Arctic Governance After the Ukrainian Crisis

By Andrey Todorov, Visiting Scholar of the Russia and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

As the Arctic region faces the fallout from one of the biggest geopolitical crises in the modern era, there remain challenges  that should be addressed after the initial dust settles.

The escalation of the Ukrainian conflict in February 2022 and the resulting breakdown in Russian-Western relations has led the previously successful Arctic cooperation to a deadlock. The work of the Arctic Council (AC) is paused, and other regional institutions have suspended collaboration with Russia. In the wake of the sanctions imposed on Russia, many western companies have withdrawn from projects in the Russian Arctic.

However, it would be wrong to assume that the Arctic has descended into chaos. The region itself is free from local conflicts, with the last territorial dispute (Canada/Denmark over the Hans Island) peacefully resolved in June this year. The remaining disagreements (the legal status of some Arctic straits, overlapping extended continental shelf claims, etc.) have been contained and managed within the diplomatic realm. A variety of global and regional mechanisms, involving all the Arctic states, continue to apply to the High North. These include the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, the Polar Code, and the regional agreements on oil spill response and search and rescue, among many others. Yet, any progress in circumpolar collaboration seems to have been shelved.

Given the impact of many variables, it is almost impossible to foresee how the political situation will develop in the future. Experts have different views on how to further approach Arctic affairs. It is highly unlikely that states will resume cooperation as the military actions in Ukraine continue. Still, conflicts tend to end, and it might be worth trying to at least identify the primary challenges in the Arctic that will require immediate action after the initial dust settles.


 Some commentators have favored the idea of moving forward without Russia within the AC or even creating new platforms for cooperation between the Arctic Seven (A7). In my view, such initiatives are counterproductive or even damaging to the future of Arctic governance. Russia is a country with the longest coastlines in the Arctic, dominating the regional shipping, energy, and fishing industries. Any cooperation on the protection of environment, scientific research, or climate change in the Arctic would hardly be efficient without its largest state. A7 could reassure themselves with the thought that Russia could be plugged back into circumpolar cooperation at some later point. But such an approach could be perceived by Russia as a signal for closer engagement with China and other Asian countries in Arctic affairs, further deepening the rift in the Arctic community.


The erosion of Arctic governance began long before this year. Military collaboration in the Arctic was the first to fall victim to the Ukrainian crisis back in 2014. The security dialogue platforms that existed in the region either suspended their contacts with Russia (Arctic Security Roundtable) or ceased their work (Meeting of the General Staff Chiefs). The Arctic Coast Guard Forum remains the only format with all eight states present, but it does not cover hard security issues. Yet, the spillover from the great power competition will continue to manifest itself in the growing number and intensity of military exercises in the High North, especially with Finland’s and Sweden’s intention to join NATO. Against this backdrop, the risks of miscalculations, misperceptions, and tactical errors become unreasonably high. Needless to say, any kind of environmental or economic collaboration will be out of the question, should the military situation escalate. That is why it is of paramount importance to restore the dialogue or at least maintain mil-to-mil hotlines with Russia.


The Arctic is a unique place with extreme climate conditions and vulnerable ecosystems. Today, the region is becoming increasingly exposed to the implications of climate change, the retreat of sea ice, and melting permafrost. The Arctic Ocean becomes more accessible to different economic activities, bringing in new risks to the well-being of local communities and biodiversity, many of which remain understudied. For this reason, Arctic governance and decision-making are heavily dependent on inclusive circumpolar scientific research and reliable scientific data. It is regrettable that some of the major Arctic scientific institutions (like IASC or UArctic) followed the lead of governments and froze ties with Russia. However, restoring contacts between non-state actors seems to be easier compared to state-to-state relations; science diplomacy can be a powerful tool for bridging the divide between countries.


As the key multilateral platforms for cooperation in the Arctic suspended their work, a flexible bilateral collaboration on shared marine challenges between Russia and its neighbors Norway and the United States would be a more viable option to start with once the violent phase of the Ukrainian conflict is over. This is not about concluding new agreements or establishing new mechanisms, but rather low-profile joint work within existing instruments, such as managing fisheries in the Barents Sea, oil spill response, or regulating growing shipping in the Bering Strait Region (BSR). In this regard, it is encouraging that Norway is cautious about extending sanctions on Russian-flagged fishing vessels and that the U.S. Coast Guard wants to maintain a line of communications with Russia on “soft” security issues in the BSR.


Sometimes,crises can be a time of opportunity. Despite being a key platform for circumpolar cooperation, the AC is facing a variety of challenges: the lack of instruments to monitor the effectiveness of its initiatives, weak coordination between the Working Groups, and the inability to come up with a balanced approach towards a growing pool of observers. If one assumes that the Council would someday resume its work, the members could consider undertaking a long overdue reform.

This piece is republished from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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