Russia and US must maintain Arctic relations in an interconnected world

Russia is in the news, again. NATO ministers continue to discuss how to upgrade their response capabilities to contain Russia, an increasingly unpredictable neighbor, and Pentagon officials advise Congress that Russia is a primary military threat. All the meanwhile, President Putin ramps up his military modernization effort. Could this finally be the end of strong Russia-U.S. cooperation in the one region where our interests have aligned since the end of the Cold War: the Arctic?

Hopefully, the answer is no. There are examples of cooperation in recent history. In 2011, when both countries recognized that linkages of Arctic natural resources to global markets meant increased marine traffic and, thus, greater maritime risks, they came together and co-led negotiations that resulted in the Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) Agreement. In 2013, in an effort to protect the region's fragile ecosystems, Russia, Norway and the U.S. led the preparation of the Arctic Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Agreement, also signed by the eight Arctic states. Further, just last month Russian officials participated in an Arctic Coast Guard Forum experts meeting in Washington. The U.S. welcomes strong Russia participation in the development of a highly cooperative Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

As the U.S. assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council this month, Russia-U.S. cooperation in the Arctic must continue. While it is impossible for Russia's military operations in Ukraine not to influence U.S.-Russia relationships, the U.S. must remember that maritime safety, environmental stewardship, research and economic development in the Arctic are important areas of mutual interest and benefit. In addition, the two nations need to closely cooperate, as all decisions of the Arctic Council must have the consensus of Russia, the U.S. and six other states.

There are four major reasons to urge cooperation with Russia in the Arctic.

First, the search-and-rescue and oil-response agreements that have been hailed as a success of Arctic cooperation will only be a true success if the Arctic nations, including Russia, also cooperate on implementation. Rescue and environmental response both require the presence of infrastructure and assets throughout the Arctic. Russia has been developing a chain of 10 SAR stations along its Northern Sea Route -- and also military facilities that worry some U.S. military officials. Unless both Russia and the U.S., and six other Arctic states, invest in the necessary facilities, manpower, navigational aids and satellite and communications technology, the extensive cooperation that went into negotiating the SAR and Oil Response Agreements will be lost.

Second, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has negotiated a mandatory Polar Code to govern shipping standards for the polar regions. The code will enter into force on Jan. 1, 2017, but implementing it -- and enforcing the standards -- will require strong support from both the U.S. and Russia. To lead the international maritime community, the two nations must be seen to implement the new code in their own territorial waters and across the Bering Strait region.

Third, the Arctic Ocean is a tightly interconnected marine environment, and as the Arctic nations start or ramp up oil and gas exploration, only uniform and cooperative environmental protection standards will ensure appropriate environmental safety. Russian companies are eager to develop their vast oil and gas offshore resources but face challenges operating in the extreme Arctic conditions. This provides the U.S. an opportunity to work with Russian companies, and commercial firms across the Arctic, to develop environmental protection standards for prevention and liability mechanisms in response to a spill.

Fourth, the U.S. and Russia share a border. Russia-U.S. cooperation will be required across the entire Arctic but it is particularly important in the Bering Strait region. The 46 nautical-mile-wide strait has historically seen little international traffic but with longer seasons of navigation in the Arctic Ocean, that trend is changing. Although a seasonal ice cover, risky waters and uncertain economics may mean that Arctic waterways never rival the Panama or Suez routes, increased traffic in the Bering Strait poses significant safety and environmental concerns.

Without question, strong U.S. leadership in the Arctic coupled with Russian engagement will be needed to make meaningful progress in ensuring maritime safety, improving navigational support and establishing voluntary routing schemes. And there are new areas for collaboration. The U.S. agenda for its Arctic Council chairmanship includes a desire to promote Arctic research, and there is potential for a new binding agreement among the Arctic states to be signed during 2015-2017.

Although it is impossible for either nation to ignore the challenges and conflicts they face elsewhere in the world, Russia and the U.S. both have key roles to play in preserving a peaceful Arctic and exhibiting to the world that Arctic cooperation will continue. This is the enduring challenge for the U.S. in its upcoming role as Arctic Council chair.

David Slayton is research fellow, co-chair and executive director of the Arctic Security Initiative at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Lawson W. Brigham, Ph.D., is distinguished professor of Geography and Arctic Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy's Center for Arctic Study and Policy.

The views expressed here are the writers' own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

David Slayton

David Slayton is research fellow, co-chair and executive director of the Arctic Security Initiative at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Lawson Brigham

Lawson W. Brigham is distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study & Policy, and a member of the Hoover Institute’s Arctic Security Initiative.