Rob Huebert is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
This weekend in Alaska, U.S. President Barack Obama will host a number of countries with interests in the Arctic. The event – called GLACIER (Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Co-operation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience) – brings together the eight members of the Arctic Council and other countries, such as China and Japan, that have interests in the Arctic region.
The meeting creates a very interesting dilemma for Canada.
The Americans, and particularly U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, have been very explicit that they see this meeting as a means of improving relations with the Russians in the Arctic. They see a necessity to delink Russian military action in Ukraine from their actions in the Arctic region.
The dilemma for Canada is that while it is in its Arctic interests to ensure that all states – Russia included – play by the rules of the game in the region, it is not in Canada's larger security interests to see Russian actions in Ukraine validated as a fait accompli as the Americans and other Western states move on to other issues on which there is agreement.
The U.S. position is that the Russians have been playing by the rules of the game when it comes to the Arctic and that it is in American interests to ensure that this behaviour continues. Specifically, the Russian willingness to continue to abide by the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the rules that establish their extended continental shelf in the Arctic is something that needs to be encouraged. This encouragement, in the view of the Americans, needs to come in a more welcoming international environment regarding the Arctic. As such, the forthcoming meeting, while nominally focused on the issues of climate change and the Arctic, has an equally important but less explicit objective of demonstrating American willingness to work with the Russians in the Arctic.
The problem for Canada is that during its recent chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it maintained a much cooler relationship toward Russia as part of its condemnation of Russia's use of military force to annex Crimea. Except for the Arctic, Canada and the United States have taken similar actions to both publicly condemn the Russian intervention and to take similar action to respond. Both have enacted the same sanctions against Russia. Canadian and American military forces have also been sent to NATO allies that border Russian territory as a means of reassurance. Canadian and American troops have also been sent into Ukraine to assist in the training of Ukrainian troops in their fight against Russia. These are substantial efforts to demonstrate North American opposition to the redrawing of European land boundaries by military action.
Yet, when it comes to the Arctic, the American position has been much more conciliatory. It is true the Russians have been playing by the international rules for the determination of their extended continental shelf in the region, but they have also been dramatically increasing their military action in the Arctic region. This has included the deployment of military aircraft near and into the aerospace regions of several of the Arctic states – Canada and the U.S. included – and has included the deployment of submarine forces into the waters of many Arctic states. They have also dramatically increased both their training exercises and have begun to accelerate their plans to rebuild most of their Cold War Arctic bases.
It is not clear why the Americans believe they can maintain sanctions and other actions to express their concern regarding Russian activities in Crimea, but that they can ignore increased Russian military action in the Arctic and attempt a reconciliation regarding the region. This inconsistency in American policy means that when it comes to the Arctic, Canada is increasingly isolated and characterized as being unnecessarily belligerent to Russia.
The problem is the Russians are making no plans to return the Ukrainian territory they have taken by military force. The quicker Western countries move to "normalize" relations with the Russians, the less incentive they will have to return it to the Ukrainians. Efforts to "normalize" – or some may say appease – Russia will have the long-term effect of demonstrating that under the right conditions, Russia can use military force on its borders and then engage the Western powers on other issues to de facto validate its military actions. It should be apparent that the logic of this will create a more dangerous international system for Western powers in the future.
Ultimately this is why it is so confusing to see the Americans rush to re-engage the Russians in the Arctic – as if their actions in the Ukraine had never occurred.