14,000 feet beneath the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean at the North Pole, a Russian flag forged in titanium rests on the seabed. The flag, planted by a manned submersible during a 2007 expedition, was conceived as a publicity stunt intended to promote Russia’s territorial claims in the Arctic.
The expedition was immediately rebuked and dismissed as geopolitical posturing by other Arctic nations. Canada – whose current claims on Arctic territory are second only to Russia’s in size – expressed particular concern, with Canada’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay deriding Russia’s Arctic flag-planting as behavior more befitting the age of discovery rather than the modern arena of international politics.
Russia waited until 2015 to submit a revised offshore territory claim to the United Nations, joining Canada, the United States, Denmark, and Norway in a protracted process of determining sovereignty in the Arctic.
Since the 2007 expedition, tensions surrounding competing territorial claims in the Arctic have only escalated.
As global warming reduces annual sea ice coverage, it has become easier to navigate Arctic waters, and for states as well as private companies to begin exploring as-yet untapped reserves of natural resources, including oil and natural gas, as well as mineral deposits of gold, iron, copper, nickel, zinc, phosphate, and bauxite.
In order to better position itself to secure its interests in the Arctic, Russia has steadily increased military spending, directing funds to the creation or expansion of numerous military bases along its northern coastline. Russia’s capacity for Arctic navigation has come to significantly eclipse that of the United States; Russia now boasts 40 icebreaker vessels – powerful ships able to carve routes straight through solid sea ice – compared to the two remaining U.S. icebreakers.
Against this backdrop of competition for territory, resources, and power projection, it would seem unlikely that the thawing of the Arctic could prove to be anything but deleterious for Russia’s strained relationship with the West.
However, there remains one area in which cooperation between Russia and the West may not just be possible, but even probable given the strong potential for mutual benefit for all parties concerned.
The economic rewards likely to be realized through expanded Arctic trade may well result in genuine, albeit limited, cooperation amongst Arctic states. Already, shipping through formerly inaccessible Arctic water is increasing in volume.
For centuries, the Northwest Passage – a sea route skirting the northern coasts of Canada and Alaska – remained unusable by explorers and traders alike due to persistent Arctic pack ice. Within the last decade, however, warming temperatures have resulted in increased navigability. If temperatures continue to rise, regular use of the Northwest Passage for commercial shipping may become commonplace, substantially reconfiguring patterns in oceanic trade. Likewise, melting along the course the Northeast Passage, which overlaps with Russia’s Northern Sea Route, is gradually making it easier for ships to navigate the northern coast of Eurasia between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Despite the warming the Arctic has experienced to-date, icebreakers, satellite guidance, and other navigational aids remain a necessity for the majority of ships that would seek passage through these routes. Sea ice remains a considerable obstacle, and the prospect of being forced to turn back – or worse, becoming trapped – by ice is sufficient cause for most commercial ships to continue to use longer but more dependable trade routes until the Arctic routes have proven their reliability.
A new passage, termed the Arctic Bridge, appears poised not only to open up a new channel for trade, but also to facilitate new economic cooperation between Russia and North America. This route, which connects the west Russian seaport of Murmansk to the Canadian port in Churchill, Manitoba, is currently only usable for approximately four months a year during the summer, but is likely to become more available as the Arctic continues to warm.
It if can ever be developed to the point of commercial feasibility, the Arctic Bridge route would present a dramatic improvement over existing routes in terms of travel time. A ship needs an average of eight days to travel from Murmansk to Churchill, compared to an average of 17 days needed to travel the conventional route which passes through the Saint Lawrence Seaway. A functioning Arctic Bridge route would provide an immensely valuable connection between Eurasia and North America, allowing goods to be exchanged between continents faster than ever before. Murmansk and Churchill would become crucial trade hubs, serving as continental distribution points from where imports would be distributed via road, rail, and air.
Developing the Arctic Bridge, though certainly a tempting prospect, remains far easier said than done.
Churchill today, far from resembling a bustling hub of international trade, is a small town of less than 1,000 inhabitants. Residents affectionately refer to the town as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Although strategically positioned, a lack of accessibility has hindered its development – Churchill still remains disconnected from the rest of Canada’s road network, and can only be reached by alternative means of transportation. To accommodate large container ships, Churchill’s port would need to be expanded considerably, and significant infrastructure investments would be needed to ensure the port’s effective operation.
Murmansk, for its part, is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle with a population of about 300,000 people. The Murmansk Commercial Seaport, an active and high-capacity already equipped with modern facilities, would still need to be further expanded to be able to handle an explosion in trans-Arctic trade.
To overcome the persistent threat of sea ice, as well as the other environmental hazards posed by the Arctic, Russia and Canada would need to coordinate extensively to develop navigational networks, communications infrastructure, meteorological systems, search-and-rescue operations, and other emergency services.
These logistical considerations are perhaps secondary to what could be considered the primary political obstacles confronting international cooperation in the Arctic.
Canada has openly criticized Russia’s actions on the international stage. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been especially critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him a “bully,” denouncing Russia’s involvement in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and condemning his “unduly provocative” behavior in the Arctic.
To overlook politics for sake of cooperation through trade would undoubtedly be difficult for both Russia and Canada. Although in the future trade may well facilitate the mending of relations between the two countries, at present, trade policy is being deployed as a destructive rather than constructive tool. In 2014, Canada joined other Western nations in imposing sanctions on Russia in response to Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.
For Russia, cooperation on trade issues may eventually be necessitated by economic circumstances rather than a genuine desire to engage peacefully with the West. Russia’s dismal recent economic performance, as well as poor projections for its future growth, may gradually wear away at Putin’s ill-founded desire for self-reliance and his reluctance to expand economic ties with the West.
Of course, a fully-realized Arctic Bridge is no guarantee of future friendship by any means. Competing sovereignty claims in the Arctic could easily result in a scenario resembling the current state of affairs in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, given the distinct shortage of other areas of common interest between Russia and the West, the Arctic Bridge remains a strong contender as an instrument of reconciliation between historical rivals.