Arctic Futures and the Russia-Ukraine-West Conflict

21CQ Topic President's Blog


Irvin Studin


8 years ago

In the context of 21CQ’s/GB’s recent event in Washington, DC, hosted by the Wilson Center and its terrific new Polar Initiative (21CQ’s newest partner), and skillfully moderated by Wilson Center Global Fellow Ambassador (ret.) Kenneth Yalowitz, I built on the obvious premise that the near-term prospects for sincere international cooperation in the Arctic will turn decisively on whether an effective exit is found from the current Russo-Western conflict over Ukraine.  This premise was and is perhaps banal.  Everything I said and will say after it, I would hope, has far more colour.  (For those interested in video of the event, please see the link.)

In Washington, I argued that, of the three major international fault lines today – the other two being the collapse of the general Mideast order (insoluble in the near term, the Iran deal notwithstanding) and the resurgence of China (‘manageable’ in the near term, but unclear over the medium and long term) – the Russo-Western conflict is at once the most important and the most soluble.

If it is the most important conflict because none of the other two fault lines can be dealt with convincingly without deep cooperation between Russia and the West.  In other words, the Russo-Western conflict unchecked places a veto against the prospects of a sustainable rebuilding of Mideast governing structures for the 21st century (see the work at 21CQ and in GB by my colleague Sam Sasan Shoamanesh on a Mideast security framework).  Perhaps less persuasively, we may even posit that the Russo-Western conflict unchecked makes the project of constructing international ‘rules of the game’ for this new century that are consistent with 21st century power balances among major states and regions exceedingly precarious.

What of the solution to the conflict?

Here I build on my last blog at 21CQ, a considerable body of written and public interventions I have made in GB and other platforms over the last couple of years, as well as on the track 1.5 work we at 21CQ have quietly led over the last two years in key capitals around the world to help solve this conflict.  Three things need to happen urgently in order to end the actual military fighting – building on the very serious framework developed in the Minsk 2.0 agreement.  These three things need to happen, in my analysis, under the Obama presidency and, ideally, before the onset of the coming winter.  All three things come as a package – that is, fighting in the Donbas will continue if one or more of these things does not obtain:

    1. Insertion of peacekeepers from one or more neutral countries to break the ‘security dilemma’ at the heart of the fighting.  (I have written at length on this topic, arguing that India – because neutral, well-respected in both Moscow and Kiev, highly experienced in peacekeeping, and searching for its ‘international moment’ – is the country that is best placed to lead this peacekeeping charge.  Of course, India could be joined by other neutral countries in providing the overall manpower to populate the peacekeeping force.)
    2. Credible guarantees by Ukraine and for Ukraine, in writing and in deeds, that Ukraine will never join NATO.  Western countries continue to underappreciate, if not outright discount, the centrality of this point in Russian strategic thinking.
    3. Removal of sanctions unrelated to Crimea.  As long as Russia continues to believe that sanctions unrelated to Crimea are here to stay for the foreseeable future (Moscow’s current and deepening posture), then there is no prospect of resolving the conflict.

If these three conditions obtain, the bloodshed and prospects thereof in the Donbas will end.  And yet boxing in the conflict will not guarantee that post-revolution Ukraine will survive and flourish.  For this, two more things must happen:

    4. Ukraine must be governed with heroic competence.  This point is poorly understood by most analysts outside of the former Soviet space.  Let me be plain about it:  the Ukrainian revolution was caused first and foremost not by Russia (or by any other country or power), but by Ukrainian political and administrative incompetence.  This applied to Yanukovych just as much as it did to his predecessors, all of whom failed to build the national institutions and national psychology requisite to bind the country east to west in the context of the competing gravities of Russia and the EU.  (See my writing in GB for more on this topic.) And if incompetence led to the revolution, then heroic competence will be necessary to rebuild the Ukrainian state post-revolution from its sudden posture of deep weakness – that is, in the aftermath of territorial loss in Crimea, and in the context of deep disunity in the population, rebellion in the economically and spiritually important southeast of the country, and the proliferation of ambitious, emboldened militias –  militias, led by Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) that, to be clear, delivered the revolution and may yet overthrow the Poroshenko-Yatseniuk government. Bref:
    Poroshenko and his successors must be heroes of historical proportions if Ukraine is to survive and succeed in any recognizable form.  This is not foreordained, of course, and it is also not something that outside powers can greatly influence.
    5. The last prime minister of Ukraine before the revolution – Mykola (Nikolai) Azarov – was correct in floating the idea of a trilateral commission between Ukraine, the EU and Russia to address the various ‘insterstitial’ policy and administrative issues arising from Ukraine’s peculiar and complex geography.  This idea should be revived immediately.  Indeed, its broad scaffolding is already suggested by the bureaucracy being created by the Minsk process.  This commission would serve two purposes over the medium to long term:  first, to glue back together the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, given the basic verity that – to be perfectly blunt – Ukraine cannot be successful in any way without energetic reengagement by Russia (and that no amount of Western enthusiasm can replace or displace this Russian weight); and second, to lock both Russia and Europe into an indefinite peaceful game with credible institutional trappings – effectively creating a European Union 2.0, from Birmingham to Vladivostok, for this new century.

What of war in the Arctic?

In 2012, I was visiting professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.  My friend and colleague Kishore Mahbubani, the indefatigable dean of the school, then cleverly observed in some public remarks that the main difference between Europe and Asia in that year was that while Europe was at peace and had zero prospects of war on the continent, Asia was at peace but had very real prospects of war on the continent (see my earlier points regarding the rise of China and all it entails for Asia and the world).  Of course, in 2012 there was absolutely no talk of war in Ukraine or conflict between Russia and Ukraine, or between Russia and the West over Ukraine, for that matter.  (Let me put an asterisk around this point, so as not to delve into any Anglo-American conceit about representing the entirety of read analysis on international affairs:  some analysts in Ukraine were already aware that Ukraine had imminent systemic vulnerabilities rooted in the absence of strong institutions – see the work of my distinguished friend and colleague Grigory Sytnik of Ukraine’s Higher School of Public Administration on Ukrainian strategy; and numerous commentators and thinkers in Russia had already mooted potential conflict over Crimea in the foreseeable future, although they may not have anticipated imminent revolution in Ukraine.)

If Kishore was right in his analysis of peace and non peace on the two continents in 2012, then that analysis evidently cannot hold water in 2015 – for the prospects of war in Asia and Europe are suddenly non-zero and very real.  Indeed, as I turn to the Arctic, let me say that the prospects of war for North America proper have also become manifestly non-zero.

A Brief Digression on Canada’s Strategic Game This Century

I have suggested in past writings that North America – not Australia, pace the late Donald Horne’s book – was the real ‘lucky continent’ of the last century, having experienced nearly no land warfare of any description whatever on the territory of the continent since the Treaty of Washington was signed in the late 19th century.  I speak here of ‘core North America’ – Canada and the US.  This warlessness on the home front was exceptional for North America in general and Canada in particular – not just latitudinally across the continents (consider and compare the warfare experienced on the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and even, to a far lesser extent, the slightly less lucky Australia – bombarded by the Japanese in its northern cities), but also longitudinally across the sweep of North American history since the European landing in the early 17th century.  For every century but the last saw great warfare and military bloodshed on the continent.

I have in these same writings argued that this new century is likely to see war and, more certainly still, the continued threat of warfare, return to North America on account of three key international dynamics or forces:

    1. The relative decline of American strategic power
    2. Technological innovations, from cyber to drones to conventional warfare
    3. The melting of Arctic ice

The melting of Arctic ice concerns us first and foremost in this blog, as it will for the first time since the Treaty of Washington of 1871, signed between the British (on behalf of Canada) and the US, force Canada, psychologically, to be hyper-aware and pay constant strategic attention to ‘the other.’  That ‘other,’ in the event, is Russia – at least as the primus inter pares of the many ‘others’ that will play in the Arctic game this century.

For Canada in the 21st century, therefore, Russia is not, as per the current dominant mental map of Canada’s strategic and political thinkers and leaders in the context of the current conflict over Ukraine, to the east – that is, on the eastern flank of Europe – but immediately to Canada’s north.  Russia is directly on Canada’s northern border.  And so Canadian positioning on any international issue must be hyper-cognizant of, and constantly managing and massaging, this border relationship, just as Ottawa has obsessed over the bilateral relationship with Washington for the century and a half since Confederation.  In other words, whatever Ottawa’s position on Ukraine or any other international question, its strategy must surely have as an imperative the continuation of a generally productive relationship with Moscow on the myriad other bilateral issues that come with a complex or multi-point border relationship.  For now, this is not the received wisdom in Canadian policy circles, but the general pressure will be in its favour as the Arctic ice melts and the border reality becomes ever plain.

Indeed, Canada’s strategic game this century can be summarized by the acronym ACRE:  ‘A’ for America and the Americas (to the south), ‘C’ for China specifically and Asia more generally (to the west), ‘R’ for Russia (to the north), and ‘E’ for Europe to the east.  For more on this, see this older piece in GB.  But suffice it to say that to play this more complex game, Canada will need to be not only more sophisticated in its strategic psychology and behaviour, but also far more promiscuous in its relationships – maximizing friendships and productive relationships with all the states on its borders while minimizing enmities and the prospects of war.  And on the ‘R’ side of the ledger, Canada’s game must be one of deep bilateral cooperation driven some of the following postulates:

    1. Canada and Russia are the two leading Arctic giants this century – in territory, in border exposure, in potential resource claims and finds, and in national identity.
    2. Canada must build a comprehensive, complex and deep bilateral border relationship with Russia that both maximizes the prospects of productive cooperation and minimizes those of confrontation or war.  Indeed, where there are bilateral disputes – and there will be many – these should be boxed in and dealt with facially, not infecting the entire portfolio of bilateral files.
    3. Canada’s bilateral interests with Russia are not identical with the bilateral interests of the US with Russia.  (There is no single or unified ‘West’ in the Arctic, acting in conspicuous contradistinction to Moscow.)  This is perhaps a banal point, but one that will be hard to accept, psychically, for Canadian leaders, many of whom remain to this day colonially unimaginative in their understanding of the country and its international vocation (see 21CQ’s work on Canada becoming a country of 100 million this century). Can Canadian leaders image scenarios in which maximizing Canadian interests in the Arctic requires Canada to align with Russia on given files, against possible American opposition – even if on most files it is likely that Canadian and American interests will be in consonance?  For now, no way.  But this will have to change in the coming decades if Canada is to play its border games properly.
    4. Canada’s macro game in respect of Russia should be to bind Moscow into a long-term peaceful strategic logic in respect of the Arctic.  But this imperative also translates into Canada’s ‘E’ game in Europe – to wit, to play a lead role, based on the close working relationship between Ottawa and Moscow, in binding (gluing) Russia over the long run to the European continent.  See my notes above regarding the construction of Europe 2.0.  This construction will be critical to the peaceful future of the Arctic, and Canada should play a lead role in bridging the logics of the two theatres into a credible, more general strategic framework.

As a digression on this point, and playing on the current European crisis over Greece, let me state what is often forgotten in both Europe and North America alike (although perhaps not in Asia, where the point still remains plainly raw):  the EU is first and foremost a peace project – as my friend Michael Mathiessen of the European Executive Action Service once commended.  The economic and social trappings follow from, and are necessarily subordinate to, the central original logic of binding Germany into a peaceable game with its border states, recognizing Germany’s obsession with two-front war planning over the last century.  (Europe 2.0, therefore, would serve to bind Russia into a similarly peaceful game.  See my proposal at the very bottom of this post for a vertical Arctic institutional regime that intersects with the horizontal Europe 2.0 regime.)

The current Russo-Western crisis, if it remains unsolved or escalates, risks eventually eroding the peace project at the heart of Europe.  Hot war between Russia and Western states would most certainly shatter the EU.  And such hot war between Russia and Western states, while highly unlikely to be over Arctic interests in the near term, would also be articulated through the Arctic theatre and have direct impacts on the exceptional peace that North American has enjoyed for more than a century.  Let me now turn to this.

Pax Arctica versus Bellum Arcticum

As I wrote in the FT a little while back, the dynamic in the South China Sea – one possible theatre for war in Asia early this century – anticipates possible or potential games in the Arctic theatre as Arctic sea routes become more passable and exploration of the considerable polar hydrocarbon resources and precious minerals accelerates.  War is not inevitable in or over the Arctic theatre this century, but it will very difficult to avert – by any stretch.  Historical or extant crises or tensions over new straits or straits that come online or gain sudden geopolitical relevance – ones with far fewer resource and territorial stakes at play – like the Suez Canal, Panama Canal, Strait of Hormuz or the Strait of Malaca, are cautionary tales of what may well come.

Let me juxtapose two of the dominant theses concerning Arctic futures.  Both have been articulated, classically, in GB:  first, the Pax Arctica thesis by my friend and colleague, Michael Byers, arguably Canada’s leading Arctic thinker, which holds that, for the foreseeable future, Arctic states are tied to an international regime predicated principally on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), articulated through practical fora like the Arctic Council (newly chaired by the US), and through dispute settlement mechanisms like the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; and second, by the British Chatham House thinker Charles Emmerson (what do Brits know or care about the Arctic, really?), holding that differences of interests, perceptions, preferences and, perhaps most importantly, strategic power will at some point trump the international legal game and issue in conflict.

Which thesis is the better one?

While my instinct is closer to the Emmerson thesis, let me suggest that, in policy terms, the goal must be to make Byers right, and sustainably so.  In other words, enlightened policy thinkers in all Arctic countries surely must be interested in privileging a Pax Arctica, even if many of them, as long as the Arctic regime is not indefinitely credible and a pall of conflict hangs over Europe, may harbour suspicions that Emmerson’s thesis will eventually reign.

Before we turn to prescriptions in policy to advance the Pax Arctica outcome over time, let me offer some theses regarding Russia and its current and forward posture in respect of the Arctic.

    1. Russia considers that it has a veto over most strategic questions related to the Arctic.  More to the point, Russia holds that not one major Arctic challenge or problem can be solved without Russian collaboration/participation.
    2. Russia is, strategically, the most capable and serious of the Arctic countries.  This strategic seriousness in the Arctic breaks down into more serious Russian military capabilities, a more serious Arctic psychology, deeper Arctic history than the other states (dating back to the 1925 St. Petersburg Treaty 1825 between Russia and the UK), more credible political will to ‘win’ the Arctic game, and better Arctic infrastructure than the other powers – even if, to be clear, Russian Arctic infrastructure, from ports to icebreakers, is in many cases ageing and crumbling. (See the recently released revised Russian naval doctrine on the Arctic.)
    3. Russia, given its strategic culture and centralized foreign affairs decision-making, plays linkage well.  It will make mistakes in decision-making, but these decisions will nearly always be made with consideration to concurrent theatres of Russian national interest, from the Middle East to southern and eastern Europe and Asia.
    4. Nevertheless, Russia currently does long-term planning very poorly.  Domestic institutional and legitimacy challenges, in other words, compromise Russia systemically and, in turn, Russia’s capacity to be systematic in its behaviour over time.  In other words, while the strategic culture is deep, its manifestation in external affairs is often improvised.
    5. From development of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) to resource exploration and extraction, Russia needs Western states and Western capacity – economically – for success in the Arctic.

Let me also offer several contextual theses in light of the current intensely divergent mutual perceptions of Russian and Western elites about their opposite number.

    1. On any vulgar ledger of body count, post-Cold War, attributable to Russia, on the one hand, and Western states, on the other, contrary to popular impressions, it is the West that, by far, has more caused more deaths in military conflict than Russia.
    2. A key year for understanding the mentality divergence between Russian and Western strategic elites is not 1989 or 1991 – dates relating to the Fukuyama “end of history” thesis – but rather 1994.  For when most Western strategic elites, and certainly young Westerners (particularly those in North America) trained in international relations or history, think of 1994, they automatically refer to the Rwandan genocide – the catastrophe that led to the development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.  For Russian strategic elites, the year 1994 evokes not Rwanda, but only the civil conflict with Chechnya.  For their part, young Russians studying international relations today have, with almost no exemptions, never heard of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.
    3. It is not manifest that better Russian governance will come from democracy in general, or Western-style democracy in particular.  As such, the assessments of the West of its prospects for good relations (and peace) with Russia should not turn on the presence or absence of democratic government in Moscow.  Instead, the post-Soviet governance dilemma consists first and foremost in the presence or absence of technical competence – competence that delivers concrete results for the population in terms of macro-stability, strategically, and material well-being on the micro scale.  In this sense, good Russian governance may tip more toward the current Chinese-Singaporean idiom of statecraft than the American-European one, albeit with some of the virtues of the latter – for instance, rich feedback mechanisms to power, and decentralization or federalization of power – necessarily correcting some of the pathologies of the former.I have written about such ‘hybrid governance’ betwixt the ideal-types of governance by algorithm and governance by argument in past issues of GB.

What of the possible scenarios for Arctic conflict in the foreseeable future?  To be clear, war over the Arctic – territory or resources or other stakes – is highly improbable over the next decade.  Arctic ice has not melted sufficiently yet, and national strategic resources and political attention among Arctic states have not been ramped up sufficiently, to suggest that states would go to war over the Arctic per se, or in the Arctic, at this point.

Having said this, there would seem to be every possibility of conflict in and over the Arctic over the course of this century (a long time to go without war over a contested theatre) – that is, as resource finds become more plain, as capacity for extraction grows and, concomitantly, as overlaps in territorial claims – including sea lane claims, such as the NSR or the Northwest Passage – become more economically consequential.  Moreover, conflict over Arctic assets may be sparked through linkage to tensions or conflicts in other parts of the world – for instance, in Europe or Asia.

The Arctic today becomes relevant in terms of such linkage to the current Russo-Western conflict in Europe over Ukraine.  While there are no intra-Arctic hostilities on the horizon as a result of the European conflict, it cannot be excluded that increased tension between Russia and Western states over Ukraine will turn the Arctic into a thoroughfare and base for potential assaults on North America.  This returns to the postulate made above in relation to Russia not being to the east of Canada (or the US), but rather due north – a geographical tautology of which the Russians are far more aware than North Americans.  In other words, if Russia perceives direct threats from Western states or NATO as a result of escalation of the Ukraine conflict, or if the Russian government perceives an existential threat due to systemic forces (including those related to Western sanctions), then the northern flank of North America would be one of the sources of Russian pressure – implied or conspicuous – on the continent.

I have already explained how this darker scenario can be precluded in terms of solving the Ukraine conflict, but let me propose, grosso modo, three macro scenarios for the Arctic and Arctic cooperation or non-cooperation over the next 30 to 50 years:

    A. Conflict – Like the Suez and Panama Canals in the past, and as with the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Hormuz today, Arctic land and natural resource claims make the Arctic a hotly contested theatre in its own right, with small and large power plays by the larger or more nimble Arctic states always at play, and with local and general warfare very possible.  (Consider the 1995 Turbot War between Canada and Spain as a possible paradigm of very local conflict on Arctic borders.  This would evidently be a de minimis manifestation of Arctic conflict.)
    B. Cooperation – This is the current state of affairs, but would require long-term and credible institutional architecture, building on some of the current legal regimes, that would bind Russian to Europe and also North America for it to be the dominant scenario decades from now.
    C. Disorganization and incoherence – In the absence of the aforementioned credible institutional architecture, states in this theatre operate in partial, rather than pedantic, observance of international law, as well as through implied understandings, with the risk of serious misunderstandings and calculated shirking of international law always weighing on the overall dynamic.

Scenarios B is evidently the most desirable one from the standpoint of global stability, but it will also evidently be the most difficult one to realize.  This difficulty of realization also might make it the least probable scenario of the three (see notes below).

Here are some key points to watch, or ‘moments,’ in the near, medium and long term.

  • Near term:  whether there is escalation in the fighting in and over Ukraine – through misreads or accidents on either side of the said ‘security dilemma,’ through a possible collapse or overthrow of the Poroshenko-Yatseniuk government (including by the Pravy Sektor miltia), or through perceived or real systemic vulnerabilities in Russia proper
  • Medium term:  Will the eventual Russian presidential succession from Vladimir Putin be a happy or unhappy one?  If it is unhappy, there could be systemic problems in the Russian state – or even scissions of the state – that issue in power vacuums in the Arctic.
  • Medium to long term:  What is the nature of the overlapping and unresolved claims to territory and natural resources among key Arctic states?  Are there major surprise finds in natural resources?  Are there growing power divergences between key states, and are there internal crises in any of them?

Looking ahead, what’s to be done, given these points to watch, in order to maximize the chances of Scenario B – a species of general or even ‘thick’ cooperation in the Arctic in the future?

    1. The Arctic Council should remain a collegial, technocratic forum, with forward agendas of the ilk current proposed by the US, the new chair of the Council.  Linked boycotts or expulsions of Russia by Western states, or of Western states by Russia, should be avoided.
    2. The conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine should be solved immediately – if it is not too late already.  Please see my points above – 3 + 2 conditions – on what’s to be done here.
    3. The long-term institutional architecture rebinding Russia to Europe via a trilateral commission between Russia, Ukraine and the EU horizontally, from Birmingham to Vladivostok), will need to be stitched over time to a vertical institutional regime that binds Russia in the Arctic space down through Canada, the US and even Mexico (vertically, that is, from Sochi to Chiapas).

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