A Dark View of Geopolitics in the Arctic

Irvin Studin
Irvin Studin

World leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have talked of the Arctic as a zone of peace and co-operation. But continued tranquility is just one forecast for the region. A much darker scenario came today from a Canadian policy scholar who is also a professor at the University of Toronto and Russia’s Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.

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Irvin Studin says competing claims for Arctic resources are inevitable but those conflicts are unlikely to erupt any time soon. In a discussion at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank, Studin said he sees a much closer path to conflict in the Arctic, and it starts with Russia, in Europe.

“Near term, and this is my primary message today: Escalation of fighting in Ukraine, or the collapse of Ukraine, or an accident or misread by the West, or the East, or between Russia and Ukraine, might have consequences through the Arctic as a thoroughfare, “he said.

These “consequences” he speaks of are dire.

“The Russians would bomb through the Arctic,” he said. “The rockets would go through the Arctic. I don’t think we’re talking infantry in the first instance. I think these are highly reachable targets for Russian interests.”

Studin says Russians are well aware of the prospect while the U.S., in his view, is oblivious. He says the Ukraine problem can be solved, with neutral peacekeepers and a commitment that Ukraine must never join NATO. But, he warns, the solution has to come in the next six months.

On the Arctic Council, international co-operation remains the operating principal, and Russia is still, by most accounts, working well with the U.S. Coast Guard. Studin says Moscow can strictly adhere to agreements, to what he calls “transactional” co-operation in the Arctic. The professor, though, says that’s just a veneer on Russia’s solid wall of strategic distrust.

“So this can only last so long if the underlying game is incredible,” he said.

Looking ahead, Studin says the government in Russia will change one day, and he cautions the U.S. to stay out of it.

“It is in everybody’s interest that Russia remain stable and that there is a happy succession,” he said. “And let me repeat to my American friends: there is no necessary condition for this succession, in being happy, to be democratic and in our image, as it were. It just needs to be a stable, happy transition.”

A troubled transition could create a power vacuum, he says, which would be bad for the Arctic and the rest of the world.

“Any collapse of Russia, which is not unthinkable this century, is a hellish proposition,” he said. “It is a century long problem.”

Retired diplomat Kenneth Yalowitz, another participant at the forum, doesn’t see the same conflict points that Studin does. But after hearing the analysis, Yalowitz sounded a bit tenuous in his optimism.

“You’ve given a lot of reasons why this may not be the case, but my hope is that the very obvious and self-evident reasons for cooperation in the Arctic can have a spillover effect into other areas,” he said.

In the back of the auditorium sat two top-ranking Arctic officials in the State Department: Admiral Robert Papp, the special Arctic representative, and Deputy Assistant Secretary David Balton. Papp called Studin’s perspective a “fascinating alternate view.”

“To get someone who has an inside view of what the Russians are thinking is very helpful to us, and that’s why we attended today,” Papp said.

Papp says for him, it reinforces the need for open communications with the Russians.