Large and northern. Can Russia and Canada cooperate in the Arctic?

Andrea Charron

Russia and Canada are the largest Arctic states and will suffer the most if regional divisions prevail over cooperative spirit.

The Russian and Canadian parts of the Arctic are more similar to each other in terms of geography, climate and development potential. Both are vast, perched on ancient rock formations, and are renowned for their natural wealth and temperature records (at both ends of the thermometer) – so Canada and Russia have a lot to learn from each other. But there are also disagreements between the two countries, which have become deeper lately. The time has come to find common ground between the two largest Arctic powers, because if cooperation in the Arctic ends, Russia and Canada will suffer the most.

There is a lot in common between the actions of Russia and Canada in the Arctic. Both countries actively support initiatives and institutions that promote responsible development in the region, from the Arctic Environmental Strategy to the Arctic Council and related structures – the Arctic Economic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

Another – already negative – similarity is that the mining companies of both countries have not proven themselves in the region in the best way, and the Climate Action Tracker research group estimates efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Russia as “completely insufficient”, and in Canada – as “insufficient”.

The Arctic regions of both countries are sparsely populated : about 2.5 million people live in Russia, and only 150 thousand in Canada. Russian cities and Canadian settlements in the Arctic are often isolated, poorly provided for in the social sphere, and life expectancy there is lower than the national average. This is directly related to the fact that the Arctic is mostly populated by indigenous peoples, who suffer from both government actions and marginalization from the rest of society. Canada is only now engaged in a painful awareness and compensation for the damage caused by it, while Russia has not yet begun to deal with this problem, although its postponement is harmful to everyone – both the country and its peoples.

For example, Aboriginal traditional knowledge plays a key role in the successful development of the Arctic, and the requirement to consult with representatives of indigenous peoples on issues affecting them is enshrined in the relevant UN Declaration. Canada initially voted against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (but changed its position in 2017), while Russia abstained, but both countries joined the Agreementto strengthen international Arctic scientific cooperation that recognizes the vital importance of Aboriginal traditional knowledge. The revision of policy towards indigenous peoples will benefit both Canada and Russia.

Finally, for Canada and Russia, which have the largest exclusive economic zones in the Arctic, it is extremely important to continue to comply with the procedures enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and to combat illegal fishing. Both countries signed the International Agreement on the Prevention of Unregulated Fishing on the High Seas in the Central Arctic Ocean, which entered into force on June 25, 2021. This historic agreement proactively prohibits commercial fishing until local ecosystems are better understood and the necessary scientific basis for the safe development of natural resources is in place. However, there are also many differences between the Russian and Canadian Arctic.

In Russia, the Arctic makes an important contribution to the economy, providing 10% of the country’s GDP and 20% of exports, and the commercial potential of the Northern Sea Route attracts large investments. The Canadian Arctic does not have a significant impact on economic growth, although areas such as tourism and trade in Eskimo art items look promising. For example, in one of the reportsfor 2015 it was indicated that in Canada “Eskimo artists and artisans received more than $ 33 million in net income, and their investments in the development of production and spending of earned funds generated another $ 12.5 million.” Infrastructure in the Canadian Arctic is poorly developed, and this inhibits large-scale investment. In addition, the coastal waters of the Canadian Arctic are not suitable for commercial shipping and are mainly used to supply Arctic settlements.

The growing rivalry between Russia, China and the United States is adding tension to Russian-Canadian relations. After World War II, the Soviet Union and Canada signed the UN Charter, thereby committing themselves to respecting international law in order to save succeeding generations from the horrors of war.

However, in recent years, many international laws have been violated. Canada cannot ignore Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine, cyberattacks, arrests of oppositionists – as a result, the two countries adopted sanctions against each other. Canada also has strong allies with the United States and its NATO partners, so it is seriously concerned about Russia’s ambiguous foreign policy intentions, which could undermine current and future cooperation in the Arctic.

Judging by the fact that recently the US Army , Navy , Air Force and Coast Guard have published their own Arctic strategies, military activity in the Arctic will increase. This means that all parties must adhere to certain rules. A good step in this direction could be the reaffirmation by all Arctic countries of the importance of the Open Skies Treaty (OST) and the re-accession of the United States and Russia to it. DON allows flights of unarmed reconnaissance vehicles over the territory of the countries – parties to the Treaty. All Arctic states should allow the presence of observers at their military exercises to reduce the risk of misinterpretation of other people’s intentions, accidental incidents and unwanted escalation. Confidential discussions at the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, currently chaired by Russia, could also play a positive role. Since the meetings of the Chiefs of General Staff of the Arctic zone countries are unlikely to resume as long as Crimea remains part of Russia, the importance of dialogue within the framework of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum and the Russia-NATO Council will only increase. Russia and Canada are the largest Arctic states and will suffer the most if differences in the region prevail over the spirit of cooperation.

Today, about 622,000 Russian citizens live in Canada , and both countries benefit greatly from mutual student and scientific exchanges. Russia and Canada are proud of the status of the Arctic countries and use the region as an important instrument of their domestic and foreign policy. As for the agenda of the Russian chairmanship in the Arctic Council, Canada can provide significant assistance on many issues, especially with regard to youth and the program.Responsible Governance for a Sustainable Arctic. Russia and Canada have a lot to learn from each other to improve the way the region is explored and help expand its economic potential.

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