U.S-Russia Relations and the Arctic

Dec 16, 2009

It is entirely appropriate that the third, and last, set of papers on U.S.–Russia relations—following a first series on arms control issues and a second group on Afghanistan/Central Asia/NATO—should focus on the Arctic region, and that they should appear just as the Copenhagen UN summit on climate change is under way.

In a myriad of security, commercial, and environmental issues concerning the Arctic, our North American and Russian scholars represented here agree that climate change is the paramount challenge. As Byers notes: "Climate change is more apparent in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth… An increase in average annual temperature of just a fraction of one degree can transform vast areas of white sea-ice into dark ocean water… A complete, late-summer melt-out of Arctic sea ice could occur as early as 2013." In this context, it is ironic that the Arctic is also rich in hydrocarbon resources, and there have been some 30 years of competition over extraction of oil and natural gas in the region, from Alaska to Norway.

Competition and cooperation go hand-in-hand for the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean. On the one hand, the melting ice will open up new shipping channels to transport oil and gas from and through the Arctic; on the other, there have been competing claims for portions of the Arctic territory, with Russia perhaps in the vanguard of articulating and enacting claims of "national interest." As Morozov argues, Russia has also taken a lead in advancing prospects for international cooperation in the Arctic, based on an internationally agreed-upon formalization of boundaries in the region, based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (which the United States has yet to ratify).

On the whole, we may see a "glass half-full" prognosis for this critical region, with the balance tipping in favor of cooperation rather than competition. Byers describes a "web of international law that extends across the Arctic," and which even extends to a joint U.S.-Russia notification agreement on military flyovers. More generically, the 1996 Arctic Council has "institutionalized cooperation" on non-military (especially environmental) matters among the eight Arctic countries"—a lesson, perhaps, not to be lost in Copenhagen.

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