What the Biden-Putin summit means — and doesn’t mean — for Arctic cooperation

The two leaders' discussion of the Arctic offers a window for real — if limited — progress in bringing the two nations closer.

By Melody Schreiber, Krestia DeGeorge - June 18, 2021
U.S. President Joe Biden, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attend the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

When U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from a historic summit in Geneva on Wednesday, both leaders mentioned the promise of good U.S.-Russia relations in the Arctic.

In a press conference following the three-hour meeting, Putin pointed to the Arctic as a zone of understanding between the U.S. and Russia, while in a separate press conference Biden said the leaders discussed how to ensure “the Arctic remains a region of cooperation rather than conflict.”

Those remarks highlighted the region’s growing global importance — and the two presidents’ statements are a positive sign that could lead to some incremental improvements in U.S.-Russia collaboration, experts said. But significantly different views of the Arctic will continue to divide the two countries, and that means there are also likely to be limits to any concrete short-term changes to U.S.-Russia relations in the Arctic.

‘A small window of opportunity’

“The very fact that the Arctic was discussed at the summit with a long and crowded agenda — and that it was identified as an area where two countries can work together — confirms the much elevated importance of the region,” said Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek, an international relations researcher with The University of Tromsø and the East-West Center.

Mike Sfraga, director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, also said the attention to the Arctic from both presidents was a welcome shift, and it was meaningful that they spoke to the importance of keeping the Arctic free of conflict.

“I think this bodes well for the two nations, for the Arctic, and actually for the rest of the world,” Sfraga said.

“It’s a small window of opportunity — emphasize ‘small’ — but one that perhaps both nations should seize upon.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meet for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16, 2021. (Denis Balibouse / Reuters / Pool)

One way to build greater cooperation between the two nations would be in research collaboration, Sfraga suggested, especially examining the effects of thawing permafrost on infrastructure and coastal erosion and the release of methane and carbon dioxide.

“There’s already a longstanding relationship between these two nations in research,” Sfraga said. “There is some traction here, I think, for research to better understand the Arctic.”

[US-Russia cooperation on an Arctic methane agreement could improve relations — and slow climate change]

He also said it would make sense to continue collaboration between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Russian Federal Security Service on activities such as search and rescue.

The countries could also work together on “specific actions to address climate change,” said Smieszek, including on methane (earlier this week she advocated a U.S.-Russia Arctic methane agreement in an ArcticToday op-ed), as well as “even more comprehensive action to cut black carbon.” (Arctic black carbon emissions were to have been discussed at an International Maritime Organization meeting this week, before that discussion was postponed.)

The natural place for cooperation

Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she wasn’t surprised that the Arctic was mentioned during the summit because it has frequently been a region where countries can work together even as they disagree about other parts of the world.

“The Arctic is a natural place for coordination and cooperation,” she said, and added that “some very good small work” in the Arctic could come from the Biden-Putin talk.

But she’s not expecting any major changes to the U.S.-Russian relations in the region: “When you’re looking at bigger opportunities, I don’t think they’re there.”

A 2017 file photo shows the facilities of Yamal LNG, then under construction in the Arctic port of Sabetta, Yamalo-Nenets district, Russia. (Oksana Kobzeva / Reuters File Photo)

That’s in part because the U.S. and Russia have different and conflicting ideas about their roles in the Arctic, Conley said.

“When we say Arctic, we think of climate impacts and mitigating climate risks; when Russia says Arctic they’re thinking of economic opportunity, the Northern Sea Route, oil and gas. So, we both say Arctic but we mean different things when we say Arctic.”

[Russia is planning an active Arctic Economic Council chairmanship]

The difference in these goals and priorities could make further collaboration difficult, she said: “While Russia is speaking the language of climate, sustainable development, they’re accelerating fossil fuel production. They are accelerating the economic dimensions of it. And of course we’re pulling on the exact opposite: how do we mitigate, how do we slow down these effects? I think it’s going to be hard.”

Big differences remain

Another obstacle will be deep differences over two key — and overlapping — issues, said Troy Bouffard, director of the Center for Arctic Security and Resilience at the University of Alaska Fairbanks: Russia’s military build-up in the region and its efforts to exert control over the Northern Sea Route, the shipping corridor that runs along most of its Arctic coastline.

The U.S. and Russia will continue to disagree over Russia’s interpretation of a provision in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Russia says gives it wide latitude to regulate Arctic shipping lanes beyond what would traditionally be considered internal waters because of ice cover. Canada makes a similar claim, which the U.S. also disputes — and which climate change may be slowly undermining.

A State Department official underlined that point at a post-summit press briefing in Geneva on Wednesday.

“Because the ice is melting so fast and because the route is now passable for a much longer stretch in the year, that’s going to increase traffic and that has the potential to make accidents, misunderstandings, miscalculations more possible,” the official said. “And so we think that there’s a real need to make sure that there’s a clear understanding on the rules of the road for traffic there, which is increasing.”

The Venta Maersk transits the Northern Sea Route in September 2018. (Maersk)

The possibility for miscommunications is a big part of concerns about more military activity in the region, too.

[US Defense Department announces new Arctic security center]

During his press conference, Putin dismissed U.S. concerns about Russia’s military buildup as “completely baseless” and maintained instead that the country is restoring facilities that fell into disrepair after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“We are retrofitting this, the borderline infrastructure, the military infrastructure, but also the environment conservation and emergency command and search and rescue infrastructure,” Putin said. “I think there’s plenty of ground for collaboration, and we should collaborate on this.”

Conley pushed back on the claim that Russia was merely restoring old capabilities and strengthening capabilities in other areas.

“I’d like to show you a couple of satellite imageries that may dispute that statement,” she said.

The changes go far beyond Soviet-era restorations, she added. “When I’m seeing a bastion coastal defense, and refueling capabilities for fighter aircraft and S-400s — that’s a little bit more than what we had there” previously.

“We’re about to see some exercises there that will show us all the things that the Russian military has been working on,” Conley said, referring to upcoming exercises in the region.

Better dialogue on military issues

To avoid miscommunication and escalation, dialogue should reopen between Arctic military leaders in some way, she said. But first, the U.S. needs to know its goals and game plan.

“I think we have to organize ourselves a little bit before we speak to the Russians among allies and partners, just to make sure we understand what we want to accomplish,” Conley said.

Russia has also signaled several times that it hopes to resume direct military-to-military talks in the Arctic, including in a call from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in May. (Armed forces chiefs from Arctic states once met annually, but those summits were halted after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.)

Sfraga said it’s unlikely that such meetings would resume in the next few months. But high-ranking members of the military could “begin the discussions about discussions,” Sfraga said.

NORAD F-22s and CF-18s intercepted two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft entering the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone on Monday, March 9, 2020. Experts say better communication could help avoid potentially dangerous miscommunications between U.S. and Russian militaries in the Arctic. (NORAD)

Like others he said the “ultimate issue” behind concerns of militarization in the region “is the opportunity for miscommunication, a mistake, a misjudgment” and the Biden-Putin summit created a key opportunity to discuss how to avoid unintentional escalation.

“This activity in the North will not slow down, it will only increase,” Sfraga said. “Whether that’s shipping or changes due to rapidly heating Arctic or military exercises, the opportunity for something bad to happen exists, and every day we wait is one day less” to understand what other nations are doing in the Arctic.

A pragmatic approach?

In his remarks following the summit, Biden said, “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest…”

The same ethos should apply to the Arctic, Heather Exner-Pirot, a consultant and researcher on Indigenous and northern economic development in Canada, told ArcticToday in an email.

“The fact of the matter is, there is a lot of self-interest in working with Russia in the Arctic,” she wrote. “With half the people and two-thirds of the territory, there’s not a lot you can accomplish without Russian involvement.”

She hopes to see a return to pragmatism, rather than ideology, in the U.S. approach to international relations.

“And frankly, Arctic relations in practice have been continuously guided by pragmatism and that’s what have made it so successful,” she said. “It is not a region that suffers drama queens well.”

Bouffard seemed to agree.

“It’s been neat to watch the Arctic be that one thing that’s driving cooler heads and a desire to work together,” he said. “It gives me hope.”