The Russian and Canadian Approach to Extra-Regional Actors in the Arctic

By Natalia Viakhireva (Evtikhevich), PhD in Political Science, Program Manager of the Russian International Affairs Council

The Arctic is currently undergoing significant transformations that are the result of climate change and the global general political processes. One of the trends that has taken shape in recent years is the growing activity of extra-regional actors in the Arctic. Non-Arctic states are paying ever greater attention to the region. It is telling that almost all the non-Arctic states have, over the past five years, either updated their Arctic strategies or adopted for their first-ever strategic documents on the issue. For example, in 2018, China was the first to adopt a White Paper on its policy in the Arctic. Given the increasing presence of extra-regional actors, it is important to consider the approaches adopted by Russia and Canada as the two biggest Arctic powers to developing relations with extra-regional states, and with the observer countries in the Arctic Council in particular.

The Interests of Extra-Regional Actors in the Arctic

There are several reasons why extra-regional actors are interested in the Arctic. First and foremost is climate change in the region, which has an impact on the life and economic activity of individual countries, as well as on the planet as a whole. Also, almost all observer states in the Arctic Council are interested in researching the region. Extra-regional actors also pursue economic interests in the Arctic. They are attracted by the transport opportunities, specifically the use of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, as well as by the raw material resources of the Arctic, its bioresources and fishing opportunities, and the development of Arctic tourism.

At the same time, if the model and mechanisms of interaction among the Arctic states are more or less clear, even if disputes do arise, then the appearance of new players who pursue their own interests and the construction of models of interaction with them raise quite a few questions. It seems that Russia and Canada are also interested in building balanced interaction with non-Arctic states.

The Specifics of the Russian Approach

Russia’s attitude towards the Arctic as a whole is largely determined by geography. A significant part of Russia is located beyond the Arctic Circle. The Arctic is an important resource base for Russia, and the region forms a significant part of the country’s export potential. It can be argued that the Arctic is a zone of Russia’s strategic interests, and this goes some way to explaining Moscow’s attitude to the presence of extra-regional actors in the Arctic. Russia, like Canada, is keen to strengthen the positions of the Arctic states and is wary of expanding the circle of actors in the region.

For example, Moscow and Ottawa initially opposed the decision to grant observer status in the Arctic Council to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Italy, the European Union and a number of organizations, Moscow and Ottawa in 2013, fearing that the work of the Arctic Council would suffer as a result.

This led to the applications of the European Union and other organizations being rejected. However, we should note that the European Union has been seeking observer status in the Arctic Council since 2008, without success. Russia and Canada agree on the status of the European Union. Canada has long been against granting observer status to the European Union.

The official reason was the EU ban on imports of seal fur, skin and meat. This disagreement was resolved in 2015. However, Russia, the target of EU sanctions since 2014, has continued to oppose granting observer status to the organization.

In 2013, a number of states (China, India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Italy) were granted observer status in the Arctic Council, but on the condition that they comply with the updated requirements for observers, the essence of which is to recognize the sovereignty, as well as the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the eight Arctic Council states in the Arctic. However, even after the new observers were admitted, Minister of Environment and Climate Change of Canada Leona Aglukkaq made it clear that Canada was not comfortable with the decision to expand the number of observer states, as the Arctic Council was created “by northerners, for northerners, before the Arctic was of interest to the rest of the world.”

Russia prioritizes building relations with regional Arctic states, recognizing that many of the region’s issues affect non-Arctic states too. Cooperation with extra-regional actors opens up new opportunities for harnessing the region’s inherent potential. Russia is interested in developing business contacts with other countries and companies that have relevant technologies and financial resources [1]. At the same time, the anti-Russian sanctions impose certain restrictions on the country’s cooperation with its Western partners. In this regard, there is a growing interest in interaction with countries from the East, although there are certain risks here. On the whole, Moscow’s approach is based on building balanced and mutually beneficial relations with Arctic and non-Arctic states alike.

Russia is prepared to develop cooperation with extra-regional actors in three areas [2]:

  • Investments. Primarily energy projects. Russia continues to develop cooperation with France, Germany and Italy and has no plans to curtail this cooperation any time soon. However, the sanctions are making it increasingly difficult to implement joint business projects with these countries, which is why there is a growing interest in Moscow in attracting investments from East Asian countries, even though the size of such investments is small.
  • Scientific and technological cooperation.
  • The Northeast Passage.

The Specifics of the Canadian Approach

Canada is a country with a clearly defined Arctic identity. The Arctic has always been more a part of Canada’s domestic policy than its foreign policy, although this attitude is changing gradually.

Even though the term in office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s liberal government is about to come to an end, the country has yet to adopt a new Arctic strategy, which is still in the making and will have a more layered structure than the previous version. Canada needs to conduct effective policies to ensure the development of its economy and resources to meet the interests of the country’s northern peoples, who, in turn, expect the government to fulfill its commitments regarding the economic development, safety and environmental protection of the north effectively and responsibly. The main message of the new concept is to expand the participation of the inhabitants of the north in the decision-making. The strategy is designed to cover the period up until 2030. A section of the strategy will be devoted to the development of the Arctic in a global context. Judging by the comments of Canadian officials, the focus will be on the changing situation in the Arctic in the context of Russia’s policy, which some experts in Canada consider to be aggressive, as well as on the increased activity of China in the Arctic. It is perhaps for this reason that the role of observers and extra-regional actors and the respective strategy of dealing with them will be spelled out.

In one of her recent speeches, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett noted that the new Arctic strategy would address issues of international relations and security, given that many states, in particular, Russia and China, are demonstrating an increased interest in the Arctic. The Arctic is thus becoming a matter of foreign, as well as domestic policy, for Canada. It is for this reason that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Canada is taking active participation in the development of the country’s Arctic strategy for the first time.

Despite the criticism levied at Russia, several Canadian experts recommend paying attention to Russia’s experience in the Arctic region in the context of the development of the country’s Arctic strategy. In particular, a report prepared by the School of Public Policy and Management at the University of Calgary states: “Russia’s determination to integrate deeply its Arctic resources into the economic fabric of the European Union and Asia may serve as a useful guide for Canadian northern economic development policies aimed at bolstering our sovereign Arctic claims and providing secure futures for northerners.”

he discussion of Canada’s new Arctic strategy touches on China. The assessments of many experts are based on the fact that extra-regional actors are already present in the Arctic, with China as a key player among them. Several Canadian analysts believe that Chinese initiatives should be welcomed, but they should be treated with caution.

Common Interests and Risks for Russia and Canada

Countries in East Asia — China, Japan, South Korea — are interested in revising the legal status of the Arctic. They advocate greater transparency in the region, support the idea of loosening Russian and Chinese control over the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, and call for the preferential use of these routes with a view to their future “internationalization.” In short, we can say that these countries want to revise the legal regime in the Arctic to the benefit of non-Arctic states.

Russia and Canada thus find themselves in a complicated situation. On the one hand, it may be useful for them to harness the financial, scientific and technological potential of these countries to develop the Arctic’s resources. On the other hand, the approach of the Asian observer states does not coincide with those of Russia or Canada on a number of issues. Consequently, the two countries face the need to build a balanced and cautious policy about non-Arctic states. Could this factor serve as a basis for bringing Russia and Canada closer together on Arctic issues in general? This is probably not reason enough for rapprochement. The United States continues to be Canada’s primary partner, including in Arctic issues. The only way that relations between Russia and Canada can improve, including in the Arctic region, is if relations between Russia and the United States improve. Although the potential for Russia–Canada cooperation does appear to be fairly high. Moreover, the Arctic could become a central theme of the bilateral relations.

What is more, we all have to be prepared for the Arctic to become a more open region. Moreover, it is crucial to keep this region free from conflicts, both military and economic. This means that Russia and Canada should look more actively for opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation in the region.


Vasilyev, A. V. The Situation in the Arctic and the Main Areas of Cooperation in the Region / The Arctic Region: Problems of International Cooperation. Anthology in 3 volumes, 2013, vol. 1, pp. 14–24

Konyshev, V. N., Sergunin, A. A. The Arctic Region: International Cooperation Issues. Teaching and Learning Materials, No 1, 2015, 71 pp.

Lagutina M. Russia’s Arctic Policy in the Twenty-First Century: National and International Dimensions (Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Politics). Lexington Books, 2019, 201 pp.

Wallace R.R. The Arctic is Warming and Turning Red: Implications for Canada and Russia in Evolving Polar Region. Canadian Global Affairs Institute, January 2019

Lajeunesse A. Finding “Win-Win” China’s Arctic Policy and What it Means for Canada. The School of Public Policy Publications, SPP Briefing Paper, University of Calgary, vol., 11:33, December 2018

First published in Russian as “Canada and Russia: The Arctic Giants” in VII International Canadian Studies Conference, April 5–6, 2019. Part 1. Edited by Yuri Akimov and K. Minkova. St. Petersburg, 2019.

Translated into English for a website of the Russian International Affairs Council.

1. Vasilyev, A. V. The Situation in the Arctic and the Main Areas of Cooperation in the Region / The Arctic Region: Problems of International Cooperation. Anthology in 3 volumes, 2013, vol. 1, p. 23.

2. Lagutina M. Russia’s Arctic Policy in the Twenty-First Century: National and International Dimensions (Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Politics). Lexington Books, 2019, p. 2.

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