Cold Relations in the High North

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The arctic nations of Russia and Canada both consider the far north a major focus in their foreign policy, often butting heads over their aims in the region.


However, that may soon change. New research by the Russian Council and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute suggests that there is a possibility of cooperation and political normalization between the two governments.  This involves a two-pronged approach of Arctic cooperation and the exploitation of differences between Canada and the United States.

Both Russia and Canada feel uncomfortable with non-arctic nations, especially China, attempting to exert influence on what both feel is their territory. The research suggests that Russia and Canada have a lot to gain from coordinating their efforts to prevent the internationalization of the Arctic region by other powers. This comes in the wake of Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon completing its maiden voyage through the Arctic off the coast of Canada.

Part of this shift includes a warmer approach to its northern neighbour, coupled with the magnification of disagreements between Canada and the United States. One such disagreement is the dispute regarding the status of the Northwest passage. Canada considers the passage its sovereign territory, but America, China and other world powers exert pressure to reclassify it as an international strait that can be used by any nation for peaceful transit. 

Previously, Russia’s tone towards Canada has been dismissive, with Russian media accusing Canada of being America’s lackey in the foreign policy arena. However, the new reconciliatory approach uses pro-Russian academics in Canada and more assertive public diplomacy tools to strengthen ties between the two powers. This includes emphasizing the negative role of President Trump in souring Canadian-American relations to strengthen Russia’s position in the Arctic and around the world. Russia Today reported that the Trump administration was quick to claim more of the Canadian Arctic following the new President’s inauguration.

President Putin proclaimed that Russia and Canada are “neighbours in the Arctic region and bear joint responsibility for [its] development” in a move to bolster relations between the two countries, according to Vzglyad.

However, analysts warn that this may be a part of Russia’s historical strategy of a flexible approach to the Arctic, making diplomatic gains where possible and backing them with the threat of military force in the far north.

If Russia’s strategy is successful, it may lead a rapprochement between the two historical rivals, especially as warming climates open shipping routes in the north and enable the exploitation of enormous new energy and mineral deposits. Some projections show that the Arctic may be completely free of ice by 2040, enabling a scramble for the region and its resources.

This strategy does not come without its challenges, the foremost of which is growing tensions between the two nations. The political differences and geopolitical conflicts have led to abysmal levels of trust and reduced diplomatic contact after the closure of consulates and expulsions of diplomats following the Skripal poisoning, and it will require a lot of hard work if the two countries want to return to warmer relations.


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