When Washington wants to know what to do in the Arctic, the answer has long been to ask, “What are the Russians up to?” and then act accordingly.
It should come as little surprise, then, that when it was asked to compile its latest report on America’s Arctic policy, the International Security Advisory Board, an independent State Department organ, the specific instructions were to “undertake a study of Russia’s interests, intentions and capabilities as it has been increasing its presence – both military and civilian – in the Arctic.”
What is worth noting, however, is that while Russia indeed gets a longish chapter of its own, more than half of the report is devoted to what other countries are doing.
“There are more players in the Arctic and they are paying more attention to it,” says Sherri Goodman, a former Defense Department official who contributed to the report. “That warrants us paying closer attention to their interests.”
The decision to include other countries, the report states, was a way to draw attention to the importance of working with Arctic and non-Arctic states in order to accomplish America’s goals in the region.
Goodman herself warns against discounting the role of Russia. Yet, while she lists Russia as one of the potentially destabilising factors in the region, placing it in the same basket as China and climate change, she underscores that this is due not to what Moscow is doing, but to the uncertainty about what it might be up to.
“The recommendation of the report,” she says, “is to keep Arctic relations low-tension, but we still need to keep our eyes wide-open. I think Russia’s military actions are a concern because they have been aggressive in other regions. The question we have to answer is whether the Arctic is completely different.”
Others involved with compiling the report, which was delivered to the State Department on September 21, shared Goodman’s opinion that Moscow’s actions in other parts of the world cast a shadow on its role in the region. But, they argue that, up to know, co-operation has been the rule.
“The Russians have come to some serious conclusions that unless they work with other countries they are going to lose out,” Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and ISAB member, told an audience in Washington on Nov. 1.
After years of being on the fringes of the political agenda in Washington, the Arctic, most observers agree, has become a priority for the current White House. Whether this will continue under the presidency of Donald Trump after he takes office on Jan. 20 can only be guessed at, ISAB members underscore.
But what they say is certain is that, regardless of what Washington does, the region will remain on high on the agenda in other capitals.
“We on the ISAB believe that Arctic is as important as ever,” Steve Cheney, also an ISAB member, says.