On 5 April 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, gave a joint statement on the 5th round of sanctions against Russia. Photo: European Commission – Audiovisual Service
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affects many elements of the European Union’s multifaceted Arctic policy. In this brief analysis, we reflect on the key challenges for the EU to pursue its Arctic policy as outlined in the 2021 Joint Communication. The implications go beyond the removal of Russia from key Arctic collaborative frameworks. The economic fallout will affect the EU’s climate goals, energy and mineral imports. Importantly, the increasingly authoritarian characteristics of Putin’s regime may in the long-term prove even more destructive for EU interactions with Russian actors in the Arctic than the war itself. Various EU-supported actions on Arctic data, monitoring or research will become less effective, as half of the circumpolar region becomes excluded. Conversely, the EU’s role could become more prominent within a closer cooperation of Western Arctic states and regions. The changes to its Arctic approach may also come from within the EU, as the Union becomes more geopolitically and strategically aware. In general, we believe that most EU Arctic policy objectives and elements of the 2021 policy statement will remain relevant, as many EU Arctic activities have had limited or no linkage to the cooperation with Russian partners.
Thursday, 24 February 2022 was a turning point in European history. Russia’s attack on Ukraine is not only a terrible, singular event with still unpredictable consequences for the sovereignty of Ukraine. It is also a watershed moment in the European Union’s relationship with its most present and dominant neighbour – the Russian Federation. Over the past three decades this relationship gradually shifted from fostering interdependence to managing vulnerabilities1) – from a cooperative approach built on the idea of creating a mutual security order for Europe towards a new era of allegedly old-school zero-sum thinking (at least from one side).
While we currently focus on the immediate consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, events unfolding in and around Ukraine portend great changes for another region: the Arctic. A region whose multifaceted challenges – old and new – will command re-assessed attention, particularly towards an unpredictable Russian Federation. A part of the world that has also been of interest to the European Union; although one of those spaces now where the EU has to mull over its relationship with Russia.
In light of recent developments, we have re-read the EU’s most recent Arctic policy statement – the Joint Communication on A stronger EU engagement for a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous Arctic,2) issued on 13 October 2021 – and considered plausible trajectories for the Union’s Arctic future in a post 24/2-world. What will the consequences of Ukraine’s invasion be for the European Union’s strategic considerations towards Russia? How will a changed perception of the Russian Federation – as a neighbour, as a partner, as a strategic opponent – impact the Union’s Arctic policy?
A foundational Zeitenwende – in Europe and in the Arctic
Too often, historical turning points are not always recognised as such by contemporaries.3) Yet, from today’s point of view it is hard to imagine that February 24 will not be a Zeitenwende, or at least, an essential moment in time of an already on-going decadal turning point. It might be one of those foundational events that will further bind or drive us apart – depending on what we consider right or wrong, legitimate or illegitimate, rational or unreasoned.
On the one hand, we need to accept that wars of conquest are now considered possible means to pursue one’s own interests in Europe. On the other hand, we might get stuck in an infinite loop of armament, a never-ending reciprocal victim-blaming and, eventually, the renunciation of a once noble idea called pacifism. Moreover, we might – again – overemphasize the Eurocentrism of our own thinking and arguments by being ‘astounded’ at some non-European countries’ ‘ignorance’ to not condemn the Russian Federation for waging war against Ukraine. Eventually, we might also lose sight of the big picture. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not be considered in its singularity but rather as one constituent of intertwined and reinforcing global crises – from global climate change, to the loss of biodiversity, from energy to food and water security, from social injustice to only increasing global inequality.4)
For the European Union, this complex paradigm shift might – again – lead to more integration, more unity, more assertive action. Another existential crisis in a long list of such crises over the past 15-20 years. Most likely this one will only accelerate the Union’s transitional efforts under the European Green Deal and its post-Covid, post-24/2 recovery plans, such as NextGenerationEU or REPowerEU.5) It might also lead to the creation of a new raison d’être – a new notion of EU-ropean legitimacy that goes beyond the initial ‘peace and prosperity’ mission to ultimately protect the strategic geopolitical interests of its Member States and citizens – whether within the context of climate change, energy security or in its relationships with other global powers.6) As such, it might also lead to more strategic and long-term thinking on the very purpose of the Union, both on a supranational and Member State level.7)
However, today’s unity is tomorrow’s discordance as current public EU-ropean consent cannot be taken for granted, especially if the war continues indefinitely, political leadership and thus opinions change or short-/medium-term energy security prevail over long-term climate ambitions. Additionally, the EU must set out to solve its most existential inner conflict, namely what to exactly protect through its emerging geopolitical role. As asked by Floris de Witte, what are the EU’s challenges, objectives, needs and aspirations? What kind of identity is the EU strategically protecting?8)
Put into an Arctic context, one wonders what these paradigm shifts might mean for the European Union’s future Arctic relationship with the Russian Federation and the Union’s Arctic policy objectives as such.
The EU’s Arctic ideas of the pre-24/2 world
The EU’s 2021 Joint Communication outlines an EU Arctic policy composed of a variety of elements,9) many of which will be profoundly affected either by the breakdown of already tensed EU-Russia relations or by the economic and political impact the war is going to have on Europe.
Last October, EU policymakers openly highlighted – for the very first time – the geopolitical changes in the Arctic as an important aspect of the EU’s regional objectives and actions. While the primary focus in this context was on the geopolitical consequences of climate change and the increasing demand on Arctic resources, the relations with the Russian Federation – advancing the remilitarisation of its Arctic regions – and Chinese interests in the Arctic loomed large. Further, the Union placed much emphasis on its commitment to international cooperation in the Arctic, which has always been seen as beneficial to the Arctic environment and peoples living there. Additionally, it has also contributed to maintaining the peaceful character of the region, counterbalancing an ever-recurring narrative of militarization and great power competition. Another important function of the 2021 Joint Communication was the reflection on the Arctic-relevant implications of the European Green Deal (EGD). The EU’s action on climate change had always been the key element of the EU’s Arctic agenda and the latest policy statement highlighted that the EU takes its commitment to mitigating Arctic climate change and environmental degradation seriously.10)
Despite relations that have been tense since 2014, the EU and Russia had been able to continue various forms of cooperation in the North based on the principle of selective engagement. It included not only scientific cooperation, but also people-to-people (businesses, Indigenous peoples) interactions facilitated by the Barents Euro-Arctic cooperation, the Northern Dimension policy or various EU cross-border cooperation programmes. All these EU-Russia interaction frameworks – constituting also important components of the EU’s Arctic policy – are now paused and under threat in the long-term.
However, if the regional cooperation objectives of the EU Arctic policy are to be meaningful, two questions need to be addressed. First, if future cooperation with Russia is possible, in which areas? Second, what are the possibilities for focusing EU Arctic cooperation efforts on the non-Russian Arctic?
What’s left for Arctic selective engagement with Russia?
Already before 24/2, Russia was not particularly willing to engage with the EU on Arctic matters, apart from cross-border cooperation in Northern Europe, research and Arctic observation.11) Current developments suggest that Russia will emerge from the invasion as an even more authoritarian and isolated state (both by the West but also domestically), making cooperation with Russian partners less attractive and riskier, both for Western institutions and for any potential Russian participants themselves. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the main barriers for cooperation with Russia were not international tensions but the crackdown on Russian civil society, independent journalism and stricter political/security scrutiny of the activities of public officials. The deterioration towards increased authoritarianism within Russia may make even small, purely technical projects too difficult and less interesting for both European and Russian institutions. In the long term, it may prove that the hardening of the Russian political regime becomes an even greater challenge for the return to all-circumpolar and cross-border cooperation than international tensions between the West and Russia due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There are some aspects of technical cooperation that are nonetheless likely to be continued, even if operating in a mutual atmosphere of high distrust. For instance, regional fisheries management is based on legally-binding agreements and the lack of continuous cooperation may even lead to future tensions, which concerns Norwegian-Russian relations in particular. Scientific cooperation regarding fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean may be slowly improved, as both the EU and Russia are parties to the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement. More broadly, international processes under a UN umbrella of relevance to the Arctic are likely to continue with both the EU and Russia at the table. These include the negotiations on the agreement on biodiversity in areas beyond jurisdiction or debates within the International Maritime Organization, among others. Generally, treaty-based, legally binding international frameworks can be expected to be less affected by the breakdown in Western-Russian relations. Furthermore, cooperation areas such as Arctic monitoring systems, climate science, or maritime research, may be difficult without Russian partners and access to areas and data on the Russian side of the Arctic. Some activities in the framework of concrete projects or in very technical areas may prove the quickest to resume, although any timelines would currently be speculative.
The possible collapse in cooperative – and especially people-to-people – frameworks is also of particular concern for Arctic Indigenous peoples, who have established strong linkages across national borders, with Inuit, Aleut and Sámi peoples inhabiting both the Western and Russian Arctic. For the Saami, Aleut and Inuit communities, the current breakdown of relations with Russia can mean the return to the minimal level of inter-community contacts before the 1990s. Cooperation with the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) is particularly difficult. RAIPON, similarly to other Russian institutions and organizations, issued a statement supporting the ‘special military operation’12) while dissidents reported that the organization has been co-opted by the Russian government in the years leading up to its Arctic Council chairmanship.13) It is very difficult to see any possibilities for the EU to support Russian Indigenous Peoples and their interactions with other Arctic Indigenous organizations for the time being. The EU has also been active in organizing dialogue with Arctic Indigenous organizations as a part of its Arctic policy; which will likely become more challenging now.
Reflecting on this current status quo, could the EU possibly continue to pursue its broad Arctic policy goals with a particular focus on the non-Russian Arctic only?
Possibilities outside the Russian Arctic?
Some areas of EU Arctic cooperation efforts can continue without Russia. Apart from the cross-border cooperation programmes like Kolarctic, most of the EU’s territorial cooperation programmes in the North do not involve Russian regions as their core areas of activity, including the Interreg Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme (NPA) or Interreg Aurora. Moreover, there has already been hope for greater involvement of North American partners in NPA projects. It is unlikely that these important components of the EU’s presence in the Arctic are affected by the current war in Ukraine. Scientific cooperation across the North Atlantic has been strong, and EU funding has played an important role in facilitating joint activities and networking.
The EU’s relations with North Atlantic partners may further benefit from the renewed notion of western solidarity. The EU has been strengthening its relations with Greenland (where the opening of an EU representation is planned) and Canada (following the provisional implementation of CETA). Relations with Norway – burdened by disputes over fisheries, the status of Svalbard, and challenges related to the implementation of the EEA Agreement – could also be revitalized. However, as the EU’s attention (and resources) shift towards Eastern Europe, the question remains whether Arctic projects and priorities will be matched with sufficient financial and human resources in the months/years ahead. Some actors in Northern Fennoscandia might also argue that stronger developmental and infrastructural investments across the Arctic Europe and the Baltic can contribute to European security overall.
The EU’s Arctic objectives within the post-invasion economic landscape
An important aspect of the geopolitical necessity of a full EU engagement in Arctic matters – to quote the 2021 Joint Communication – is the intensified interest in Arctic resources, from critical minerals in Greenland to proteins in Arctic waters, and the efforts of other global players, notably China but also India, to also secure Arctic supplies. Access to sufficient Arctic resources is considered key for the EU’s envisaged open strategic autonomy – the Union’s desire for more autonomy in the trade and industrial domain14) and the overall quest for geo-economic power.15)
The war in Ukraine has already impacted energy prices all over Europe, risking lasting high prices of oil and gas, and even shortages of the latter during the following winter. For decades, Europeans have been aware that the high dependence on Russian hydrocarbons bears considerable risks, yet either ignored the problem, chose to believe in energy trade with Russia as purely a business question, were too slow and comfortable finding alternatives, or – in a pre-World-War-I context – argued along the economic integration/interdependence leading to peace narrative. In the coming years, the EU will likely experience a desperate search for alternative sources of hydrocarbons, perhaps the revitalization of nuclear power, and even some coal power plants, but consequently a gradual decline in the EU’s dependence on Russian oil, gas and coal.16) Two simultaneous and somewhat contradictory pathways for decreasing dependence on Russia appear to take shape. On the one hand, supporting EU energy transition and its dependence on Arctic hydrocarbons. On the other hand, contributing to the weakening of the Union’s climate policy set up due to high energy prices.
The renewable energy targets set by the EU will now be seen more than before as a way to achieve the EU’s strategic autonomy. While high energy prices can result in climate policy adjustments, this does not necessarily mean that climate objectives – a crucial EU contribution to the state of the Arctic – would be forsaken. If anything, there may be an even greater pressure for renewable developments across the EU and in the European Arctic. As it is in the sphere of climate action where the EU’s influence on the Arctic had been the most visible, the strong push for energy transition triggered by the Russian invasion could serve the EU’s Arctic objectives.
In its 2021 Arctic policy statement, EU policymakers advanced the ‘leaving carbon in the ground’ approach by considering not importing hydrocarbons from newly opened extractive developments. For half of the Arctic – the Russian Arctic – and therefore most of the region’s known hydrocarbon deposits, this goal has now become a de facto reality. It is currently difficult to imagine for the EU to import Arctic natural gas from new sources if the Commission believes that Europeans can stop importing any gas from Russia within a decade. However, those silver linings may be limited. Russian gas – still partly seen as a transitional fuel on the path towards decarbonization – may be replaced by hydrocarbons extracted in other parts of the Arctic, such as the Norwegian Barents Sea.17) High prices of oil and gas – if maintained – may in fact conversely serve as encouragement for exploration and extraction in the Arctic, where operational costs and risk management budgets are considerably higher than in southern latitudes. This may even make some Russian projects more profitable, notwithstanding that their outputs are not exported to the EU but to China or India.
High energy prices can also lead to increased pressures on loosening climate policy actions within the EU. As the impact of the war on the European economy remains unknown, it is impossible to speculate whether the European Green Deal (EGD) will be fully implemented as planned. At the moment, the EGD acts as a critical set of measures affecting the EU’s Arctic environmental footprint18) and has therefore been appropriately showcased in the 2021 Joint Communication. A change in policy direction only appears likely only if high energy prices are sustained for years to come.
Furthermore, the Russian Arctic is an important source of a number of critical minerals, necessary for the transition towards a low-carbon economy. Renewable energy, electrified transport and energy efficiency is expected to drive the demand for these resources. It is at present impossible to evaluate the impact of the war on the EU’s access towards these resources and thus their availability for the European green, renewable and climate efficient industrial developments. Minerals have been rarely mentioned in the context of possible EU-Russian trade restrictions. But limited access could have some negative effects (albeit not comparable to the gas market) on manufacturing related to low-carbon technologies. Many of those critical minerals can be found in other parts of the Arctic. The EU’s 2021 Arctic policy statement already puts access to these resources high on the Union’s Arctic agenda. With more limited access to Russian resources, there might be increased economic and political pressure on many Arctic communities and regions hosting critical mineral deposits to start extractive activities.19)
Any discussion on the future of the EU’s Arctic policy following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the complete breakdown of Russia-West relations is challenging due to a variety of uncertainties. Our brief reflection seems to suggest that economic and energy implications may be in a longer perspective more consequential for the EU’s Arctic engagement than the suspension of Arctic cooperative frameworks. However, it is difficult to define the nature of these consequences as drivers pull EU-Arctic energy interactions towards different directions. Many elements relating to cross-border relations with Russia and Russian actors are likely to experience additional difficulties related to the hardening of the authoritarian regime within Russia. However, we believe that some technical collaboration frameworks will be retained or will be reignited when (if) relations stabilize. This will be particularly the case for cooperation frameworks based on legally-binding agreements. The EU’s role in Arctic cooperation depends largely on when and in what manner various forums and networks are reset, and whether Russia is still there as a partner when that happens.
The Arctic has already been in the midst of reinforcing global crises before 24/2. Russia’s aggressive re-invasion of Ukraine has added yet another layer of tension to the Arctic with still to be determined consequences for what was once hailed as an exceptional region of (technical) cooperation, although the region thus far remains one of the most calm, peaceful and stable – if not as cooperative as before – spaces where Russia and the West interact. The European Union’s future relationship with Russia will not be defined in and over the Arctic. However, it might give regional occasions for the EU to more systematically pursue its extensive climate and energy objectives and thus revitalize the Union’s emerging geopolitical role and identity.
Andreas Raspotnik is currently an Austrian Marshall Plan Fellow at the Wilson Center, Washington DC, Adam Stępień a Researcher at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, Finland and Timo Koivurova a Research Professor at the same Centre.