With recent Russian involvement in Ukraine, Canada imposed strict sanctions on key Russian elites and refused to attend the working-group level meetings of the Arctic Council in Moscow last month. When the minister responsible for the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq, spoke about not attending the meetings, she vowed to support the council's work. But what implications will distancing Russia have on the strength of the Arctic Council?
The Arctic Council is a co-operative intergovernmental forum on environmental protection and sustainable development. Russia is a significant member that spends the most money on development in the Arctic. With close to two million of the four million residents in the Arctic, many Russians see the North as home. Russia is investing tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure, which continues to be a main challenge across the North.
With the Arctic Council's mandate specifically stating that it "should not deal with matters related to military security," we should think twice before freezing the biggest player out of talks regarding the Arctic.
As co-chair of the Arctic marine oil pollution prevention task force and the scientific co-operation task force, Russia is one of the leading states in scientific research. Evan Bloom, a United States co-chair alongside Russia on the task force stated in a recent interview with the Arctic Council: "I think all Arctic states and permanent participants realize that science is one of the highest priorities of the Arctic Council." Canada must engage Russia in the Arctic if any progress is to be made with the Arctic Council.
In addition to scientific research, Russia helped develop the Arctic Economic Council, which was one of Canada's main goals for its 2013-2015 chairmanship of the council. Russia is also one of the leading nations in search-and-rescue missions. Russia's work on the Arctic Council has been significant. The Arctic is not Ukraine, and straining Canadian-Russian relationships will have do more harm than good for the Arctic Council.
Established in 1996, the eight Arctic Council states -- Canada, Denmark (via Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States -- rotate chairmanship of the council every two years. With the addition of new non-Arctic state observers, the ratio of Arctic states to non-Arctic state observers is 8:12. Observers now include China, Singapore, India, Italy, Japan and South Korea, in addition to others mainly representing Europe. With environmental protection being at the forefront council issues, dealing with climate change requires a worldwide effort.
During the 18 years of being an intergovernmental forum, the Arctic Council has many achievements. Recent agreements signed by all member states include the Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic (also known as SAR), and the agreement on co-operation on marine oil pollution preparedness and response in the Arctic. Numerous environmental scientific workings, from monitoring ocean acidification to black carbon pollution, to an Arctic Ocean review analyzes the status and trends in the Arctic environment. The Arctic Council also focuses on the socio-economic issues pertaining to indigenous peoples and Arctic communities.
The Arctic is the area affected the most by climate change and deserves co-operative attention. Russia will benefit increasingly from focusing on the development of its North, rather than eastern Europe. Canada may be able to partake in sideline discussions with Russia via the Arctic Council regarding Ukraine. With the largest population, geography, and potential economic investment in the area, engagement of Russia in the co-ordinative forum is crucial if the Arctic Council is to continue to be successful. With being one of the leading states in scientific innovation, sustainable development and environmental protection cannot be achieved without our neighbours across the North Pole.
The focus for many is making the Arctic region a peaceful zone, and including indigenous peoples' voices in regards to policy development. As U.S. President Barack Obama stated in the 2013 United States national strategy for the Arctic region: "The Arctic region is peaceful, stable, and free of conflict."
Distancing Russia will not make for a stable Arctic. Entering its second year as chair of the Arctic Council, Canada needs to ensure the Arctic remains that way.
Meagan Cloutier is studying political studies at the University of Manitoba. She received an undergraduate summer research award to study the Arctic under Andrea Charron, deputy director of the Centre for Defense and Security Studies. For more information on the Arctic Council, see Arctic-Council.org