Suspending participation in the Arctic Council is tragic, but right

Cooperation in the Arctic will survive, but Russia must be denied the fruits of cooperation as long as it pursues its war of aggression in Ukraine.

By Cornell Overfield - April 8, 2022
The flags of the eight Arctic Council Member States and six Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, at the first SAO meeting during the United States’ 2015-2017 Chairmanship held in Anchorage, Alaska on Oct. 20-22. (Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)

On March 3, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States — sometimes called the “Arctic 7” or “A7” — announced that they would “temporarily pause participation in all meetings of the [Arctic] Council and its subsidiary bodies…” While some have argued against this move, freezing cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Council is a necessary consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Despite real costs, pausing the Arctic Council is not a choice between moral and realist logics. Both logics lead to the same conclusion: Pausing participation is not just morally right but in the best interests of both Western states and all who aspire to live in peace. The move contributes to international efforts to isolate Russia for its war of aggression, which merited punishment even before evidence of potential Russian war crimes at Bucha was revealed in recent days. The A7 decision maintains cooperation among those countries and is a politically prudent move that preserves the Arctic Council as if on ice in hopes of a future thaw, rather than risk burning it down in the name of continuity. Normalizing aggression through inaction, by contrast, is not just morally abhorrent, but leaves all states and every citizen less secure.

‘Outcasting’ is strategically wise

The response to Russia should center on defending international legal order in which wars of aggression are illegal and a crime against peace is a crime against all states. In such a world, states have developed responses that punish violations of international law with various sanctions, both economic and political, short of war. Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro call this process of denying the benefits of cooperation to aggressor states “outcasting.” It remains an imperfect process fraught by the injustice of unequal power — as illustrated by the response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq — but the alternative is either inaction or a return to war as normal.

The Arctic cannot remain a zone of exception while the world rightfully punishes Russia in other areas for its flagrant violations of international law. After all, as the A7 notes, the Arctic “exceptionalism” concept is rooted in international law, good faith cooperation, and mutual respect. Russia, by mounting a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has attacked these principles. Outcasting Russia is in order, not just for the long-term health of an international order where aggression is illegal, but also the Arctic’s future as “exceptional.”

As it should be, outcasting is a common effort, not limited to or driven solely by one state. All seven of the Arctic Council members aside from Russia joined in taking this step. Furthermore, Nordic countries have of their own accord taken steps to pause cooperation with Russia in other, similar venues such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Council of Baltic Sea States.

Outcasting could conceivably go too far and undermine peace processes and legal order, but suspending the Arctic Council certainly does not run to that extreme. The Arctic Council will not be a forum for negotiating an end to Russia’s war, as Ukraine is not an observer. Furthermore, the council itself is not underpinned by any legally-binding agreement (in contrast to relations in Antarctica, where the Antarctic Treaty System creates legal obligations). The council’s rules and regulations do not require the other members to sanction Russia over its crimes against Ukraine, humanity, and peace. But by suspending the Arctic Council as a consequence for Russia’s crimes, the A7 are doing their part to signal clearly that aggression is not acceptable. That is not simply short-term moral posturing, but reinforces our real, collective long-term interest in a stable international order.

Cooperation will continue

Cooperation can and will continue — just not with Russia for the time being. The Arctic 7’s statement noted that it would work to preserve essential Arctic Council work through “modalities.” In recent public statements, two Senior Arctic Officials have emphasized that the A7 aims to preserve Arctic Council projects, particularly those in which Russia is not participating. Many key areas, not least climate research, will suffer without Russian participation, but productive cooperation is already happening without Russia. The A7 seem set to ensure it will continue during the Arctic Council freeze.

Most importantly, the three legally-binding agreements negotiated via the Arctic Council (on oil spill response, search and rescue, and scientific cooperation), as well as the Agreement on Central Arctic Ocean fisheries, stand alone and are not directly affected by the A7 decision. Russia could ultimately choose to withdraw from these agreements. But these agreements would persist without Russia, binding all other parties and in some cases preserving some legal obligations for Russia. And even if not bound by the oil spill response and search-and-rescue agreements, Russia would still presumably care to minimize oil spills and shipping accidents in the Arctic for economic reasons alone.

Political peril

Finally, political considerations also support freezing A7 participation in the Arctic Council. Despite its technical slant, the Arctic Council is a political forum, with politics shaping everything from membership decisions to the limits of cooperative agreements. A realistic analysis cannot ignore or deny political concerns. Sending senior diplomatic officials, including foreign ministers, to Russia (the current Arctic Council chair) would be a bad look for countries with outraged domestic publics, and could be spun as a propaganda win for Russia.

Even if room remains for constructive cooperation on technical issues and the A7 were willing to play along with Russia’s Arctic Council pageantry, can we be sure that the meetings themselves wouldn’t poison the council? Any statements by A7 members would feature fiery condemnations of Russia’s illegal actions. Coming, as they would, on Russia’s home turf, these could easily be more damaging to the Arctic Council’s standing in Russian leadership eyes than simply pausing meetings. Better to freeze the Arctic Council in hopes of a future thaw than burn it down in the name of continuity.

Concerns about increased competition

Some commentators have noted the downsides of the A7 decision, with at least one, polar geopolitics analyst Liz Buchanan, condemning the decision altogether. In addition to concerns addressed above, Buchanan argues that the move will produce a “vastly more crowded and competitive Arctic” as the United Arab Emirates, India, or ASEAN states eye a vacuum left by the A7. This claim does not hold up.

First, and most fundamentally, the A7 decision does not change the region’s geography. Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and the United States remain sovereign littoral Arctic Ocean states, with all the rights and powers international law confers as a result. In addition, as Josh Tallis notes, the much-discussed governance gaps in Arctic areas beyond national jurisdiction are often overstated.

In the Russian Arctic, sanctions and Western firms’ own calculations, not the A7 decision, are to credit with any increased opportunities for UAE, Indian, or ASEAN firms or Russia’s increased reliance on them. Most Western oil firms had announced their plans to end, sell or walk away from Russian hydrocarbon investments before the A7 announcement on March 3. The A7 decision could not possibly have had anything to do with it. The A7 decision does not prohibit Western firms from investing in the Russian Arctic, and the Arctic Council has no power to restrict or guide who may invest in the Russian Arctic.

But even if the A7 decision could be blamed for increasing non-Arctic-state investments in the Arctic, the path to that outcome is a winding one strewn with high hurdles for Russia and would-be partners to clear. The UAE, India, and some ASEAN states abstained from UN votes condemning Russia. But is the Arctic so important to India or the UAE that they would make deep, long-term economic ties (which Arctic investments are) to Russia at a moment when Russia has made itself a pariah state, subject not just to moral condemnation, but crippling economic sanctions? Would India, the UAE, and other states find domestic firms willing to take on the risk of long-term Arctic ventures? And would Russia allow these to develop in ways that eroded its control over its own Arctic territories? Finally, even if all this came to pass, would the result be a more crowded and competitive Arctic, or a more crowded and competitive Russian Arctic? That could well be a good thing for Western strategic interests.

The A7 decision is tragic, but it is both necessary and strategic. As the world rightfully outcasts Russia for its war of aggression in flagrant violation of international law, the Arctic could not remain a zone of exception. Continuing business as usual in the Arctic Council would have undermined the values that make the Arctic exceptional in the first place. But even more importantly, this move in concert with other sanctions, reinforces an international order that outlaws war. Allowing that order to crumble further would be the true long-term strategic risk.

Cornell Overfield is an associate research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. His views do not represent those of his employer.

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