For now, it appears that business and purely pragmatic interests will guide the Trump administration in coming up with any semblance of an Arctic policy. But that might actually help, not hurt, the U.S.-Russian relationship.


The Russian polar explorers, who traveled to the Arctic to set up a drifting station. Photo: RIA Novosti

With Donald Trump’s inauguration fast approaching, there is still no telling what his presidency will really be like. Policy forecasts in this regard can only be speculation. However, the signals he has been giving out during his campaign, the appointments he has made since then and the expectations of his foreign counterparts give some indications of the course international relations might take during his upcoming term.

Arctic politics have always been a kind of exception to the rule, as if to some extent the region’s fog and the ice insulate it from the normal ebbs and flows of global affairs. For instance, the Arctic has been relatively preserved from the increase in tensions between Russia and the West, yet it is a central - and somewhat mysterious - element of their relationship.

Questions of Arctic governance are complex, encompassing issues of climate change, environmental protection, industrial development, navigation, local populations and military balance of power. The many uncertainties surrounding the next U.S. presidential administration only add a layer of complexity.

Will Arctic cooperation benefit or suffer from the new setup? Will territorial and military tensions in the region increase or decrease? Will U.S.-Russian relations change so much that it will reshuffle the parameters of Arctic affairs - or conversely, will Trump’s Arctic policies impact the region so much as to affect U.S.-Russian relations?

Russia Direct spoke to Arctic experts from Russia and North America, in order to decrypt the signals and identify possible trends for the future of Arctic affairs and bilateral U.S.-Russian relations in the region. The picture that emerges is dominated by oil and gas extraction, business interests, a retreat from multilateralism and a measure of uncertainty.

The Trump team’s lack of strategic direction

Neither Trump nor any of his appointees has yet formulated a comprehensive foreign policy strategy, let alone a strategy for the Arctic. As Valery Konyshev, professor of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University, notes, “The statements that have hitherto been made regarding the Arctic are private and fragmentary, not reflecting any strategic direction.”

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Trump has no policymaking record in general, and no record of taking position on Arctic issues, specifically. Neither do his appointees have particular experience with the Arctic. While in Russia the Arctic has become a central feature in politics, it has traditionally been a relatively minor topic in the American public debate.

“I am not sure Trump even knows what the Arctic is,” says Rob Huebert, who is an associate professor at the University of Calgary. According to him, Trump’s “Arctic legacy” has every chance of becoming merely an “afterthought” - much like President George W. Bush’s. That is to say, a peripheral fallout of his industrial, climate and foreign and security policies.

During his campaign, Trump called global warming a ‘Chinese hoax’ and promised to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. This caused much dismay, especially among Arctic scientists, who are witnessing and documenting the extraordinary consequences of global warming on the Arctic region and the positive feedback loop this creates.

Since his election, Trump has sent mixed signals about this issue. He notably admitted in mid-November that anthropogenic climate change might not be a hoax after all and said he was looking closely at the Paris agreement with an “open mind.”

However, says Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21, a network of scientific organizations that advocates for climate change action on Capitol Hill, the signals are overall “rather depressing.” In fact, “So far the various appointments to critical jobs indicate that [Trump] will completely turn around the course set by Obama.”

Most controversially, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and his transition team started a bizarre, witch hunt-like inquiry into the Energy Department’s personnel. In addition, Pomerance says, “Both Houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican Party, which has been - not totally but heavily - governed by a denialist wing. This is a completely new and worrying situation.”

ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson, who stands to be the next Secretary of State, has publicly recognized the existence of climate change and the role fossil fuels play in it, but as an oil tycoon he is neither a keen environmentalist, nor is he likely to turn into one as he starts on his new job.

Trump’s electoral promise to withdraw from the Paris agreement and to downscale U.S. participation in various environmental cooperation programs in the High North “have caused discontent in Russia and other Arctic states,” says Alexander Sergunin, professor of International Relations at St. Petersburg State University. That’s because Russia is among the countries that are most affected by environmental degradation in the High North. An excessively nonchalant environmental stance in the U.S. might thus alienate Russian negotiators, if it poses a concrete and identifiable threat to Russia’s Arctic Zone (AZRF).

On the other hand, says Sergunin, “Moscow hopes that Trump will lift economic sanctions against Russia, including the ban on offshore oil and gas projects.” While Trump and his team have not singled out the Arctic as a specific theater, the fossil fuel industry will likely be a central feature of his presidency. Arctic politics will be shaped in part by the American administration’s oil and gas policies, and these are likely to be both liberal and pragmatic. Russia and the U.S. might very well find a solid common ground there.

The University of Calgary’s Rob Huebert predicts “a complete reversal of U.S. policy, in particular regarding the development of fossil fuels. U.S. outgoing President Barack Obama was slowly moving towards a ban of any type of new development in the Arctic region. Trump made it abundantly clear that his major focus will not be about respecting the Paris accord but rather insuring that the U.S. has energy self-efficiency. Part of that self-efficiency will be based on opening up resources in the Arctic.” Huebert foresees a “much more welcoming regime for companies to return to the Arctic once the oil prices rebound, as they inevitably will.”

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This, Huebert says, coupled with the “bizarre relationship Trump is developing with Russian President Putin,” makes for a new and intriguing equation.

Professor James Kraska of the US Naval War College concurs. “I think we can see the U.S. adopt a more balanced approach to offshore oil and gas development, much like Norway has,” he said while predicting that this may foster cooperation with like-minded Arctic states.

As far as territorial disputes and navigational issues are concerned, Trump is unlikely to bring about significant change. Trump is unlikely to advocate for or obtain the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) - which means the U.S. will keep considering the treaty as reflecting customary law, all the while affording itself some latitude in its interpretation of the freedom of navigation principle. It also means no U.S. claim to the Arctic continental shelf can be filed.

Keep an eye on the militarization of the Arctic

In Arctic affairs, questions of navigation, the environment and fossil fuel extraction feature most prominently, but questions of military balance are no less important - albeit as a discrete underlying theme. There again, there is little indication that Trump’s administration will formulate an Arctic-specific security policy. Changes in U.S. military presence in the region will most likely happen only as a corollary of broader endeavors.

Trump seems to head towards a less idealistic and more pragmatic foreign and security policy. Many have drawn the immediate conclusion that the U.S. would become less interventionist - a conclusion that makes sense as regards distant theaters such as the Middle East and Central Asia, where the U.S. is involved mainly on ideological grounds. However, ‘more pragmatic’ does not mean ‘less assertive’ and realpolitik entails a degree of ruthlessness that has to be reckoned with. In addition, a more isolationist U.S. might want to reallocate its military capabilities in its vicinity, which includes the Arctic.

Experts remain cautious about forecasting any militarization of the American Arctic. According to Kraska, “The U.S. Navy is likely to grow, so there may be a greater subsurface (submarine) presence in the region, but not markedly.”

For Huebert, militarization in the Arctic is definitely an issue and “more U.S. isolationism in this context might mean building up the borders in the region. It is something Canada is watching closely and it will have direct repercussions for the U.S.-Canadian relationship in NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).” However, Huebert notes, any increase would remain marginal.

“Depending on how you measure it, the U.S. already has a hefty military presence in the Arctic,” he says. “The Americans maintain a very substantial airbase in Southern Alaska - mostly oriented towards Asian issues, but it is still an Arctic base. They also have their key anti-ballistic missile intercept sites in Alaska, at Fort Greely. Finally, they have the world’s largest submarine attack fleet - something that is very difficult to get a hand on because it is so secret.”

Thus, even if Congress (now controlled by a Republican majority) and the Trump administration are in the position to increase the overall military budget, this should not substantially alter the balance of military power in the region, where the U.S. is already strong.

A blow to multilateralism

While Obama was the first President to commit the U.S. to a leadership role in Arctic governance, including its climate and environmental dimensions, the Trump administration will likely grant systematic and multilateral discussions in the Arctic Council (AC) little attention and resources - except when Alaska’s direct economic interests will be concerned.

“Trump has made no secret of the fact that he wants to reverse as much as possible of what Obama has achieved,” says Huebert, “and it is quite clear that he does not support the idea of multilateralism for multilateralism alone.” So the Arctic Council will continue its work, only “it is not going to have that American support and input that really had come to energize the organization under Obama.”

U.S. retreat from multilateralism could trigger a chain reaction, with other Arctic countries reneging on their commitments as well, or it could backfire and reinforce these states’ willingness to work even harder together towards solutions to common challenges. However, as Europe is engaged in political turmoil, with important elections ahead and other issues perceived as more pressing than multilateral Arctic governance, it is unclear how much energy the remaining Arctic states will be able or willing to dedicate to it. The role of the U.S. in this setup would be ambiguous.

As Sergunin notes, “The Trump administration will likely keep a low profile in the Arctic Council - especially on climate change and environmental issues - but it will also likely oppose its further institutionalization.”

Bilateral relations based on pragmatism

Bilateral U.S.-Russian relations are among the most contentious issues in the current debate about the future of global politics, and they remain surrounded with uncertainty. Their evolution will likely impact Arctic affairs, and any change in Arctic affairs will also have an impact on the relationship.

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Trump has shown signs of personal sympathy for President Putin on several occasions, and whether or not one admits the actuality of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election, it is clear that the Russian leadership sees Trump as a more favorable interlocutor than Obama (and especially former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). This does not mean, of course, that the two leaders will agree on everything or that they will be able to overcome the current deadlocked positions that have stymied Russia’s relationship with the West.

Mostly, Moscow seems optimistic about the upcoming Trump administration. According to Konyshev, “The Russian political elites expect the U.S. to return to a more constructive approach towards Russia. This means less Russophobia and a new relation built on pragmatic bases, in due consideration of interests and real balance of power parameters. This general trend will be reflected in the Arctic.”

Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State is also welcome in Russia. “He has experience in cooperation, no Russophobia, no ideological blinkers when making decisions,” says Konyshev. In short, “He neatly reflects the Trump spirit.”

Certainly, if Trump’s foreign policy is guided by economic - in particular energy - concerns, he will push for sanctions against Russia to be lifted and will be in favor of fossil fuel development projects in the Arctic. If that happens, the joint exploitation of Arctic resources could go down in history as what mended the strained U.S.-Russian relationship, when nothing else could.

At the same time, experts express cautious optimism regarding Trump's presidency and its impact on Russia. Huebert argues that the new U.S. President is going to be “much more sympathetic to Russia - at least until Putin does something to upset him, because all politics are personal for Trump.” If that is true and diplomatic relations between the Arctic’s two nuclear powers depend on the blunders and indiscretions of two alpha males, then there might be grounds for concern.

But if Putin and Trump consistently act as the two "rational businessmen" they seem to consider each other to be, one might expect a much more stable U.S.-Russian relationship than has been the case in the past few years.

“The Russian political and expert mainstream took a wait-and-see position and emphasized the difference between electoral rhetoric and real policies in office,” said Sergunin.

Yet he also added that “Moscow had concerns about some of Trump’s campaign advisors’ declarations on global ballistic missile defense, including its Arctic component.” That's why the future remains uncertain. Yet Konyshev is not worried about a potential militarization of the Arctic led by America.

“Moscow is not expecting military escalation with the U.S. in the Arctic,” he told Russia Direct, adding that if the U.S. does increase its military presence in the region, it will merely be as a result of increasing U.S. economic activity there, not as a sign of aggression towards Russia.

All this points to a situation where business interests might stabilize diplomatic relations - and because the Arctic presents significant business opportunities, it may potentially play a greater role than ever in influencing international relations towards a more cooperative course.

Although the Trump administration’s likely reluctance to work on climate change and environmental issues might create new tensions among Arctic players, the convergence of economic interests between American and Russian elites may lay a new groundwork on which high-level bilateral relations could thrive. Many actors in the Arctic community would be left out in such a setup, and collateral damage could be dire. Proponents of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement on the basis of realpolitik, however, would have their way.

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On the other hand, Trump has no observable record as a head of state and his leadership style remains to be tested against real world conditions. There is no guarantee that he will indeed be able to manage a stable relationship with his Russian counterpart - to a great extent it also depends on how the latter plays his cards.

But it also depends on the rest of the world. However friendly Putin and Trump may become, and however well their joint Arctic business may come to thrive, the U.S.-Russian relationship will not be insulated from the political turmoil surrounding Europe. This includes the challenges that migration presents for global stability and security, as well as disagreement over nuclear deterrence and ballistic missile defense. And both sides must acknowledge the role China will keep playing in the years to come.