The relationship between Russia and the west entered crisis mode in March 2014 when Russia formally annexed Crimea and has sinve further declined.
But cooperation remains robust on matters involving the Arctic. An article that appeared in The Polar Connection explains why.
In the Arctic, international law has remained accepted and adhered to, despite disagreements elsewhere.Under United Nations Conventions On The Law Of The Sea each Arctic state has an Exclusive Economic Zone in which it holds sovereignty and is allowed to exploit resources. States looking to expand its zone—which they are allowed to do by up to 150 nautical miles—must apply to the UN. “This,” the article explains, “has become accepted practice in the Arctic for states that are looking to extend their maritime boundaries…” Russia, Norway, and Denmark have each submitted claims and Canada is expected to do so.
Russia signed on to UNCLOS in 1997. In 2001, it submitted a claim to expand its territory on the Siberian shelf. Although not approved, the process “highlighted Russia’s willingness to use the United Nations route to expand its territory using established law.”
Russia once again applied to expand its territory in February 2016. So Russia has proved its commitment to established regional procedures of cooperation and this has been reciprocated by other Arctic nations, including the United States.
Future territorial claims are likely to overlap, and the procedure of for the states involved to negotiate the an agreement themselves. This has been successfully accomplished previously, when Russia and Norway came to an agreement with Norway in 2011 over disputed territory in the Barents Sea. There are also ongoing bilateral discussion between Russia and Denmark over disputed territorial areas.
The Arctic Council has been important in allowing Arctic states to communicate with one another on regional issues and “has been essential in insulating Arctic relations from wider geopolitical disputes.” The council has eight permanent members and 12 observer states. The council has continued to function as a forum for the discussion of Arctic issues even though seven members have levied sanctions against Russia over Crimea.
Despite the discontinuation of military cooperation in the Arctic after Crimea, other levels of security cooperation, such as Coast Guard cooperation, remains. The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, signed in 2011, divided the Arctic and established search-and-rescue responsibilities to each of the states.
Arctic states have also come together to cooperate on marine oil pollution. Russia and Norway, for example, conducted joint exercises in the Varanger Fjord area in 2015. Combatting climate change has also been a focus of regional collaboration.
Russia has plans to bolster its military presence within its Arctic territories but its activities in Syria have taken the focus off a military build-up in the Arctic. At this point the other Arctic states are not terribly worried about potential Russian military designs in the Arctic.
Thus far, the Arctic has managed to survive a deterioration in Russian-Western relations thanks to Russia’s evident commitment to respect international law and procedure in that region. “It is safe to say,” the article concluded, “that Arctic cooperation is based on whether Russia continues to cooperate within the region…”