Skip to main content

Michael Byers is the author of International Law and the Arctic. On Wednesday, he won the 2013 Donner Prize for best public-policy book by a Canadian.

Moscow in winter is like the bar scene in Star Wars. Blue-eyed women in long fur coats ride the subway alongside Asian labourers in snowmobile suits. This December, I will return to Moscow to launch the Russian translation of my book.

I am not naive about Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom I have met and do not like. The former KGB agent acts like one in his dealings with opponents, from Alexander Litvinenko to Pussy Riot.

In the 1990s, Mr. Putin's forces killed tens of thousands of civilians in Chechnya. A decade later, he blasted his way into Georgia, prying away two Russian-speaking enclaves. Mr. Putin enabled Bashar al-Assad to commit mass murder in Syria and is now dissecting the sovereign country of Ukraine.

Much tougher economic sanctions are needed, perhaps even a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-wide embargo of Russian natural gas. A gas embargo would require costly measures to protect European citizens and businesses against shortages. But meaningful sanctions are painful for both sides – and a gas embargo would squeeze Mr. Putin hard.

At the same time, diplomatic contacts are more important than ever.

Cutting back on diplomacy is cheap, easy and counterproductive. In the short term, it cost Canada nothing to boycott an Arctic Council meeting on "black carbon" a couple of weeks ago. The long-term costs are more difficult to calculate.

Arctic countries are making progress on reducing the soot produced by diesel engines and coal-fired plants – soot that, when it lands on ice and snow, absorbs solar energy and accelerates melting. Reducing black carbon may be the most effective, readily available measure for slowing climate change.

Arctic countries have been co-operating on environmental protection since 1973, when, at the height of the Cold War, they signed the Polar Bear Treaty. The treaty saved an iconic species by prohibiting big-game hunters from shooting bears from ships and helicopters.

In 1982, Canada chaired the committee that drafted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Russia has abided by the convention, negotiating fisheries management regimes and maritime boundaries with the United States and Norway, and mapping the central Arctic Ocean in preparation for a science-based claim to areas of seabed beyond its existing, legally recognized 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Mr. Putin is a thug, but not a fool. In 2010, I watched him say: "If you stand alone, you cannot survive in the Arctic."

Russia needs foreign capital, technology and markets to develop its Arctic oil and gas, which already account for 20 per cent of its gross domestic product. Investment, technology transfer and trade depend, in turn, on political and legal stability.

Mr. Putin understands the scale of Russia's Arctic, which stretches across seven time zones, and the region's punishing weather and ice conditions. He knows that Russia cannot afford the vast sums it would take to prepare for state-to-state conflict there.

Recently, Russia's military spending in the Arctic has focused on the challenges that come with increased civilian access, whether by foreign cargo ships, smugglers or Greenpeace.

In the Arctic, Russia is not that different from Canada. Both countries' leaders want to develop the natural resources of vast uncontested territories and continental shelves. Along the fringes of those shelves, they seek the maximum extent of their country's rights under international law.

In Ukraine, Mr. Putin is behaving abhorrently. He should be punished – and hopefully redirected – through much tougher economic sanctions.

The Arctic has a different constellation of relationships and interests. If Russia and the West cannot co-operate in the Arctic, they cannot co-operate anywhere.

When I return to Moscow in December, I will be following the course recommended by Winston Churchill: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

Interact with The Globe