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Imagining the Arctic: Re-Emergence of a Cold War Mentality?

By Supriti Jaya Ghosh

As the U.S. planted its flag on the moon in 1969, so did the Russians on the seabed of the Arctic Ocean in 2007. This lingering Cold War competitiveness is now seeping into the Arctic.

Since 2008, Russia has begun a large-scale remilitarization, some of which extends into the Arctic. Russian forces have conducted military drills and reopened bases in the region, a story that has often dominated the media. The Russian government currently has over 40 icebreakers in comparison to the U.S.’ single antique heavy icebreaker; this infrastructure discrepancy has been a vocal cause for concern among American Arctic interests. The question remains whether we are witnessing the re-emergence of a Cold War-like competition or if the Cold War narrative is being unjustly applied to the Arctic.

Not All Arctic Economies are Equal

Although the media has framed Russian investment in the Arctic as a strategic move to amplify the country’s global influence, this fails to account for other likely reasons for these actions. Russian development in the Arctic region is driven by current and potential economic activity; the Russian Arctic currently contributes 20 percent of the nation’s GDP and 22 percent of its exports, and these figures are expected to grow with investment in the Yamal District energy and maritime infrastructure. Infrastructure growth in the Russian Arctic is driven by potential for economic development, primarily in oil and gas and waterborne transportation, with military activities in the region growing as a byproduct. 

In comparison, Alaska’s entire GDP only makes up 0.3 percent of the U.S. GDP. In 2015, Alaska had the second-lowest GDP by state in the U.S. Unlike Russia, the U.S. is not actively investing in new oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic, formally excluding the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas from oil and gas leases through 2022. Even major corporations have pulled back from exploratory drilling in the region. It could thus be argued that the U.S. does not need to match Russia in an Arctic infrastructure race. (It should also be noted that other Arctic nations—not just Russia—are increasing their Arctic capacity in response to growing activity and potential emergencies. Furthermore, some additional investment in the U.S. Arctic will still be necessary to meet peacetime needs and replace aging infrastructure.)

It is unclear what the recent election in the U.S. means for resource extraction in the Arctic, but given President-elect Donald Trump’s desire to remove barriers to development and increase U.S. energy independence, the U.S. could see a resurgence of extraction activity in the region. Republican leaders see the new administration as an opportunity to open up parts of the Arctic for drilling.

Fueling the Cold War Narrative

Despite U.S. activity in the Arctic being minimal relative to Russia, as well as the strong precedent for international cooperation in the region, the Cold War narrative is used to catalyze increased presence and development in the Arctic. The oceans are often depicted as an arena of conflict, and Russian-Western tensions in the Arctic play into the accepted discourse involving Cold War conflict. Two past U.S. military leaders recently argued that the U.S. needs to return and invest in Arctic oil and gas development as a way to show strategic strength in the region. In a play on words, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled its report on Russia’s strategic reach in the Arctic, The New Ice Curtain. Continuing to frame Arctic issues in this way reinforces the Cold War mentality. 

In 2014, the Greenpeace vessel, Arctic Sunrise entered Russian Arctic waters without permission to protest oil and gas development. This action resulted in the seizure of the vessel and imprisonment of its crew. In the months that followed, the classic East-versus-West story played out as the Netherlands fought Russia at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to attain the release of the vessel and its crew. There are parallels between this event and the U.S. Coast Guard vessels that strategically attempted to transit the Northern Sea Route in the 1960s to demonstrate freedom of navigation. Both were instances of pushback against Russian maritime claims.

Reality of Cooperation

The Russian remilitarization of the Arctic has been a cause for concern among the other Arctic nations. Despite this increased military posturing, Russia has been very cooperative in Arctic discussions. Telling only a story of conflict misses important cooperative moments.

In 2010, Russia and Norway settled a decades-old dispute over the maritime border between the two nations, illustrating a new willingness to compromise. In the past few years Russia has followed the procedures under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to make Extended Continental Shelf claims. While perceived as a land grab in the Arctic, Russia has fully adhered to and participated in this accepted international process. It is in Russia’s best interest to be cooperative in the Arctic because if it succeeds, the nation will have much to gain from jurisdiction over some of the world’s largest remaining repositories of natural resources.

Scientific research has also fostered strong international collaboration in the Arctic. For example, in the late 2000s, the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring worked with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to revitalize Tiksi International Hydrometeorological Observatory in Russia. The data collected from this observatory has informed multiple scientific papers on Arctic processes. Russia is also an active participant in the multilateral Distributed Biological Observatory. Russian involvement in bilateral partnerships and international institutions defy the simplicity of the Cold War narrative.

Cold War Baggage

For 99.94 percent of the world’s population, the Arctic is a region outside of the lived experience, yet most can imagine a basic geographic identity. Dominant Arctic narratives flourish because they fit into accepted social and political relationships from elsewhere in the world. These narratives also have the unfortunate consequence of overshadowing more nuanced stories and relationships in the Arctic.

“As we, the outsiders come to the Arctic, we carry our cultural and historical baggage with us in our minds,” writes Nancy Doubleday in her essay, Arctic Worlds and the Geography of Imagination. Our Cold War cultural and historical baggage influences how we perceive the Arctic, and as managers, how we steward the space and its resources. U.S.-Russian conflict in the region plays directly into the ingrained Cold War mentality, but overshadows a strong trend of regional collaboration on diplomatic and scientific issues.

In the past two decades, Arctic activity has shifted from scientific research and environmental protection to one that also balances sustainable development. The Arctic narrative will continue to evolve as the region takes on greater global relevance. It is therefore imperative that we recognize our own social constructs and biases when entering the Arctic stage.

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Supriti Jaya Ghosh is a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow with the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System, where she advises on marine transportation issues related to the Arctic and environment. Jaya was a 2016 Arctic Summer College Fellow with the Ecologic Institute. 

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy]

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