Can Russian-Western Cooperation in the Arctic Survive the Current Conflict? | Wilson Center

Can Russian-Western Cooperation in the Arctic Survive the Current Conflict?

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The Polar Initiative and the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center hosted an event on June 29, 2015, “Can Russian-Western Cooperation in the Arctic Survive the Current Conflict?” with Irvin Studin, founder of Global Brief magazine and president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions. Kenneth S. Yalowitz, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, moderated the event and provided opening remarks.

Yalowitz said off the top that cooperation on the ground is continuing in the Arctic. Nevertheless, the melting of polar ice, along with increasing oil and gas exploitation, will inevitably create strategic tensions among the Arctic nations. He likened the Arctic to a canary in a coal mine: diplomatic failures there will have worldwide impacts.

Studin began by stating his belief that as an Arctic nation, the United States must convince its citizens of the highly topical nature of the Arctic. The United States lags behind Russia and Canada as a major Arctic player. Now that the United States holds the chair of the Arctic Council, it must work to preclude a future of conflict and advance cooperation in the Arctic. Moreover, Studin noted that the border between Arctic conflict and cooperation can be quickly destroyed. The current conflict in Ukraine not only threatens the Russian-Western systemic balance of power, but also jeopardizes all collaborative efforts in the Arctic.

Ukraine, like the Arctic, is an interstitial problem—one that must be solved very quickly in order to ease tensions between Russia and the West. Over the course of this century, the prospect of conflict between Russia and the West seems to be considerable; Studin warned that the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine or the collapse of Ukraine may render the Arctic into a region of armed conflict, effectively breaking the strategic good fortune that America has benefited from over the last century and a half.

In five broad headlines, Studin offered structural solutions to the Ukraine conflict. First, he suggested the introduction of peacekeepers from neutral, respected countries—namely India. Peacekeepers alone, however, will not resolve the conflict; Studin proposed a second condition for peace which precludes Ukrainian involvement with NATO for all time. The third proposition necessitates the removal of all economic sanctions not related to Crimea. Studin then followed this point by floating the idea of a tri-lateral commission among Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union. Finally, he emphasized that Ukraine must generate heroic competence in government. Having made these five recommendations, Studin’s prognosis of the conflict is that Ukraine cannot survive without a deep relationship with Russia, and the terms of cooperation must be made as equal parties.

Where two different regimes collide, the question remains about what to do with the stitches in between: to tear them apart or to sew them together gradually? The Arctic is an interstitial space, according to Studin, and there exist three possible futures for the region, which are conflictive, cooperative, and chaotic in nature. A prominent thesis in discussions related to international Arctic strategy holds that that there should inevitably be divergences in power, perceptions, claims, and interests in the region. By contrast, transactional cooperation in the Arctic may be in every Arctic nation’s interest—Russia included, because it needs Western technology to achieve economic success in its Arctic territories. And yet unobstructed cooperation and goodwill in the Arctic would not compensate for a bulwark of strategic distrust between Russia and the West; there can be no organized and effective institutional arrangement encouraging collaboration between two such great powers until mutual confidence is restored.

Following Studin’s remarks, in the question and answer portion of the event, Studin reemphasized that Russia is the most serious and capable of the Arctic nations. Consequently, achieving solutions for today’s challenges in the Arctic requires active Russian participation and collaboration. Yalowitz and Studin concluded that how we manage the potential for conflict between Russia and the West will be a function of heroic diplomacy, competence in government, and an improved understanding of one another’s culture and politics.

Spencer Wuest, Polar Initiative


  • Irvin Studin

    Founder, Global Brief magazine; President, Institute for 21st Century Questions, Toronto
  • Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz

    Global Fellow
    Former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Belarus from 1994-1997 and to Georgia from 1998-2001; former Career Diplomat and Member of the Senior Foreign Service, U.S. Department of State; former Director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding, Dartmouth College