A new, even colder Cold War?

Experts on U.S.-Russia relations say America shouldn’t underestimate global implications of territorial expansions into Arctic regions

The Hon. Kenneth Yalowitz, Matthew Rojansky, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Paul Sum

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., makes a point during a panel discussion about U.S.-Russia geopolitical relations in the Arctic on Friday, March 31 at UND’s Clifford Hall. Heitkamp is flanked by U.S.-Russia experts from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (left) the Hon. Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, and Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. UND Professor of Political Science Paul Sum is seated to the right of Heitkamp. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Some might regard the Cold War as a topic for history books, but if America’s not careful, there could be another even icier threat looming with Russia and the Arctic, experts say.

The Hon. Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia, and fellow expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union, Matthew Rojansky, visited UND on Friday (March 31) as part of a panel discussion on U.S.-Russia relations and the geopolitics of the changing and increasingly important Arctic region. Yalowitz is a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars global fellow and Rojansky is director of the Kennan Institute, which is part of the Wilson Center.

They were joined by U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Professor Paul Sum, chair of the UND Department of Political Science & Public Administration, which hosted the event.

Sum introduced the esteemed panel to a packed room in UND’s Clifford Hall, saying the topic “could not be more timely.”

That’s because of the diplomatic tensions existing between Washington, D.C., and Moscow right now, stemming from alleged Russian tampering in the American election process and the possibility of inappropriate ties between the Trump administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The messy international climate served as a backdrop for a narrower panel discussion on how the two nations might move forward, with others, in the mineral rich and increasingly more navigable Arctic region.

“So far, the Arctic has been an area of peaceful cooperation,” Yalowitz said.

The Hon. Kenneth Yalowtiz

The Hon. Kenneth Yalowitz, a former U.S. ambassador and current fellow at the Wilson Center, said that even though all members of the Arctic Council, including the U.S. and Russia, have committed to cooperate with each other, they are equally committed to defending their national interests.
“It’s important to work together but the question is – is there the political will to do it?,” Yalowitz asked. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Challenges to cooperation

That’s thanks, in part, to a quasi-policy-making body known as the Arctic Council, comprising the eight nations that border the Arctic Ocean: the U.S., Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland.  Each nation controls interests within its exclusive economic zone that extends from its shoreline 200 nautical miles out.

The council has successfully developed agreements on how to handle search and rescue missions and oil spills in the Arctic, and has even worked out a solution to a minor dispute between Norway and Russia.

But this peaceful development of the Arctic has been challenged in recent years by tiffs between Russia and the United States, brought on by Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and subsequent U.S. sanctions against doing business with Russian companies.

Other developments aren’t helping matters either, Yalowitz said. The polar ice cap around Russia and northern Europe is melting quicker than in other parts, providing greater access to minerals and new shipping routes in that part of the Arctic. This has spurred nations, such as Russia, to push for more territorial control beyond its exclusive economic zone.

And because Russia has signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has the ability to make a better case for itself to gain control of this extra territorial shelf. Yalowitz said the U.S. is not part of the compact.

“As long as we are not party to it,” he said, “America does not have a seat at the negotiating table.”

Yalowitz said the imbalance could set off high-stakes territorial disputes in a region where the United States and Russia already have built up their military presences. He said that, even though all members of the Arctic Council have committed to cooperate with each other, they are equally committed to defending their national interests.

“It’s important to work together but the question is – is there the political will to do it?

Kennan Institute panel discussion on U.S.-Russia geopolitical relations in the Arctic

UND President Mark Kennedy opens up a panel discussion on U.S.-Russia geopolitical relations in the Arctic to a packed house at UND’s Clifford Hall on Friday, March 31. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Stronger voice

So how did we get here?

Rojansky said, after 1991 and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Russia eventually began to re-orient itself into an oil and gas superpower with a stranglehold on a significant part of the global energy market. That was fine and good until the onset of fracking and the shale oil revolution in North America.

Rojansky said Russian President Putin was well aware of what was happening in North Dakota’s Bakken Formation and the impact it was having on his ability to wield power in the world. Putin would often take time to explain to others, through detailed drawings, exactly how fracking in shale formations worked, he said.

“What has happened here (in North Dakota) has really changed the global dynamic,” Rojansky said.

This forced Russia to look for yet another way to influence the world. The new approach involved information meddling and other cyber techniques. The U.S. has served as a prime target.

“They’ve exploited one of the greatest weaknesses in America today – our hyper-partisanship,” said Heitkamp, alluding to allegations of Russian influence on the recent national elections. “We left ourselves vulnerable.

“It used to be that our partisanship ended at the water’s edge… we’ve got to get back to that.”

Rojansky said that by exploiting global weaknesses through cyber influences, Russia does not need as big or as expensive a military has it might have had at the height of the Cold War. Still, Russia poses a formidable threat to anyone with one of the largest nuclear arsenals on the planet.

And Russia clearly is building up its resources in the Arctic, though most experts agree that the moves, so far, have been from a defensive posture.

Rojansky said, moving forward, the United States should look to its past as means to thwart any new looming threat by Russia. He said the U.S. effectively used a “problem-solving model” to show the world a better alternative to communism in its quest to bring down the Iron Curtain. That kind of strategy could work just as well if relations become contentious in the Arctic.

He said the U.S. can have a stronger presence in the Arctic if it develops “a stronger voice.”

“We won the Cold War because the West offered something more compelling than what the Russians were offering,” he said. “The Russian model failed because people believed that it had failed.”