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Research Questions

  1. What factors have contributed to maintaining the Arctic as an area of cooperation, even when tensions among Arctic states were rising in Ukraine, the Baltics, and the Middle East?
  2. Can these factors sustain cooperation in the face of further dramatic changes that will likely take place in the Arctic?
  3. If cooperation is threatened by these changes, how might U.S. policy help mitigate the effects of these factors and contain tensions?

Despite this being a period of generally heightened tensions between Russia and the West, cooperation on Arctic affairs has remained largely intact, with the exception of direct military-to-military cooperation in the region. This report examines potential transformations that could alter Russia's current cooperative stance there. It analyzes four current security challenges in the Arctic: increased maritime access because of climate change; increased interest in Arctic resources; upcoming decisions on claims set forward by several Arctic states regarding the limits of their continental shelf; and Russia's perception of a threat from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Arctic. This report suggests some ways in which these could undermine Arctic cooperation. It concludes with recommendations for the U.S. government to manage the risks to cooperation posed by these various factors. These include maintenance of, and investment in, Arctic infrastructure and capabilities; establishing a forum for the discussion of Arctic security as well as other confidence-building activities; careful development of the role of NATO in the Arctic; and further affirming U.S. commitment to the international norms relevant to the Arctic, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Key Findings

Russia's current militarization of its Arctic region does not, in itself, suggest increased potential for conflict, with the exception of accidental escalation.

  • Russia is still a long way from reestablishing Cold War levels of military presence in the Arctic.
  • Russia appears unlikely to use Arctic-based assets effectively elsewhere — for instance, in the Baltics.

Russia's cooperative stance in the Arctic cannot be taken for granted.

  • Russia's mix of cooperative and assertive rhetoric on the Arctic makes its intentions difficult to read.
  • While destabilizing the region would limit Russia's potential to benefit from its Arctic resources, economic factors will not necessarily steer Russia toward cooperation in the future.

Sea ice decline projections suggest Russia will likely continue to militarize the Arctic, if only to protect its strategic assets and infrastructure in the region.

  • Russia's northern shore will be more exposed, increasing its perceived vulnerability to potential attacks — particularly if continued intense seasonal access changes draw substantial foreign presence along and around this seaway.
  • Increased maritime access overall will reduce Russia's ability to control Arctic shipping lanes or block them in the event of a conflict.

While Russia has mostly benefited from UNCLOS in the past, there would be nothing to stop it from ignoring or distorting Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) recommendations if it judged such recommendations contrary to its interests.

  • Upcoming decisions on claims set forward by several Arctic states regarding the limits of their continental shelf could upset the current order, should those decisions not support Russia's claims.
  • Alternatively, Russia might receive a positive decision but then overreach by interdicting or limiting the transit of international vessels over its continental shelf.

Yet overall, the CLCS decision itself bears little risk of conflict, at least in the short term.

  • The rights it would recognize would not lead to actual resource exploitation for years, possibly decades.
  • Russia contesting a decision might open a "Pandora's box" whereby third parties could contest other decisions, some of them to Russia's advantage.

Russia would likely feel threatened by an expansion of NATO's role in the Arctic.

  • Russia could perceive itself as being under military threat in the Arctic if NATO decides to extend its presence in the region.
  • The Kremlin has also shown consistent hostility to increased support for NATO in Sweden and Finland.

Recommendations

  • The fact that Russia's behavior in the Arctic could change from cooperative to conflictual and is difficult to foresee warrants close U.S. attention to the region and careful observation of developments in the Arctic. Monitoring of the region requires encouraging improvements in Arctic region domain awareness and access.
  • Russia's unpredictability suggests that special care should be taken to avoid accidental escalation of small-scale incidents. This can be done through supporting activities that bring the United States and Russia together on Arctic issues.
  • The United States and other Arctic nations would benefit from a forum dedicated to Arctic security issues — an initiative that could promote coordination, facilitate information-sharing, reduce uncertainty, and possibly help limit the potential for unintended escalation of tensions. One way to include Russia in Arctic security conversations could be to leverage existing international conferences, such as that run by the Arctic Circle Assembly, where participation can be ad hoc and security is already an item of discussion.
  • A balance is needed between ensuring that NATO has some capability and experience to support Arctic operations without establishing a presence in the region that would create tensions between Arctic nations, and particularly with Russia. This includes supporting measures designed to strengthen NATO's ability to conduct operations in cold-weather conditions, pursue efforts to adapt NATO to the new threat environment, and improve sharing processes for intelligence assessments.
  • The United States would be in a better position to pressure Russia to abide by its commitment to UNCLOS if it were an UNCLOS signatory itself.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Russia's Arctic Strategy: Military Buildup and Political Cooperation

  • Chapter Three

    An Examination of Upcoming Transformations in the Arctic

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusion and Policy Implications

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD) of the RAND Corporation.

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