After Ukraine, Can the Arctic Peace Hold?

A Western boycott of the Arctic Council could backfire.

By , a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and a former consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan.
A Russian service member stands guard by a military truck on the island of Alexandra Land, which is part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago in Russia, on May 17, 2021.
A Russian service member stands guard by a military truck on the island of Alexandra Land, which is part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago in Russia, on May 17, 2021.
A Russian service member stands guard by a military truck on the island of Alexandra Land, which is part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago in Russia, on May 17, 2021. MAXIME POPOV/AFP via Getty Images

As Russian forces continue to batter civilian targets in Ukraine, acting in unrestrained defiance of international law, nations and organizations around the world have chastised and imposed harsh punishments on Moscow. But justified though this outrage may be, in some cases the perils of alienating Russia outweigh the benefits.

Here, the Arctic is a crucial case study. The region’s geopolitical importance and fragile system of governance make it fertile ground for either cooperation or conflict. And though over the past quarter century the Arctic Council has sustained a workable base level of cooperation, the consequences of a recent decision by seven of its eight member states to boycott council activities over Russia’s military aggression could prove devastating.

The Arctic’s strategic importance owes in large part to its profound mineral wealth. Courtesy of climate change, rising temperatures are rapidly thawing barriers to the region’s bountiful natural resources. According to the Stimson Center, the region may contain up to 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, while the Wall Street Journal estimates the Arctic may contain some $1 trillion worth of rare-earth metals—a set of 17 precious metallic elements with critical importance for national defense equipment and consumer electronics. Other sources of mineral wealth in the region include large stores of gold, platinum, tin, diamonds, and zircon-titanium, as explored in a recent study published in Ore Geology Reviews.

As Russian forces continue to batter civilian targets in Ukraine, acting in unrestrained defiance of international law, nations and organizations around the world have chastised and imposed harsh punishments on Moscow. But justified though this outrage may be, in some cases the perils of alienating Russia outweigh the benefits.

Here, the Arctic is a crucial case study. The region’s geopolitical importance and fragile system of governance make it fertile ground for either cooperation or conflict. And though over the past quarter century the Arctic Council has sustained a workable base level of cooperation, the consequences of a recent decision by seven of its eight member states to boycott council activities over Russia’s military aggression could prove devastating.

The Arctic’s strategic importance owes in large part to its profound mineral wealth. Courtesy of climate change, rising temperatures are rapidly thawing barriers to the region’s bountiful natural resources. According to the Stimson Center, the region may contain up to 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, while the Wall Street Journal estimates the Arctic may contain some $1 trillion worth of rare-earth metals—a set of 17 precious metallic elements with critical importance for national defense equipment and consumer electronics. Other sources of mineral wealth in the region include large stores of gold, platinum, tin, diamonds, and zircon-titanium, as explored in a recent study published in Ore Geology Reviews.

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 in a bid to foster cooperation and coordination among the eight Arctic states—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States—as well as Indigenous peoples and other regional stakeholders. These member states act as stewards of the region, implementing a patchwork of national, regional, and international treaties and customary laws related to environmental protection, emergency preparedness, and sustainable development. The chairmanship of the council rotates every two years among the eight member states. Russia has been at its helm since May 2021.

Importantly, the council itself doesn’t make or execute laws; rather, it provides a forum for member states to reach multilateral agreements. Member states, for example, can draft legally binding agreements that carve out shared responsibilities for regional issues. Past agreements have centered on search and rescue missions, marine oil pollution preparedness, and enhanced scientific cooperation.

Agreements reached at the Arctic Council supplement a variety of international legal and policy frameworks, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Polar Code. Its work is also complemented by a patchwork of other regional and international organizations with varying scopes and focuses. Some of these include the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, IMO, Saami Council, and Barents Euro-Arctic Council—though, like the Arctic Council, the latter recently suspended cooperation with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

In short, there is no one entity that bears ultimate responsibility for Arctic governance. Relative peace in the region has long rested on the assumption that for the eight states wishing to preserve—and retain control of—their Arctic territories, the benefits of cooperation outweigh its drawbacks. And in the past, this utilitarian balance has held despite provocations.

In 2007, a Russian submarine planted the national flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. The act drew mild diplomatic bristling, prompting then-Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay to say, “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’” Then-U.S. State Department spokesperson Tom Casey dismissed the move as lacking “any legal standing or effect on this claim.” But cooperation endured.

Even past geopolitical nadirs have failed to sink Arctic cooperation. As Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea inspired waves of Western sanctions and derailed circumpolar security efforts, the work of the Arctic Council continued. The Arctic Council’s founding document, the Ottawa Declaration, states specifically that the council “should not deal with matters related to military security”—a fact many analysts agree has supported Arctic cooperation even during periods of geopolitical strife elsewhere.

This distinction has inspired multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations for the organization, including as recently as this year, just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine. “The Arctic Council demonstrates the need for cooperation and trust between countries in a time where peace is threatened around Ukraine and other regions,” Norwegian parliamentarian Bard Ludvig Thorheim told High North News of his decision, along with three others, to nominate the council.

But Arctic analysts have voiced increasing concern over governance gaps in the region. The Arctic is warming nearly three times faster than the global average, causing sea ice to melt, sea levels to rise, severe weather events to increase, and fauna populations to shrink. All this also increases shipping accessibility, which heightens pollution and spill-related risks.

A 2021 Rand Corp. report identified three core Arctic governance gaps: limited military dialogue and transparency, limited capacity to execute governance agreements, and rising tensions between the growing push for global inclusivity in the region and the interests of the Arctic states. Under the council’s structure, six Indigenous peoples’ organizations serve as permanent participants, with full consultation rights in the body’s negotiation and decision-making process, while non-Arctic states can observe the council’s activities, with a clear caveat that all official decisions and agreements are exclusive to the eight Arctic states. Rand suggests that, in the long term, broader multilateral engagement with both the non-Arctic states and the region’s Indigenous peoples will be imperative to managing a broad range of conflict catalysts.

These governance gaps were identified well before the seven non-Russian permanent members of the Arctic Council announced on March 3 their intent to boycott upcoming council meetings and activities. Citing their belief that the “core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, based on international law, have long underpinned the work of the Arctic Council, a forum which Russia currently chairs,” the states announced they would be “temporarily pausing” participation in all council meetings, including those of its subsidiary bodies. The timing of the pause was explained in exceedingly vague terms, with the statement indicating it would remain in effect “pending consideration of the necessary modalities that can allow us to continue the Council’s important work.”

Speaking at a March 14 panel hosted by the Wilson Center, James DeHart, the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, said the seven boycotting states deliberately chose to say “temporarily pausing” and emphasized that this was neither a withdrawal from the Arctic Council nor a signal of intent to reconstitute it. “It’s simply a pause in light of the horrific events and Russia’s egregious, unprovoked, completely unnecessary war of choice against Ukraine,” he said. DeHart added that it was difficult to predict how long the pause would last given the fluid situation on the ground in Ukraine.

The utilitarian balance of Arctic cooperation has been thrown off-kilter.

Russia’s senior Arctic official, Nikolay Korchunov, said the boycott would inevitably increase risks and challenges in the region. “The Arctic should remain as a territory of peace … and thus, this unique format should not be subject to the spillover effect of any extra-regional events. For us, there is no alternative to uninterrupted sustainable development of our Arctic territories,” he said. He added that apart from meetings with other senior Arctic officials, council events would continue as planned, in the hope that its activities will eventually be able to pick up where they left off before the boycott. But it remains unclear how this would work in practice, given the council’s collaborative nature and consensus-based decision-making process.

If there were gaps in governance before, they have now become glaring abscesses. The perils of lackluster military transparency more broadly were illustrated a month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when a weekslong breakdown in communication between top U.S. and Russian military brass stoked fears among officials and analysts that miscalculations on the battlefield could lead to an unintended escalation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Add to that scenario the vulnerabilities of a mineral-rich region governed by an incomprehensive patchwork of organizations and mechanisms, and the dangers of inadequate communication become all the more clear. They are only heightened by the fact that a breakdown at the Arctic Council could provide strategic opportunities for non-Arctic states such as China to expand their influence in the region.

Russian officials have called the boycott “regrettable,” and on this, they may have a point. The utilitarian balance of Arctic cooperation has been thrown off-kilter. Whether and how that balance will be restored is unclear. And with the already fragile regional governance efforts at a standstill, the potential negative consequences extend far beyond the canceling of high-level council meetings and the stifling of ongoing monitoring and research collaborations. From increased military activity to decreased circumpolar security communication, and from the changing commercial realities brought about by increased shipping to the opening up of mineral and hydrocarbon wealth that comes with rising temperatures, the region is rife with potential catalysts for conflict.

Strategic documents released in the past couple of years by the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Department of Homeland Security and a spate of recent U.S. military training exercises indicate Washington is working overtime to shore up its Arctic defenses. And though these strategies predate the Ukraine invasion, they demonstrate both the fragility of regional peace and the fact that, for the United States, the Arctic is a vital national interest.

What Russia is doing in Ukraine is unconscionable. Its unprovoked violence and flagrant disregard for sovereignty, territorial integrity, and humanitarian law are reprehensible. It has rightly provoked outrage and punitive actions even from organizations that bill themselves as apolitical, such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA.

Yet none of this changes the realities on the ground in the Arctic, which are at once increasingly fragile and increasingly high-stakes. In the past, the Arctic Council’s ability to remain above the geopolitical fray has bolstered reliable cooperation even during unpredictable diplomatic times. This owes in part to the Ottawa Declaration’s clear directive on military security. The boycott—which is also linked to broader questions of international law—finds its factual basis in Moscow’s invasion and is arguably at odds with this directive.

Justified though their outrage toward Russia may be, the seven other Arctic states owe it not only to themselves but to the international community to relaunch Arctic Council activities as soon as possible. If doing so is too politically costly, the Arctic states should at the very least work quickly to patch their region’s growing governance gaps with meaningful and substantive bilateral and multilateral agreements. And if the Arctic Council’s cohesion prevails, perhaps its next Nobel Peace Prize nomination will pan out.

Ingrid Burke Friedman is a fellow at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the features editor at JURIST Legal News & Commentary. She previously served as a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan from 2018 to 2020. Twitter: @Ing_Burke

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.