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Ten ways Russia’s invasion of Ukraine impacts the Arctic and the world

(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
A crew member attaches a Russian national flag as the ice breaker moves along the frozen Moskva River with the Kremlin in the background during snowfall in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

With two Arctic states awaiting NATO membership, the recent release of a U.S. Arctic strategy and ongoing Arctic military exercises, there is heightened attention on the region. Eight months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are now clear and potential long-term consequences for the Arctic. 

Predictions are difficult in times of conflict, but many of these impacts were very likely unintended. Considering this war that is reshaping Europe and the globe, taking stock of the current situation at the top of the world is key to understanding the region’s future. 

Insight into the future Arctic, with all its complexity and uncertainties, can be gained by examining a set of 10 notable consequences or impacts since the invasion: 

  1. Shifting Geopolitical Alignment: An unambiguous, fundamental consequence is the new geopolitical alignment of the Arctic states. When Finland and Sweden are admitted as members, seven of the eight Arctic states will be aligned with NATO. Russia will sit at any future “Arctic state table” with seven NATO members. If Russia continues to threaten any of its Arctic neighbors, violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and act outside international norms, cooperation among the eight will be unworkable. The new alignment and ongoing hostilities make cooperation on Arctic military security with Russia difficult if not inconceivable. 
  2. Doubt for the Arctic Council’s Future: The Ottawa Declaration establishing the Arctic Council, signed in 1996 by the eight Arctic states, was followed by a quarter century of generally close cooperation among the states on sustainable development and environmental protection issues; notably, military security issues were never part of the council dialogue. Quickly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the council paused its work under the agreement of seven Arctic states (less Russia). This decision was made while Russia holds the council chair (2021-2023). When and in what form the council will resume work is unclear. Is this really a temporary halt or will the seven Arctic states begin to cooperate regularly without Russia? A highly plausible future is one where the Arctic Council cannot resume its former operation as a cooperative intergovernmental forum. 
  3. Interrupted Economic Development: Arctic natural resource developments — particularly projects in the Russian Arctic — have been upended. Global energy and hard minerals commodities markets and prices have all been influenced by Russia’s invasion. Economic sanctions on Russia and the exodus of foreign investors from the Russian Arctic have stressed the national economy and are slowing new developments of Arctic liquified natural gas (LNG). These challenges have led Russia to further strengthen its economic and strategic alliances with China and other states. 
  4. Heightened Focus on Military Security: Russia’s military buildup in the Arctic prior to the invasion — and during the invasion itself — have renewed efforts by NATO and individual Arctic states to improve their Arctic military capabilities. Enhanced monitoring and surveillance operations, more frequent joint military exercises and increasing naval and air deployments into the Arctic are elements of a new security future for the region. With its northern reaches within the Arctic, Finland’s more than 800-mile border with Russia presents new challenges for Arctic security affairs. 
  5. Suspended Arctic Scientific Cooperation: The advance of science has been a hallmark of Arctic cooperation, but this avenue is now greatly curtailed. Russia’s government scientists and university researchers have been severed from nearly all Arctic scientific cooperation with the West. However, one practical challenge remains: Russia geographically spans nearly half the Arctic space and access to observations for understanding the Arctic natural system is essential to gaining a circumpolar perspective of profound climate change.  
  6. Disrupted Indigenous Voices: The Arctic Indigenous peoples have been a visible and effective presence as permanent participants in the Arctic Council. Their collective voice and the advancement of Indigenous knowledge have been muted by the pausing of the council’s work. However, there are new opportunities. For example, the Inuit Circumpolar Council has recently been active as an observer to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and expanded engagement at the United Nations is possible.  
  7. Increasing Responsibility for International Organizations: Without the Arctic Council as an influential forum, more onus will be placed on select international organizations to proactively address issues of Arctic safety, environmental protection, needed infrastructure, climate change and scientific research. These are bodies where national delegations and technical experts, including those from Russia, meet regularly (such as the IMO, International Hydrographic Organization and the World Meteorological Organization). Each must include more Arctic discussions among many, complex global issues. 
  8. Altered Marine Operations and Shipping: The expectations for global shipping across the Arctic Ocean — essentially new international trade routes — are greatly diminished, specifically along the Russian maritime Arctic which has become more tightly controlled. International investment in any trans-Arctic routing systems focused on using Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR) are now no longer plausible. Marine traffic out of the Russian Arctic has been altered as most LNG carriers and oil tankers are now heading east along the NSR into the Pacific to China and India in lieu of sailing to European ports. 
  9. Continued, Relentless Warming: Climate change in the Arctic persists at a rapid pace, one of the only certainties in this review. The Arctic is the fastest-warming place on Earth as recent research indicates. International climate discussions no longer benefit from the Arctic Council’s established focus on climate issues. In addition, a striking paradox is illuminated in the Arctic with the continued hydrocarbon development in the Russian Arctic and the disrupted connections to European energy supplies. The Russian buildup and use of energy resources as an economic weapon are happening in an era of a global transition to a net-zero carbon economy with its broad economic, social and environmental impacts. The war has changed the calculus of response to climate change and the Arctic as a constrained source of long-term hydrocarbons. 
  10. Concern for Arctic Governance Stability: The legal framework for the Arctic Oceans remains the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); however, one of the Arctic states (the United States) remains outside the treaty and implementation of several articles relevant to the Arctic Ocean remain highly controversial. Recent Arctic treaties on search and rescue, oil pollution and scientific cooperation among the Arctic states cannot be easily implemented without close cooperation with Russia. The International Agreement to Prevent Unregulated Fishing in the High Seas of the Central Arctic Ocean (signed in 2021 by Japan, China, South Korea and the European Union) will have challenges initiating comprehensive research without the direct involvement of Russia. Any newly proposed governance structures in the Arctic Ocean are stalled without the ability to ensure holistic, basin-wide approaches.  

Complexity and uncertainty reign in the Arctic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and threats against its Arctic neighbors make near-term cooperation impossible. There is irony in the current Arctic situation given the August passing of Mikhail Gorbachev, who gave his famous Arctic-focused foreign policy speech on Oct. 1, 1987, in Murmansk. He called for an international zone of peace and for leaders to address Arctic economic and environmental issues. 

While the Arctic and the Antarctic remain the most peaceful places on Earth, we are witnessing a reversal of cooperation and trust at the top of the world. The challenge is to find realistic and effective engagement strategies for dealing with Russia as an Arctic state. 

Lawson W. Brigham, Ph.D., is a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A career U.S. Coast Guard officer, he has been a long-time contributor to the work of the Arctic Council.

Tags Arctic cooperation and politics Arctic Council energy prices Politics of the United States Reactions to the 2021–2022 Russo-Ukrainian crisis Russo-Ukrainian War

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