There is reason to be optimistic that the U.S. and Russia can find common ground in developing a positive response to Arctic climate change, especially when it comes to resolving territorial disputes and resource claims.

Will the U.S. and Russia be able to collaborate in the Arctic? Photo:

Reflecting on the American purchase of the present-day state of Alaska from Russia in 1867, it is quite intriguing to realize how the territory has played a significant role in the two countries’ relationship over the last century.

During the Cold War, Alaska’s proximity to the Soviet Union forced Moscow to remain vigilant over its eastern territory in addition to the European region to which it was historically oriented. Conversely, shared economic and cultural interests on either side of the Bering Strait helped to facilitate a number of positive initiatives in Russian-American relations immediately following the Cold War era.

At present, Alaska’s geographic location gives the United States a direct stake in the issue of climate change in the Arctic Ocean, an issue in which Russian territory is also directly affected. While public attention toward this issue has focused on the perceived rivalry between countries in seeking out the Arctic’s potentially vast natural resources—an implication that largely grew from a 2007 incident in which Russian researchers planted a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed—the Arctic may actually prove to be a vehicle for positive cooperation between Russia and the United States.

As Russia and the United States remain at odds over many other global issues of note, there is reason to be optimistic that the two countries can find common ground in developing a positive response to Arctic climate change.

Aside from the Arctic’s potential natural resource wealth, another pressing issue is the impact of melting ice on global shipping routes: As the general amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean has gradually decreased over the past few decades, the viability of using the Arctic Ocean for marine shipping is expected to increase tremendously in the coming years. Along with Canada, Denmark, and Norway, the U.S. and Russia (collectively known as the “Arctic Five”) have increased their attention to Arctic issues through institutions such as the Arctic Council. Given the expected increase in marine traffic in the Arctic Ocean in the next two decades, Arctic states have considered upgrading port facilities to handle larger ships that will have gained the ability to operate in the region.

Another significant concern along these lines is the ability of search-and-rescue forces to respond to increased activity. In January 2013, the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement—which was signed by Arctic Council members in May 2011—came into force. This was a significant step toward establishing concrete measures in which Arctic states can collaborate and remain positively engaged on issues of mutual interest in the Arctic Ocean.

A second issue has been to determine territorial rights in the Arctic’s northernmost fringe. A major obstacle to this process has been the failure of the United States Congress to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), even despite the support of the last three U.S. administrations. Until the U.S. ratifies the UNCLOS, it has less of a voice in any future negotiation over the delineation of Arctic territorial rights. Additionally, the U.S. remains at odds with Canada over the two countries’ maritime border in the Beaufort Sea. On a more promising note, however, Russia and Norway came to agreement to end a longstanding maritime border dispute in 2010.

Certainly, one cannot dismiss the realpolitik that does exist in the minds of Arctic states when building a strategy for a changing Arctic. The recent Russian arrest of Greenpeace activists protesting oil drilling on Russia’s Arctic coast—and subsequent heavy-handed charge of piracy that was initially levied against the activists before being reduced to a lesser charge of hooliganism after international outcry—demonstrates Moscow’s continually disproportionate sensitivity to political dissent.

Russia and Canada have also made public commitments to bolster their military presence in their Arctic regions in the near future, while Denmark has committed to do the same in enforcing its sovereignty over Greenland (interestingly enough, the United States cancelled the 2013 iteration of its Northern Edge military exercise in Alaska due to budget constraints). There is also increasing concern that China will attempt to establish a presence in the region in order to tap into its resource potential, which may throw a wrench into the generally positive dynamic that has developed between the Arctic states in recent years.

Michael McCormack  In order to prevent potential rivalry from developing in the Arctic region, the United States and Russia must take an active role in continuing to build positive cooperation through such institutions as the Arctic Council. With the recent addition of six observer states to the organization—including China—it is imperative that Arctic states do not waste the opportunity to increase international awareness of the tangible effects of Arctic climate change.

Although the next logical step in this process would be to move toward serious negotiations on an international framework to manage Arctic territorial disputes and resource extraction, what must come first is U.S. ratification of the UNCLOS. In doing this, the United States will be able to regain an influential position on oceanic matters within international institutions.

One must be realistic, of course, about the current nature of U.S.-Russian relations: On the whole, we cannot expect the two sides to reach mutual agreement on many strategic matters in the near future. Nonetheless, multinational efforts in responding to Arctic climate change in recent years—as well as structures being created for the near future—have given reason to hope that this is an issue where the two sides can build lasting cooperation.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.