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Can Arctic nations cooperate amid 'race' to top of the world?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
U.S. Coast Guard photo

Analysis: Boris Nemtsov, co-president of the opposition People's Freedom Party in Russia, has spoken out against Putin's stance in the Arctic -- in Canada.

He is currently crossing the True North Strong and Free on a speaking tour organized by the Central and Eastern European Council. Nemtsov has been an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and the fact that the PFP was denied registration to be listed on the ballots in the Dec. 4 Duma elections made him an even more strident opponent.

In an interview with Sun News Network, Nemtsov declared, Putin's "main political idea and main trend is to be a fighter against the West."

He commented on the alleged rivalry between Canada and Russia in the Arctic, stating, "I think this is absolutely an artificial problem...This is like a problem, which is generated in the Kremlin to show that we protect Russian interests, not because they have, for example, the opportunity to produce oil and gas in the Arctic or something like that." 

Latest tensions

The latest flare-up in the tension between Canada and Russia was the arrest of Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle in Halifax, who unnamed sources have accused of sending information to Russia. Yet, Canada and Russia may need to strengthen their cooperation if a new academic paper published in Ocean Development & International Law by Michael Byers, political science professor at UBC, and his graduate student, James Baker, is correct.

I'm still trying to get my hands on the paper itself, but Postmedia News reports that in the paper's exploration of various possible resolutions to the U.S. – Canada dispute over sovereignty in the Beaufort Sea, Canada and Russia could end up sharing a maritime boundary 1,000 kilometers northwest of the Yukon's northern shoreline. Should there be oil this far north in the Beaufort Sea that cross the boundary, the two countries could potentially cooperate to extract the resources jointly, just as Russia and Norway are doing in the Barents Sea.

U.S. pursues multilateral solutions

On the other side of the world, U.S. Ambassador to Norway Barry White attended the Conference on Indigenous Peoples, Environment and Business in Kirkenes, Norway last week.

He stated, "It seems that too often the concept of 'race to the Arctic' is bandied about, whether in popular press articles or a number of recently published books. While this makes for interesting reading, the United States government doesn't believe that we are in the middle of a race to the Arctic."

That's probably true on a number of levels. One, the U.S. tends to emphasize inclusion in the region, such as at the Arctic Council. Pursuing multilateral solutions to the Arctic makes it easier for the U.S. to sit back and not have to take the lead, especially since its military and diplomatic resources are stretched thinly over the planet.

Believing that the Arctic is a zone of cooperation also lends greater support to keeping military investments in the region, such as icebreakers, low -- even though there are a host of non-military reasons for why the U.S. should enhance its capabilities in the region.

On Feb. 7, Ambassador White visited the Norwegian School of Winter Warfare in Terningmoen, east-central Norway. He was "fascinated" by the school, stating, "This gives our soldiers an excellent workout. We have winter conditions at home as well, but here, it's better. It is not without reason that we have sent 500 soldiers here since 1947. There are very good training conditions here."

He also mentioned that Norwegian soldiers train in the U.S., adding to the collaboration between the two countries' militaries. White commented, "This type of exchange is valuable when soldiers work together on real projects."

While both Nemtsov and White can agree that members of the Arctic should strive for cooperation, the Russian opposes the Kremlin's actions in the Arctic, while White supports those of the White House.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.