The writer is senior analyst for emerging challenges at the Nato Defense College Foundation and author of ‘Libya and the Global Enduring Disorder’
This week’s Nato summit in Madrid represents the biggest upgrade of the west’s military co-ordination since the end of the cold war. Although this has come too late to help Ukraine, it should constrain further Russian aggression. But there are crucial areas — such as climate change and preservation of the Arctic — where we need to work with Moscow, rather than against it.
As polar regions grow ever warmer, there are no winners from a failure of co-ordination on Arctic policy. Disappearing sea ice and warming temperatures are likely to lead to competition for resources, territorial disputes and increased maritime activity. The Arctic, which has warmed three times more quickly than the planet as a whole, has long been described as the planet’s “canary in the coal mine”. While thinning ice floes are making travel and hunting more hazardous for indigenous populations in the region, there are also alarming global ramifications, such as melting permafrost releasing “trapped” bacteria, viruses and radiation.
The defence implications are also significant. Russia has expanded its military presence in the high north in response to thawing sea routes. The invasion of Ukraine has led two previously neutral Arctic states — Finland and Sweden — to clear the last hurdles for Nato membership. If they can no longer act as brokers between Russia and the US on Arctic matters, rival military posturing will certainly worsen. China, which has its own Arctic ambitions, is seeking to establish a “Polar Silk Road” — thus multiplying longstanding tensions on the northern Norwegian island of Svalbard.
It does not have to be this way. Co-ordinating with Russia and China should not diminish the west’s ability to assist Ukraine or hold Moscow accountable. Emmanuel Macron, French president, is still being criticised for suggesting that Russia ought not to be humiliated for its invasion of Ukraine. This may not have been a popular view, but his underlying assessment is partially right. There are good reasons why Arctic institutions have a long tradition of never penalising or humiliating Russia for misdeeds perpetrated elsewhere.
As the tentative co-operation of the post-cold war era has eroded, the Arctic seemed to be the last bastion of a functional rules-based international order. Russia became the chair of the Arctic Council last year and enjoys agenda-setting powers. In March, and as a direct result of the invasion of Ukraine, the US, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden announced an immediate suspension of their participation in the body’s meetings and working groups. Russian organisations were prohibited from attending this year’s Arctic Science Summit Week, a multinational research expedition to study the ecology of salmon was nearly derailed, and researchers on algal blooms linked to rising temperatures in the Chukchi Sea were barred from continuing their work in Russian waters.
To casual observers, cancelling joint studies on salmon and algae may not portend global doom, but the historical contrast is revealing. Even at the height of the 2014 Ukraine tensions — when US and Canadian officials boycotted the intergovernmental Arctic Council in Russia, and Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, responded by refusing to attend the Nunavut summit — there was never this level of disruption.
Now, however, a combination of mutual distrust, sanctions and Ukraine-centred priorities threaten to make genuine collaboration difficult to achieve. This dilemma epitomises our age of enduring global disorder. The onus is on western governments to differentiate between areas of mutual interest and those which require a co-ordinated riposte to Moscow. If they fail, it will be all of our children who suffer the consequences.