said that they understood the concerns about sovereignty, but that they also understood that bringing in non-Arctic countries could be beneficial. The current United States government has definitely changed the tune on that, but this is another story.

Focusing on Russia, what is the Russian attitude towards the region? What is the Russian Arctic policy?

In light of the fact that Russia is still under sanctions since 2014, and this is very unlikely to change in the near future, Russia has started to look at the Arctic more seriously as a source of income. That has meant, for example, developing new infrastructures, encouraging new businesses, but also preparing the Russian Arctic for increased shipping along the Northern Sea Route. It is now possible to send a modified cargo ship to Northern Siberia as long as it has been properly set up to take the local conditions. A lot of Russian economic ambitions though, in Siberia and in the Russian Far East, require Chinese assistance, especially financially, because obviously Europe is no longer an option. The countries have begun – I would not say a close Arctic partnership, but certainly one where there is a great deal of compatibility. I would say that there is still a little bit of mistrust on the both sides but there is the understanding that the partnership is beneficial for both parties.

Is this the reason behind the Polar Silk Road, the extension of the “Belt and Road Initiative” to the Arctic and to Russia?

Yes, it is. Since 2017, China has said that they want the “Belt and Road” to include the Arctic, and since that time China and Russia have discussed the Polar Silk Road, one which can be used not only for enhanced shipping, but for areas like natural gas, railways, communication. So they see much stronger development and deepen a potential Arctic corridor. And Russia is banking on that as demand goes up, the demand for Russian ports and facilities will also go up.

So, can we say that the Sino-Russian relation relies on pragmatism, as they cooperate without sharing a common view of the world, while the European Union is not an option anymore and the United States can be a disturbing element?

We may say that it is the case. Although the United States government, especially recently, has been very critical of what they see as a very close Sino-Russian partnership in the Arctic. They see that as disrupting the rule-based order of the region. Yet, at the moment we are seeing much more interest in the Russia-China partnership to develop joint infrastructures and joint economic projects.

Talking about how the United States sees the Sino-Russian Arctic partnership, the US Secretary of State Pompeo said that both Russia and China are aggressive and must be monitored during the last ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council in May 2019. Should we expect an increase in tensions in the region?

I would say that part of the problem is trying to determinate the exact nature of the Russian military activity in its Arctic plans. There have been all kinds of discussions for the past two years about Russia wanting to re-open the Cold War bases, to bring more personnel and equipment in Siberia, especially along the Northern Sea Route. That has been interpreted by many American analysts as basically offensive or aggressive, but Russia counters with the idea that they see the Arctic as a very important economic resource and that they know there is going to be an increase in ships using the Russian coast in the coming decades. It makes sense for that region to be monitored, so we are dealing with an offensive versus defensive view point here. It has been said that, especially here in Norway, that we are seeing increased activity by Russian jets – there have been issues with Russian submarines getting close to Sweden and other parts of the Nordic region. So, we are surely seeing a sort of Russian behaviour in the region. But again, Russia said that NATO is beginning to operate more in the region and that they are simply trying to respond to that. The answer to this question really depends on where you are sitting right now.

And what about Arctic exceptionalism, the idea that the region was a peaceful exception in the conflictual international relations. Is this “exceptionalism” due to the fact that the Great Powers had no particular interest in the region before the change in the Arctic environment, or is it due to a geographical balance of power in the Arctic, as they all meet there?

A lot has been said about this exception, whether it exists or if it is just a convenient narrative. Yet, if we go back to the Cold War and to the late eighties – then the Arctic was heavily militarised, as it was geographically the shortest route for intercontinental ballistic missiles. After the Cold War, Russia was exhausted – there were many other issues around the world that seemed to have a higher priority than the Arctic. The cost-benefit of engaging in any kind of military activity in the Arctic became ridiculously high. The Arctic Council, created in 1996, encapsulated the idea that the Arctic should be a place of cooperation and that security should be limited to climate change, research and rescue, civilian developments and shipping. That has been the norm until very recently. Now that the Arctic is opening to greater activity, the relation between the United States and Russia is still very poor, the Arctic is starting to be seen again as a strategic land, and we are seeing this with the American policy papers, but also by France, Germany, and Japan. So, the Arctic does have a security dimension.

And when it comes to policies, does Russia have a more developed Arctic strategy than the other actors like the United States and the European Union?

I would say that in terms of structure, ever since 2000, and ever since Vladimir Putin took over, we have seen a series of Arctic policy papers, which have very much focused on not only protecting the Russian Arctic assets, but also how to make the Arctic more economically powerful. In terms of the amount of papers that have been created and of the amount of specific planning, I would say that yes, Russia has certainly put the Arctic on focus and there is a major difference from what we saw in the nineties. Russia did not have the money or the resources and the Arctic was not a priority, so one of Putin’s aims is to put the Russian Arctic back on the priority list, which he has done quite effectively. The United States agenda, under Barack Obama, was climate change-oriented and open to economic activity in the North-West. While in the first two years of the Trump administration, the Arctic was nowhere to be found, and in the last year we saw papers saying that the Arctic was a military concern to the United States. Yet, the United States has a long way to go, though, in terms of calculating what its Arctic strategy is and reacting to other countries.

So, the moment when Trump asked Denmark to sell Greenland in 2019 maybe an example of that?

Yes. In addition to the lack of understanding of the Greenland status, that Greenland has self-rule and determination, and that discussion about transfer of sovereignty had to be with Nuuk and not with Copenhagen, I think it is a product of a larger issue within the Trump government, the tendency to look at foreign policy first of all as completely transactional, and again the “zero-sum thinking.” But I think that it also demonstrates that the Arctic itself is still misunderstood in some policy quarters: even today there is the idea that the Arctic is this giant blank space at the top of the world where everyone can write in and claim whatever they want.

Let’s go back to the Sino-Russian relation, but from the point of view of China. Might this relation be helpful in creating a Chinese identity as an Arctic stakeholder?

By looking at the current roster of observers in the Arctic Council, you get a very interesting pattern of which countries had built their Arctic identities and on what. It is the case especially in Europe, where you have observers that have appointed a very extensive history of Arctic exploration, scientific cooperation, economic presence – and I would add the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Poland to that list. But there are also observers that do not have that kind of long history, like Japan, India, Singapore, and China too- it had to look for other alternatives rather than a historical background because its Arctic policy started in the eighties and it was very minor until quite recently. China had to craft the idea of the “near-Arctic States,” and the Chinese government affirmed that the change in the Arctic was affecting them and that they could provide for scientific study – and that they had a role being a great power and a large economic player. China, which became an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013, had to convince the sceptic Russia that their role could bring about positive change in the region. Russia’s view of China in the Arctic shifted from very negative to very positive in such a short time.

Russia has been gaining much more relevance since the fall of the Soviet Union in several areas, by filling the “western void.” Should we expect something similar in the Arctic, since a power like the United States struggles to create coherent Arctic policies?

When it comes to the Arctic, I would say that Russia has never left. There was a period when the Arctic was much more underdeveloped, and now it is a political necessity. Now that Putin has made the Arctic a priority, we are talking about taking advantage of Russian existing assets, its coastline and tradition and its interests in recovering its great power status, which put Russia in a really strong position to better deepen its Arctic presence. Yet, with the Russian economy still under sanctions and with many countries discouraged from active investment in Russian projects, China is in a strong position. Again, we are dealing with a partnership based on mutual convenience.

So the western countries cannot ignore the role of Russia in the Arctic, but the situation is tangled. Should both the sides, the West and Russia, change their narratives for a better cooperation in the region?

I am currently in Northern Norway, very close to the Russian border, and the narrative is rather positive: it was the Red Army that liberated this part of Norway in 1944 and there is the understanding that Russia is our neighbour and it is not going anywhere. There is a bit of pragmatism involved here, and it is the same for the Arctic, where cooperation is preferred on competition. In the Arctic Council there is much willingness to talk about Arctic issues. I would not say that we are seeing the same level of “Arctic exceptionalism” that we would have seen twenty years ago, and the Crimean issue influenced United States-Russia relations even in the Arctic Council. There were also kind of “unwritten rules” that public talking about military should be avoided and that you cannot point at another member and accuse it to be a threat, but Pompeo’s speech violated those norms – but cooperation is preferred.

But does Russia want to cooperate in the Arctic? Should it create a new narrative to present its role in the region, or is pragmatism preferred?

There is a lot of pragmatism in the Russian Arctic policy because we are talking about a very large territory and waters under Russian jurisdiction. Russia is concerned that showing any kind of weakness would open the door to the West. There was a NATO operation, which included Norway and Iceland, and sent a signal to Russia that the West is starting to look at the Arctic more seriously. However, if other countries wanted to invest in Russian facilities, Russia would be happy with that. Besides, Russia is trying to maintain the idea that they want a peaceful and stable Arctic. Yet, if the United States keeps on pressing on Russia, seeing the Arctic as area for competition, Russia has to respond, and Russia has already started to test the boundaries.

Should both the United States and Russia say simultaneously that they do not want a conflict in the Arctic?

The current situation in the Arctic still much discourages an escalation of military activity. What is happening is an anticipation of some changes in the future. Once you have a situation where the Arctic is seen as more valuable, that might lead to a reconsideration of the military option. We are dealing with a rapidly changing situation that might be considerably different in a decade, from both the environmental and the political perspective. We are dealing with a lot of unknown here.

Marc Lanteigne is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tromsø: The Arctic University of Norway, specialising in Chinese politics and Foreign Policy, security studies, international relations theory and Arctic diplomacy. He is the author of Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction (4th edition, 2019) and co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Arctic Security (2020), as well as various articles and reports on China’s international interests, including in the Polar Regions.

Mario Giagnorio is an Italian MA student at the Centre for European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.

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