The Bering Sea in winter. Photo: Anita Parlow ©

Trust and paradox: The United States and Russia in the Arctic

As Russia, China and the United States jockey and balance their capabilities, legal rights, perceived rights and commercial and security interests in the High North, better lines of communications need be established, and perhaps, a new security architecture to maintain the cooperative and collaborative spirit that has defined the Arctic region from the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 “zone of peace” proclamation, writes Anita Parlow in this blog post ahead of the Arctic Council Ministerial in Reykjavik on May 20.
May 11, 2021


Blog post by Anita Parlow

As President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin exchanged provocative, yet not fully undeserved, high-stakes taunts last month, they appeared to effectively snap back to more regularized, and high stakes, diplomacy. Last week Putin vowed an “asymmetric … quick and tough” response to encroachments on Russia’s security interests. As Putin withdraws troops from the Ukrainian border, the two world leaders agreed in a phone call to reduce tensions and possibly agree to a June summit to address a “host” of issues. 

Up to now, the two leaders have resisted temptations to allow negative spillovers from adversarial relations that exist in nearly every major continent to impact the far more cooperative Arctic region. This spirit and fact of cooperation is being tested as potential mishaps or misinterpretations, given the increased security interests, could cause the cooperative spirit to slip away, or, simply slip. In either event, recently enhanced lines of communications between the two powers in the Arctic need to be improved.

As is oft-reported, temperatures are heating twice as fast in the Arctic than the warming in the rest of the planet, inviting commercial interests to accelerate – mainly oil, gas, mining and shipping – thus moving the Arctic region from the periphery of global geopolitics and closer to its center.   

A zone of peace 

The Arctic’s reputation as a collaborative and conflict-free region, “a zone of peace,” is well-earned. Disputes are relatively few, generally resolved bilaterally, through regional fora or international instruments. In May 2021, the Russian Federation, the largest Arctic nation, whose coastline spans more than half of the entire region, will succeed Iceland as the Chair of the Arctic Council for the next two-year term. The region’s premier intergovernmental forum, whose emphasis is science and the protection of the Arctic environment, faces a growing magnitude of complex and dynamic issues, including the emergence of an entirely new Mediterranean-sized Central Arctic Ocean during this century.

Nikolay Korchunov, Senior Arctic Official of the Russian Delegation to the Arctic Council, described Russia’s main focus for its Chairmanship as facing “common challenges” in the region, including addressing sustainable development, mitigating the effects of environmental damage, and a climate agenda that will include socio-economic issues, including Indigenous issues. Korchunov stated that Russia wants the Arctic to become an “attractive area for investors.”

A balance

Given that Russia’s primary focus for development in the vast Arctic region is hydrocarbon production, several European think tank academics and a few former U.S. administration officials have expressed skepticism regarding how the Russian Federation will take the lead either in the Arctic Council or, as a practical matter on reconciling a carbon economy with sustainability.


A Russian Embassy spokesperson based in Washington, D.C. countered the skeptics by noting, in a phone interview, that in U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry’s recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, they agreed to work cooperatively on climate issues. The spokesperson told me that Russia will work cooperatively on selective issues with the United States, including climate change, despite frayed ties over some of the world’s “hot spots.”

He emphasized, on background, that it is “in Russia’s interest” to solve the paradoxical riddle of carbon fuels production and climate change, given the escalating climate catastrophes in Siberia, including deforestation, drying wetlands, rising temperatures and, permafrost melt that has collapsed commercial infrastructure such as the May 29, 2020 tank collapse in Norilsk. This Siberian community, located near the Ambarnaya River, was subjected to a 21,000-ton spill that poisoned the river while elevating the risk of large-scale gas and oil infrastructure located in permafrost areas. On the human scale, Indigenous reindeer herders and others are being driven to migrate from fire-ravaged Siberian Arctic lands the size of Greece. 

The environmental impacts embody a paradox between Russia and the United States in the Arctic that is particularly evident in the Bering Sea and Strait region. Here, exist two parallel tracks – ecosystem and fisheries protection in one of the world’s richest marine ecosystems, and projections of sovereignty and military power - visible in diplomatic, practical, constabulary and, military terms – both defensive and offensive.

Track 1: Marine ecosystems  

The first track has focused on marine ecosystems protection, environment, Indigenous cultural links and mutually beneficial constabulary functions on both sides of the Bering Sea. Russia and the United States served as the moving forces in a series of agreements, treaties and joint initiatives at the Arctic Council multilateral levels, including The Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, Agreement on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue, The Agreement on Illegal and Unregulated Fishing (IUU) and other joint initiatives on science. Their joint initiatives also include the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Polar Code and, Areas of Use to Be Avoided (ATBAs). The US Coast Guard and its Russian counterpart, have coordinated efforts in both the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum and the 2015 Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and in joint approaches to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for vessel traffic management. In 2015, the U.S. and Russia spearheaded an international agreement that place a moratorium on fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean until studies of conditions and fisheries are completed in the still inaccessible CAO.

On the matter of mutuality, it was a Russian tanker with ice-breaking capability that, in 2011, delivered fuel to the Port of Nome when the regular delivery to the city and outlying villages turned back in a massive winter storm. On February 1, 2021, the U.S. Coast Guard and Russia’s Marine Rescue Service increased joint constabulary activities by updating the 1989 Joint Contingency Plan, agreeing to enhance both Arctic nations’ ability to jointly address maritime pollution across their respective territorial waters. The U.S. and Russia were driving forces in the 2018 fishing ban in the Central Arctic Ocean (CAO), Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean. The Agreement established a program of scientific research to gain a better understanding of the CAO marine ecosystems before any commercial fishing is allowed. 

Track II: Security 

Yet, even as the ecosystem–commerce dynamic plays itself out both diplomatically and as a governance matter, Russian and U.S. military leaderships increasingly view the Arctic increasingly in security terms. The reasons are both geopolitical and climate-related. The thinning ice that once shielded access from the north is creating breaches in the northern ice - the first line of defense to protect the increasingly vulnerable coastlines from northern incursions - for both homelands - as maritime and air transport corridors by non-Arctic nations, and, possibly non-state actors, expand. 

Both Russia and the United States actively seek to stake out their ability to project power, exercise domain awareness and assume a lead role in the ability to shape the rules and infrastructure in support of shipping, commerce and governance in a heightened security environment.

As the Kremlin seeks greater reliability in shipping routes in the Bering Sea and Northern Sea Route, the Arctic power, with 25% of its national investments located in the north, has invested in updating its ports, improving its search and rescue dual-use defense/offense capabilities, upgraded its considerable icebreaking fleet of 40, including five nuclear powered. The Russian Federation has also opened new Arctic bases, strengthened its Northern Fleet, now mainly based in Arctic waters. Whether the militarization is offensive or defensive, connected to its economic growth, depends, at this stage, upon the beholder.

Certainly, strategic implications exist as the Kremlin upgrades its “protective zone,” capable of defending its Arctic maritime and air spaces. Bering Strait in the Northern Sea Route’s east to the Kara Gate is about 3,500 nautical miles, or 5,600 kilometers. The Arctic Institute reports that Russia’s total Arctic territory stretches 24,140 kilometers. The Alaska coastline, the state that makes the U.S. an Arctic nation, stretches 6,640 miles – not including the islands –  forms America’s longest coastal waters.

With significant disparities between Russia and the U. S. in investment in military and duel-use infrastructure in the region, of the Arctic relationship to Russia, a State Department official wrote to me of security concerns, “Our intent is to engage Russia in ways that advances our interests while remaining very clear-eyes about the challenges that it poses.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of a growing U.S. interest in the Arctic region is the recently released military strategies by all forces that seek to address “new security challenges” presented by a more accessible Arctic with a variety of competing sovereign interests. The Secretary of the Air Force, Barbara A. Barrett recently told the Atlantic Council that the Department of the Air Force, like other military departments, will continue to align their Arctic strategies with overall National Defense Strategies. While some in the US military, such as Admiral William E. Gortney, told the New York Times that “Russia’s investments in the Arctic had not yet become threatening,” particularly that Russia holds the Arctic’s longest Arctic coastline, thus seeking to strengthen its defense capabilities for an increasingly vulnerable, far less ice protected, coastline. 

Avoid potential mishaps 

The bilateral communications between Russia and the United States in the Arctic must be more specifically coordinated in the security domain as the region becomes of greater commercial, and thus, military interest. While Russia’s level of Arctic ambition is evident in its planning, funding both commercial and military infrastructure, the U.S. infrastructure, ice-breaking capabilities and commercial investments remain thinly budgeted, still largely relegated to a policy and financing back burner. 

Like the United States, in the words of General Jim Mattis, “ups” its game in the Arctic, the Bering Sea region offers a vital example of what can go wrong with increased military exercises but insufficient coordination and communications. The contentious relations of both great powers outside of the region have created the potential for disastrous miscommunications or accidents in the region. 

Military exercises in Arctic waters, both the Barents and Bering Seas, have recently increased in the resource-rich region as both Russia and the U.S., via NATO or unilaterally, project power, test capabilities or, make statements of geopolitical significance.  The results, if a miscommunication or accident, could be deadly, or worse. In August 2020, U.S. commercial fishing boats in the Bering Sea’s U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) were surprised by nearby activity of Russian warships, submarines, and aircraft sorties, a combination of practical exercises and power projection.  The startled commercial fishers contacted the US Coast Guard, indicating that they had no prior notice of the Russian military exercise.

But, in a phone interview, a Coast Guard spokesman said that, in fact, Russia had provided advance warning of their upcoming exercises to both the American fishing fleet and the Coast Guard through the HYDROPAC notification channels. However, the fishing fleet was unaware of the HYDROPAC warning. Tensions heightened as what appeared to be dangerous maneuvers that menaced American fishing fleets.  When the error in communication was discovered, the U.S. Coast Guard established new and, ongoing communications with the Alaskan fishing fleets. The Coast Guard also developed new communications with Moscow’s Coast Guard Attaché, the State Department Liaisons, and the Alaska Command to avoid a repeat of such dangerous errors in communications.

The potential for other miscommunications or misinterpretations in what have been viewed as “provocative exchanges” by both nations is also evident, particularly, for Russia, when NATO’s northward gaze, was recently added to the equation. The month following the frayed nerves in the Bering, the United States and NATO air and sea forces boosted their military presence and strength by conducting exercises in the Barents Sea. In September 2020, a flotilla, including three American destroyers and a Norwegian frigate, deployed into the Barents Sea, on the northwest Arctic coast of Russia – the first such venture for U.S. surface ships since the end of the Cold War, reflecting a show of force that included six aircraft capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Building trust

As these situations highlight the potential for deadly accidents or misinterpretation, it likewise demonstrates that as a geopolitical matter, greater trust and improved communications must be built between Russia and the United States in the “gateway to the Arctic.” Along with the many functional regional and bilateral agreements between Russia, the United States and non-littoral nations, several Alaskans and, at least, one high level official in the Kremlin noted the potential utility of an agreement between Russia and the United States in the Bering Sea, similar to the Agreement between Russia and Norway in the Barents.

A few potentially contentious issues have been relegated to a “live and let live” posture. For example, the legal status of both Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Canada’s Northwest Passage (NWP) which the United States views, in contradistinction to Russia and Canada, as an international straits rather than internal waters. Further, the 1990 USA/USSR Maritime Boundary Agreement, ratified by the United States in 1991 remains in dispute as the Russian Federation continues to view the agreement by the Soviet Union as ceding Russian fishing rights in service of the greater power of the United States during a collapsing Soviet Union. Currently, both the United States and Russia have “agreed to disagree” on these potentially contentious disputes. On the issue of trust and confidence, Admiral Zukunft, in 2018, perhaps wryly noted that trust with another nation probably doesn’t begin with freedom of navigation exercises.

China’s Polar Silk Road 

The region’s paradoxes become more complex as China, a self proclaimed “near Arctic nation,” is boosting its energy development and shipping presence in cooperation with Russia on its Northern Sea Route. As China’s appetite for natural resources grows, Beijing’s incorporation of its Polar Silk Route into Xi Jinping’s signature One-Belt-One Road program to the home of the world’s largest gas reserves along Russia’s NSR has opened a question of security concerns to the U.S.  Although the price of oil has decreased along with increasing global shifts away from carbon fuels, energy cooperation, revenues and geopolitical influence is likely to grow in the Arctic with China as both investor and consumer in the Arctic region.

China’s investments interests in the Atlantic Arctic nations, including Iceland, Greenland and Norway, appear to be rooted in commerce and research. However, Beijing’s emphasis on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea along with some concern for China’s incremental expansion of its “strategic security footprint” has generated attention in the U.S. for Beijing’s possible future efforts to make changes or emphases in the current rules-based order. Far less concern is expressed by the Nordic states’ officials who view a foreseeable future as more multi-polar than the past. All parties, including the Kremlin that is not likely willing to play a junior partner role to Beijing, appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Security Communications Architecture 

As Russia, China and the United States jockey and balance their capabilities, legal rights, perceived rights and commercial and security interests in the High North, better lines of communications need be established. Perhaps, a new security communications architecture is needed to ensure the cooperative and collaborative spirit that has defined the Arctic region from the time of Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1987 “zone of peace” proclamation. Without creating a new institution, but, instead expanding upon existing initiatives or building a venue to discuss security issues, including hot lines to prevent mishaps, while increasing coordination with existing constabulary functions and enhanced ecosystem agreements.

An Arctic-specific security communications, based on mutual interests, connectivity and cooperative strategy, would enhance the region’s continued stability, ecosystem protection, while commerce and, the trajectory of the existing rules-based order expands.

Whether a cooperative multilateral spirit will shape the emerging international waters as the sea-ice melts, remains to be seen. Yet, it is vital that rather than play regional big-power politics or compete with China or other non-coastal nations’ interes        ts that would move an economic adversary into “enemy” status – a cooperative approach based in mutual interests to protect the marine ecosystem that must continue to serve as the centerpiece of Arctic geopolitics. Arctic sea-ice melt, healthy marine biodiversity and, ocean currents worldwide, depend upon it.

That the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken will meet up with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, at the forthcoming Arctic Council Ministerial scheduled in Reykjavik on May 19-20, suggests that mutuality will drive the agenda. As the Arctic region, and its peoples, move toward greater integration with the ever globalizing world, this is, indeed, a positive step.

And, with any luck, a spillover effect for cooperation and a renewed emphasis for diplomacy in the Arctic region,  and, perhaps may go well beyond.



Anita Parlow, Esq., MSt., a recent Fulbright Scholar in Iceland, was founding team-lead for the Woodrow Wilson Center Polar Program, advisor/researcher to the Harvard-MIT Arctic Fisheries Project, and advisor to the Port of Nome on climate issues. Parlow, a pro-bono Mediator for D.C. Superior Court, is also a member of the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. A published author, Parlow is currently, co-editor of a forthcoming book on climate and food security, with two chapters on the Bering Sea region.




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