Mark Twain once said, “History never repeats itself, but it often does rhyme.” Just as Moscow and Washington have clashed over the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into eastern Europe, so now the two sides must contend with political and military encroachments in the Arctic. Next week’s summit in Geneva between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, has a sense of geopolitical déjà vu to it. But it is not too late to step back from the brink of another unnecessary confrontation, this time in the Arctic.
Rather than repeat the strategic mistakes of the past, Washington should embrace a more pragmatic foreign policy towards Russia, pursuing competitive coexistence rather than military dominance in the High North. Fortunately, this summit, coming as Russia has assumed the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, presents the Biden administration with a strategic opening.
Nearly six months into his presidency, however, President Biden seems intent on making the worst of a bad situation. He agreed in an interview that Putin was “a killer” and upbraided the Kremlin over its treatment of prominent Putin critic Alexei Navalny, while imposing a raft of new sanctions against Moscow.
The Biden administration has also upped the ante in the Arctic, announcing plans with Canada to modernize the Arctic missile-surveillance warning system, deploying B-1 Lancer bombers to Norway for the first time, and concluding a revised agreement with Oslo to allow for the construction of U.S. military facilities at three Norwegian airfields and a naval station. In 2022, the U.S. military intends to deploy to Norway alongside other NATO personnel for the largest military exercise in the Arctic Circle since the end of the Cold War.
The main reward for all this military activity has, thus far, at least, been Putin’s colorful words. The Russian leader vowed to “knock out everyone’s teeth,” if the United States and its allies should dare to challenge Russia’s territorial claims. Much as NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine was intolerable to Russia and led to its use of force to prevent their accessions, Moscow is sensitive to U.S. military activities in the Arctic near its northern border.
With territory spanning more than half of the world’s Arctic coastline, an economy dependent on new resource-extraction projects, and the bulk of its nuclear second-strike capabilities based in the region, Russia has valid national security interests in the Arctic. Russia’s military buildup there as the sea ice melts should thus come as no surprise. The Kremlin has amply demonstrated through its military interventions and political interference in eastern Europe that it will resist what it perceives as unnecessary and provocative Western encroachments near its borders. The Arctic is not any different, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently confirmed. “We hear whining about Russia expanding its military activities in the Arctic,” he said. “But everyone knows that it’s our territory, our land.”
Against this backdrop of worsening tensions, Russia took the helm of the Arctic Council last month. Established in 1996, the Arctic Council has emerged as the preeminent intergovernmental forum for addressing issues of environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic. Membership in the Council includes all eight Arctic nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States) and permanent participants from various indigenous groups, as well as 13 non-Arctic observer states, most notably China.
As chair of the Arctic Council, Russia has responsibility for hosting ministerial meetings and customarily defines the priorities of the council throughout its tenure, albeit under the constraints of a consensus-based decision-making process. Russia’s priorities for its chairmanship, like those of its predecessors, include sustainable development, environmental protection, socio-economic development, and strengthening the Arctic Council. Washington should take the ample opportunities provided by Russia’s council agenda to engage and cooperate with Moscow on these issues, especially climate change. Russia’s 20220 Arctic Strategy acknowledged the environmental impacts of climate change on the region and pledged to protect the Arctic environment.
Similarly, the Biden administration has placed a renewed focus on climate change and diplomacy. Pursuing cooperative action on climate change could help to build mutual understanding and lay the groundwork for future engagement on more sensitive issues. Both President Biden’s inclusion of Putin in the White House’s virtual climate summit and Climate Change Envoy John Kerry’s outreach to his Russian counterparts underscore the Biden administration’s intent to pursue climate cooperation with Russia. Finding common ground with Putin is the path forward, and President Biden would be well served to continue his foreign policy toward Russia in this direction.
Yet climate cooperation alone will ultimately be insufficient to convince Putin to reassess his long-held assessment that the West poses a military danger to his country. Changing the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations will require a fundamental reorientation of U.S. foreign policy toward competitive coexistence.
At its core, this more measured approach to relations requires U.S. respect for Russia’s core national security interests. What might that look like in the Arctic? Washington should try to strike a bargain. The Biden administration would cede an enlarged role for the United States and NATO in the Arctic, allaying Russian fears of hostile encirclement. In return, the Kremlin would agree to some reasonable limits on its power projection capabilities in the Arctic and relinquish its claims to the international waters of the Northern Sea Route. Such a deal would not eliminate U.S.-Russia rivalry, but it would help to manage it.
As President Biden prepares for his first summit with the Russian leader, he should not let this opportunity to set U.S.-Russian relations on a new course slip past him. In his meeting with Putin, he should accept Russia’s call for a resumption of high-level military talks on the Arctic. The Arctic Council’s official remit, the Ottawa Declaration, explicitly excludes military security issues. As a result, alternative forums developed for discussing military matters, most importantly, the Arctic Security Forces Roundtable and the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Staff Planning meetings.
Since suspending military-to-military cooperation with Russia in 2014, however, Arctic states have lacked a multilateral mechanism for military dialogue. Resuming these forums would build trust, increase transparency, and encourage what U.S. Naval War College associate professor Lyle Goldstein calls “cooperation spirals.” One sure lesson of the Cold War was that opening up strategic dialogue and establishing military rules of the road made competition safer for both sides to avoid inadvertent military conflict.
Yet, at last month’s meeting of Arctic Council foreign ministers, Secretary Antony Blinken rejected out of hand his Russian counterpart’s proposal to revive Arctic military talks. This was a strategic misstep. Russia wants desperately for the West to recognize and respect it as a great power. It also sees its council chairmanship as an opportunity for status recognition and is therefore eager to make its tenure at the helm a great success. President Biden should use Russia’s status recognition concerns to advance U.S. interests in his upcoming meeting with Putin.
A better approach starts from acknowledging Russia has core interests in the Arctic and aims for mutual accommodation. The biggest obstacle to charting a new course will not come from Moscow but the foreign policy establishment in Washington. If President Biden can resist the threat-mongering, he could still achieve competitive coexistence with Russia in the Arctic.
The views expressed in this article represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or of the United States Air Force.