Canadian-Russian relations in the twentieth century have been complicated at best and conflictual at worst. Though crisis has been avoided between the two Arctic states, the issue of Crimea as well as the war in the Donbass have nevertheless been calamitous. In what Canada perceives as Russian aggression towards Ukraine and the West and an encroachment on Ukrainian sovereign territory, Canada has been an adamant supporter of multilateral efforts to punish Russia for its actions. This has included, for the most part, Canadian sanctions towards Russia in concert with Canada’s allies, the United States, and the European Union. Canada, however, went a step further than most of its allies in taking action towards Russia. During the tenure of Stephen Harper in 2014, Ottawa implemented a unilateral policy of boycotting almost all bilateral and multilateral events and “tables” at which both Canada and Russia earlier sat together. Harper stated that Canada has refused to take part in any multilateral meetings in which Russia participates. Political commentators have termed this Canada’s “empty chair policy”.
Naturally, Ottawa was both unable and unwilling to abandon all “tables” at which both Canada and Russia sit. It would not have been in Canada’s interests to forsake its responsibilities at the United Nations, Arctic Council, or the OSCE, as Canada continues to understand its role in international affairs as a power with global interests and global influence. Canada’s continued engagement in these international organisations (IOs) demonstrates that despite attempts to punish Russia for its international transgressions, having a dialogue with Russia — albeit however minimal — is of advantage for both Canada and Russia. Whereas Canada takes a secondary role to that of Russia in the United Nations, Canada and Russia are considered institutional equals in the Arctic Council. Indeed, it is of significant relevance that the Arctic Council represents the most proliferate body within which Canada and Russia are able to cooperate. Despite different and sometimes conflicting approaches, Canada and Russia’s interaction within the Arctic Council and Arctic affairs remain a vital framework within which Canadian-Russian relations continue to develop outside of the current sphere of conflict and provide a unique space for the two states to increase dimensions of cooperation.
In late 2019, shortly before the Canadian election in October, Justin Trudeau’s liberal government released Canada’s new Arctic policy. Canada’s earlier policy, defined in the Harper years, followed an aggressive line coined by Harper that in Arctic affairs, “Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty over the Arctic. We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake, this Government intends to use it.”  Throughout the Harper administration, Canada pushed for more strength in the Arctic. Trudeau’s new Arctic policy, conversely, has a shifted focus towards greater peace and cooperation, whilst also pushing for the development of northern communities and emphasizing the importance of the human aspect of the North as well as climate change. The new policy asserts the importance of a “rules-based international order in the Arctic” and a renewed leadership from Canada as well as “the representation and participation of Arctic and northern Canadians in relevant international forums and negotiations.” As per Canada’s new Arctic policy of 2019, Canada sees three main foci points in moving forward with its international Arctic policy: “1. Strengthen the rules-based international order in the Arctic,” “2. More clearly define Canada’s Arctic boundaries,” and “3. Broaden Canada’s international engagement to contribute to the priorities of Canada’s Arctic and North.” This new Arctic policy is ultimately twofold. On the one hand, to push for more international cooperation in the Arctic sphere, seeking to play a more constructive role internationally. On the other hand, the new policy still holds Canada’s sovereignty in the North and international responsibilities with NATO as vital components of policy.
In Canada’s new policy, international cooperation has once again returned to the forefront of Arctic matters. The policy sees that the “circumpolar Arctic is well known for its high level of international cooperation on a broad range of issues, a product of the robust rules-based international order that is the sum of international rules, norms and institutions that govern international affairs in the Arctic.”  Arctic cooperation is manifested in both bilateral and multilateral forms, such as in terms of direct Canada-Russia relations, or in the form of the Arctic Council. For Canada, multilateral cooperation within the auspices of the Arctic Council represents the pre-eminent form of Arctic cooperation. Canada’s interests in its Arctic foreign policy involve exercising its sovereignty, promoting economic and social development, protecting the environment, and improving Arctic governance. Ottawa views international cooperation as indispensable and actively looks to contribute to a general, international — albeit with limitations — unity on Arctic matters.
Certainly, this approach includes Russia as a necessary partner. In 2019, Canada signalized a willingness to work with Russia on Arctic matters. For example, the recent posting of Alison LeClaire, former Senior Arctic Official and Director General of Circumpolar Affairs, as Canadian Ambassador to Russia, suggests that Canada is getting serious on Arctic cooperation with Russia. Additionally, as per Canada’s new Arctic policy, Canada has directly engaged itself with the possibilities of cooperation with Russia, in that Canada “will take steps to restart a regular bilateral dialogue on Arctic issues with Russia in key areas…”
Despite Canada’s willingness to cooperate internationally and with Russia on Arctic matters, Canada continues to honour its international responsibilities and alliances and has placed these at the forefront of its Arctic policy. This includes Canada’s membership in NATO and NORAD, not to mention Canada’s intensive relationship with the United States. This has resulted in a sobering policy towards Russia, in which Russia remains a theoretically potential threat to Canadian sovereignty and interests in the Arctic region. Both NATO and NORAD have made attempts to develop increased measures in case of a Russian threat. This has been followed by an increase in symbolic discourse of the potentially threatening nature of Russia’s existence in the Arctic and fears that Russia’s military and economic build up in the region could endanger Canada’s northern interests. Ultimately, an offensive act towards Canada on the part of Russia a priori does exist in order to secure Russia’s interest; this, however, is extremely unlikely, especially when considering Canada’s role in NATO. Canada continues to perceive the realistic possibility of a Russian threat in the Arctic, despite an openness towards cooperation with Russia. Canada’s membership in NATO and the perception of a possible Russian threat, however, do not necessarily imply that Canada will be unable to work with Russia on certain matters, albeit it does indicate a level of reservation on the part of Canadian policymakers. As an increase in Russia’s military presence in the Arctic is undeniable, fears among Canadian policymakers emerge as to the level of successful cooperation attainable. Nevertheless, Trudeau’s new policy plays down the narrative of Arctic conflict, signaling that cooperation and dialogue with Russia is of first-rate importance . Though Canada has not overlooked the possibility of threats to its sovereignty and interests in the Arctic as well as the importance of its international alliances and obligations, Canada’s new Arctic policy focuses on the possibilities of open and mutually beneficial cooperation in the Northern region in order to achieve its goals and interests — including with Russia.
Russia, similar to Canada, has also released a new Arctic policy in 2020, which comprehensively details Russia’s Arctic plans up to 2035. Russia’s new Arctic policy, signed into force by President Vladimir Putin on March 5, 2020, also presents a multidimensional approach to its Arctic affairs. As the world’s largest Arctic power, Russia has long sought to develop the North for its own purposes, especially for the extraction of natural resources. To this extent, the Arctic region is primarily important for the Russian economy, especially in terms of natural resources and the development of Northern Sea Route. For Russia, the North Sea Route — a transport and transit route emerging as a result of melting polar ice that would more than half the travel distance from South East Asia to Europe and save billions of dollars in shipping costs — , as well as Arctic gas reserves, are the foundation of Russia’s economic and geopolitical plans in the North . As a result, Russia considers the North to be of immense geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is therefore of little surprise that Russia has been actively working to obtain a stronger foothold in the region, such as claiming sovereignty over the disputed Lomonosov Ridge, which, if recognized internationally, would extend Russia’s sovereignty over the Arctic region hundreds of kilometres beyond Russia’s northern land borders. Russia is, without a doubt, the world leader in northern development. It holds the largest northern population, infrastructure, and Arctic military of all eight Arctic states. Russia’s move into the economic and geopolitical focus on the Arctic is not inherently threatening to Canada; on the contrary, Russia, like Canada, is looking for greater Arctic cooperation.
As a result of the economic importance of the Arctic sphere for Russia, Russia acts pragmatically vis-à-vis other Arctic (and non-Arctic) states. The immense value that the Arctic holds for Russia has caused Moscow to act and react benevolently in the international sphere. Examples of this can be seen in Russia’s signing and ratification of the Ilulissat Declaration of the five Arctic coastal states in 2008, which defines the governance of the Arctic, as well as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea [UNCLOS].
It is ultimately telling of Russian foreign policy that Russia has included “cooperation and peaceful settlement of all disputes in the Arctic” in its new policy of 2020. This lends further credibility to the argument that Russia, despite the Ukraine Crisis and weakening of relations with the West since 2014, is actively looking for some level of rapprochement. Indeed, an examination of Russia’s Arctic policies are wholly void of the conflictual language found in other spheres of political relations. Certainly, Russia is very much open to economic and scientific cooperation in its northern territories. This includes, among others, investment, scientific, and technological cooperation, environmental and fishing cooperation, and further development of the Northern Sea route. Russia has been open to the peaceful and fair settling of disputes in the Arctic region as well. In 2010, for example, during the Medvedev presidency, Russia and Norway struck a sea border deal, dividing 175,000 km2 of undersea “land,” much of which has oil and gas-rich deposits. The end of the dispute, which concluded 40 years of talks between Russia (and the Soviet Union) and Norway, was announced by President Medvedev in 2010, attesting to Russia’s balanced position in international circumpolar affairs.
Although Canada is not concretely mentioned in the Arctic policy signed into force by Putin in 2020, Vladimir Putin has, such as on February 7, 2020, spoke of cooperation with Canada in positive terms: “We are open to cooperation with Canada … Our countries are neighbours in the Arctic and have a shared responsibility for the sustainable development of this vast region, for preserving the traditional way of life of indigenous peoples and for respecting its fragile ecosystem.”  Though Russia, unquestionably, is focused on attaining its interests and aims in the Arctic — possibility at the expense of others — it has on more than one occasion signalized a willingness to cooperate and aim for mutual benefit in crucial spheres in a rules-based international order and within the institutions, such as the Arctic Council, that govern the Arctic region.
The pertinent question here is if and how Canada and Russia are able to develop, maintain, and foster amicable relations and cooperation in the Arctic against the backdrop of worsening general Canadian-Russian relations as well as the increasing importance and competition in the Arctic region. Both Canada and Russia are open to Arctic cooperation. Indeed, Canadian and Russian interests in circumpolar affairs often correspond with one another, thereby fostering the possibility for improved and increased cooperation. On the part of Canada, Ottowa has on multiple occasions and directly within its policy stated that it will take steps to restart a regular bilateral dialogue on Arctic issues with Russia. Russia has voiced similar aims. Russian scholar Natalia Viakhireva explains that in the international sphere, Russia takes on two faces: the “aggressive revisionist,” such as in the post-Soviet space and “liberal internationalist” in the circumpolar sphere. Yet in her article on Canadian-Russian cooperation in the Arctic, she argues that relations between “close competitors” are a combination of cooperation and competition, but that the West must recognize that Russia’s cooperative behavior on Arctic issues can be mutually beneficial. The first step for Canada and Russia, therefore, is to acknowledge mutual interest in the Arctic sphere, to place significance on the current low level of conflict in the region, and to encourage the continuation of positive cooperation, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
A closer analysis of Canadian-Russian relations within the Arctic Council demonstrates a unique level of existing cooperation between the two states on a number of important matters. Most prevalent of those is the issue of extra-regional actors within the governance of the Arctic. Countries in Eastern Asia, such as China, Japan, and Korea, but also EU members such as Germany and France see it within their national interests to “internationalize” the Arctic. These countries, and foremost China, advocate greater involvement in the region and support the loosening of Russian and Canadian control over the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. They are looking to reorganize the governing structure of the Arctic and circumvent what Russia and Canada perceive as their sovereign territory in order to benefit from the changing geopolitical and geoeconomic nature of the Arctic. China, especially, wants unfettered access to the North Sea Route and the Northwest passage. Though Canada and Russia could and to some extent currently are benefiting from cooperation with non-Arctic states (especially in technology and environmentalism), both are opposed to Asia’s and Europe’s encroachment on the Arctic. Russia, like Canada, also declared its opposition to “[a]ttempts by a number of foreign states to revise the basic provisions of international treaties regulating economic and other activities in the Arctic.”  Canada and Russia’s shared opposition to foreign encroachment demonstrates a distinctive opportunity for cooperation between the two Arctic countries, as has already been the case. As these extra-regional actors’ interests often do not coincide with those of Canada and Russia, the Arctic Council and the Arctic in general are in need of a fundamentally balanced and strong policy regarding this question. It would serve the common interests of Canada and Russia to spearhead this, either bilaterally or within the Arctic Council. Though this is probably not enough for rapprochement, it has the potential for further Canadian-Russian cooperation in the region. If both Russia and Canada take a proactive coordinated stance on the matter, the two “Arctic Giants” are in the position to affect and form future Arctic policy, especially in regard to the matter of non-Arctic states.
In addition to the institutional interaction between Canada and Russia in the Arctic Council, the nature of the Arctic and its vast territories means that no state can self-sufficiently operate without at least a minimal degree of bilateral or multilateral communication and cooperation with other Arctic states. Neither Russia, nor Canada, nor the United States have such developed infrastructure or fleets of icebreakers to accomplish such a task alone. In the scenario of an oil spill, search-and-rescue mission, or for the purpose of Arctic tourism, bilateral cooperation is a necessity. Here Canada and Russia are in a position to accelerate and expand cooperation on a series of matters. Cooperation could be expanded into other spheres of mutual importance, such as technological and scientific research, oil-spill prevention, conservation, or economic spheres such as shipping. Likewise, both Canada and Russia’s new Arctic policies place importance on the development of northern communities, improving the quality of life of northern peoples, and the protection of the environment. Many of these spheres, some of which are already covered by the Arctic Council or have other bilateral treaties in place, succeed in circumventing overtly political or controversial fields for Russia and Canada as well as military competition between the two states.
In considering Russia and Canada’s aims, interests, and points of contention in the Arctic upon the backdrop of deteriorating relations in other international contexts, the notion of Arctic cooperation presents concrete possibilities of communication, cooperation, and — albeit with much time and effort — an improvement in relations between the two states. Canadian-Russian relations have not come to a stark halt. Rather, certain international spheres have endured the weakening of relations due to the Ukraine Crisis. As it is unlikely that Canada and Russia will find common ground on the matter of Ukraine in the near future, especially considering the increasingly intense dialogue between the two and the war in Eastern Ukraine, Canada and Russia will be required to focus on other real and potential spheres of possible cooperation. Foremostly, this will include greater coordination within the Arctic and Arctic Council. As a result of global warming and melting ice, in the coming years and decades the Arctic territories will take on immense geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. As Canada and Russia have more mutual concerns than points of contention in the Arctic, Arctic affairs do and, in the future, will represent the most formidable backdrop for an easing of tensions. It would thus be advisable for both Russia and Canada to maintain a proactive approach to Arctic affairs. This does not denote ignoring military and defense matters in the Arctic, despite the small probability of a conflict, but rather focusing on aspects that are relevant to the national security and interests of both states. In this regard, in the case of a conflict, Canada will fall in line with its NATO partners. Russia, for its part, has already placed a focus on the security and military dimension of its Arctic territories. Therefore, in conclusion, the spheres of real and potential cooperation offer Canada and Russia a basic level of opportunity to improve weakened relations without having to concede on vital points of each states’ respective foreign policy. Russia and Canada would do better to shift the narrative of the conflict between them to more proactive spheres of mutual benefit, which would result in an increased level of positive cooperation.
1. Adam Tereszowski, “Securing Canada’s Sovereignty in the Arctic,” Potentia (2010): 80.
2. Government of Canada, “Arctic and Northern Policy Framework International Chapter.”
4. Andrew Chater, “Three Takeaways from Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy.”
5. Maria L. Lagutina and Natalia Yu. Markushina, “The Arctic Region and the New North: the Russian Approach” in Russia and the World: Understanding International Relations, ed., N. Tsvetkova (Langham: Lexington Books, 2017), 325-357.
6. The Arctic, “Путин отметил важность сотрудничества стран Арктического совета”; Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 05.03.2020 № 164 “Об Основах государственной политики Российской Федерации в Арктике на период до 2035 года”.“
7. Kommersant.ru, „Путин утвердил основы госполитики в Арктике до 2035 года,“; Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации, Указ Президента Российской Федерации от 05.03.2020 № 164 “Об Основах государственной политики Российской Федерации в Арктике на период до 2035 года”.“
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