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A New Cold War: Russia Ends Over Three Decades of Optimistic Cooperation in the Arctic

21 Nov 2022
By Professor Stefan Kirchner
Field camp at the Geographic North Pole, and two planes of the Canadian Coast Guard on a reconnaissance flight for submarines. Source: Matti&Keti /

The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine has directly impacted international cooperation in the Arctic. After three decades of cooperation, Arctic governance is now de facto fragmented into two parts: Russia and the Western Arctic.

For the international governance of the Arctic, the last months were the most disruptive since the end of the Cold War in 1989. Today, relations between the Russian Federation and its Arctic neighbours have deteriorated to such a degree that it seems appropriate to refer to the current situation as a new Cold War. The main reason for this is the all-out invasion of Ukraine by Russia since 24 February 2022. This marks a significant escalation of the war that has been ongoing since 2014. Russia’s war of aggression is not only incompatible with international law, but characterised to a large degree by the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Russia is also committing acts of genocide as defined in Article II (e) of the Genocide Convention by forcibly transferring Ukrainian children to Russia, where they are adopted by Russian families.

In addition to the armed attack against Ukraine, Moscow has repeatedly threatened its Arctic neighbour Finland, a country that gained freedom from the Russian Empire at the end of World War I. As a result of this year’s developments, Finland and Sweden have completely abandoned the remnants of their long-standing neutrality policies and have applied for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the time of writing, all other NATO member states except Hungary and Turkey have approved these applications.

35 Years of Optimism

That Sweden and Finland have joined the Western alliance, and that such moves have enjoyed popular support in both countries is due to a shift in public attitudes since the beginning of the invasion. The threat posed by Moscow no longer leads to attempts to find a balance. The Western Arctic has since moved into a clear defence posture in light of Russian aggression.

35 years ago, things looked very different. On 1 October 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev opened the door to increasing cooperation in the Arctic when he referred to the Arctic as “a zone of peace.” The Finnish Government at the time seized the opportunity and started what would become known as the Rovaniemi Process, a series of talks between the Arctic 8 (A8) that led to the adoption of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) in 1991 and eventually to the creation of the Arctic Council (AC) in 1996.

Although not an international organisation in the classical sense of the term, the AC has become the most important forum for the Arctic states and especially indigenous representative organisations that enjoy an unprecedented level of involvement in the AC. This includes issues that are of shared concern in the region, such as the protection of the environment or sustainable development. The scientific work created within the framework provided by the AC’s working groups is at the heart of the AC. Many non-Arctic actors have sought observer status, and the A8 have used this forum to negotiate three international treaties on search-and-rescue operations, oil spill prevention and responses, and science cooperation.

Two Arctics

These days are over, at least with regard to Russia. Until the spring of 2023, Russia formally holds the rotating chairmanship of the AC, but in March 2022, the other seven members (A7) put their cooperation with Russia in the AC on hold. In June 2022, it was announced that some limited cooperation would continue among the A7 on AC projects that had been agreed upon prior to the beginning of Russia’s chairmanship in 2021 and that do not involve Russia at all. On both occasions the A7 refer to the “enduring value” of the work of the AC and also the new US Arctic Strategy that was published in October 2022, emphasising the desire to preserve the AC.

This approach has been criticised by the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to Iceland. China refers to itself as a “Near-Arctic State,” but it has to be noted that the legal position of the PRC as an observer with the AC is not permanent. China, therefore, is not in a position to prevent the A7 from continuing their cooperation. Russia’s escalation did not end international governance in the Arctic, but it effectively meant that Russia removed itself as a partner from the existing framework of international Arctic governance. Although indigenous representative organisations have a unique position within the AC, the future status of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the only permanent participant that completely supports Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, seems questionable at best.

Russia made a choice against the idea of an international legal order that is based on rules and that applies to all states, large and small. These rules have been at the heart of international governance in the Arctic since the last days of the First Cold War. By disregarding international law, Russia has abandoned this common ground. This was not a singular event but a trend that was already visible in recent years. Cooperation with Russia on political issues was lagging behind expectations already for some time, even as scientists endeavoured to find ways to continue cooperation on issues such as the melting permafrost. Climate change is the mega theme of the Arctic, the biggest challenge faced by the people who live there. Yet, at the 2019 AC Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, it became clear that neither the Putin government nor the US government at that time saw climate change as much of a threat as did the rest of the AC member states. For the first time in the history of the AC, a ministerial meeting ended without the customary declaration. While the government in the US has changed since then, the same ruler remains in power in Moscow today.

Russia’s continued disregard for international law means that, de facto, the Arctic is now split in two. About half of the territory and population of the Arctic is ruled by Moscow, while the other half constitutes the seven states of the Western Arctic (A7). The transition from the cooperation of the A8 to the A7 (A8 minus Russia) is more than just losing one state from a comparative framework, it means the loss of the key characteristic of post-Cold War cooperation in the Arctic: the idea of cooperation on issues of shared concern despite all political differences. This concept is elsewhere found in the remnant of international cooperation between Russia and the West on the International Space Station and, albeit in a more competitive form, to some degree in Antarctica. While Russia was an active participant at this year’s Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Germany, Russia’s aggression was considered to be a major concern by the other members. In the Arctic, cooperation has been possible for decades even despite significant political differences. Russia has burned this bridge and, for the foreseeable future, international cooperation for Arctic governance will be limited to the A7. This is a result of Moscow’s own making.

Stefan Kirchner is Research Professor of Arctic Law and the Head of the Arctic Governance Research Group at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. He is a bar member in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and the founder of the boutique law firm Conluceant, specialising in consultation and litigation in public international law. He has taught international law at universities in Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Finland, Italy, and Greenland and has worked as a lawyer in private and government practice. This text only reflects his personal opinion. Email: /

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