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A Path to Dialogue: The Arctic for EU-Russia Relations

The Arctic presents itself as a special site for the relations between the European Union (EU) and Russia. That is, it is a region where the EU’s foreign policy goals meet directly with Russia’s interests, whether that means climate change leadership, democratic values, energy independence, security, or multilateral governance. In other words, the EU’s Arctic policy cannot be divorced from its relationship with Russia. However, after three decades of deeply intertwined cooperation and tensions, today EU-Russia relations are at an impasse: a situation that currently seems unresolvable. The Arctic and the way in which EU-Russia relations have developed there might hold a clue for the resumption of relations between the two parties after the eventual Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

Although the EU’s geopolitical actorness has been analyzed both in the Arctic and outside of it, there are still important questions that remain on how Russia fits into this foreign policy picture. How does the EU situate Russia in its Arctic policy? How do EU-Russia relations play out in the Arctic, and is there a difference compared to other issues and regions?

EU-Russia relations at an impasse

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU and Russia have had a rocky relationship – moving from periods of hope and optimism, to Russia largely ignoring the EU as an entity and focusing on bilateral relationships instead, to those of competition and rising tensions. While the EU was promoting liberal democratic values and norms to Russia, Moscow was struggling to find its new identity as a former great power by drawing on civilizational narratives and nationalism that, in most cases, did not include space for such values. These unresolved tensions were at the core of this relationship, leading to simultaneous and intertwined cooperation and conflict that has run through the core of their interactions. Over the past three decades, then, EU-Russia relations can be imagined as an ever-tightening and complex knot of tensions, dependencies, and complicated foreign policy moves.

In 2014, the EU adopted a sanctions regime and general freeze in relations with Moscow, while simultaneously pursuing a rhetoric of seeking selective engagement with Russia in areas such as trade, energy, and educational exchanges. After February 2022, however, EU-Russia relations that were already featuring tense dynamics have been brought to an impasse, seemingly impossible to solve.

Can the Arctic offer a way to disentangle this impasse of EU-Russia relations?

The Arctic is a special case for the EU and Russia because it is a site where both meet directly to pursue their interests in the region. Whether those interests include climate change and environmental concerns to shipping routes, Indigenous rights, and geopolitical competition – there is no arena where Russia is not relevant in some way. That is because the Arctic is a region where transboundary threats require cooperation, particularly those related to climate change. This cooperative relationship needs to be underpinned by– at least partially – a shared understanding of problems and challenges.

It seems that the EU recognizes this need to find shared meaning with Russia. Throughout the official EU Arctic documents in the period 2008-2021 produced by the Council, Commission, and the Parliament, the EU has sought cooperation and engagement with Russia that is largely separate from their relations elsewhere, partially related to the circumpolar cooperative spirit that drove regional interactions. While this dynamic has certainly been evolving in the past few years, it is notable that even post-2014, the EU continued to talk about partnership in some shape and form with Russia in the Arctic, at least until 2021. This partnership is not premised by the EU attempting to paint Russia as either a state to democratize or a great evil to deter. Instead, it has taken a realistic middle road, which has historically worked in the Arctic, where both sides have cooperated on several different projects for the past years out of necessity and common interests.

However, this middle road might not be the consensus for all EU Member States. Some do not see the Arctic as an important area to cooperate with Russia, while others see cooperation with Russia as problematic under all circumstances. In short, there are many differences in threat perceptions, historical relations with Russia, and diverse interests among the Member States. This makes it difficult to find a consensus on how to engage with Russia. These differences and approaches will shape how the EU can build a sustainable Arctic policy and relationship with Russia. While these tensions will not necessarily change in the future, recognizing and addressing them may be the first step.

Given the invasion of Ukraine and the deadlock of EU-Russia relations, the Arctic could be a key site for engagement between the two parties. Although there are long term complexities in the Russia-EU relationship in the Arctic, it may be more palatable for Russia to work with the EU as a whole – which already has Arctic Member States – rather than continue to invite increasing Chinese investment and presence. Russia has long been wary of Chinese intentions in the Arctic but in the wake of sanctions, it has been incentivized to cooperate with China on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), LNG extraction, and oil and gas exports due to increasing demand for Russian resources in China. It is not the case that this tense relationship would vanish entirely but rather that it does not serve Russia’s energy or economic security to be ostracized from the rest of the Arctic. If working with the EU provided an opportunity to restart energy deals, technological investment in Arctic shipping, and incentivized shipping through the NSR, then it would certainly be in Russia’s interest to cooperate with the EU in the Arctic. It remains to be seen, however, given that Russia has recently been perceived as an unreliable energy provider, indicating that there may be less European appetite for Russian resources even if the situation stabilizes.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014, and certainly after February 2022, has changed the nature of EU-Russia relations. A return to status quo is not possible, but regardless of what the European political landscape would look like after the eventual Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, one constant remains: governing the Arctic cannot happen without finding a common language among all actors, including the EU and Russia. Thus, the Arctic carries a special potential: it may hold the key for dialogue between the two entities in the post-Ukraine war world.

Source: The Arctic Institute