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Normally, the actions of the Swedish royal family are not the stuff of global politics (nor of this website). And, to be frank, few would consider the announcement this week that Sweden’s princess Victoria would skip her visit to the Sochi Paralympics to be anything but a diplomatic murmur in the din emerging from Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.
The princess, perhaps befitting of her station, was vague about the reason for her decision, citing only “the current” situation. Other Arctic figures, perhaps befitting their decision-making authority, have been more open in their condemnation.
“These actions are a clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, said. “They are also in violation of Russia's obligations under international law.”
But, perhaps befitting Russia’s importance to the Arctic, what the region's leaders are being less open-mouthed about is whether the invasion will have an effect on relations within their neighbor in the east.
Even though the other Arctic states, all members of Nato or the EU or both, have sided against Russia in the conflict in Ukraine, they appear – at least for the time being – to have prevented their disagreements from spreading north.
One reason may be Russia’s military power: like in Crimea, Russia has the military upper hand, and no Arctic power would be able to stand up to it, should it begin flexing its muscle.
More likely though, is the realisation of Russia’s dominance in the region. “They’re just so important,” Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, an Arctic expert with the Danish Institute for International Studies, said. “Without them, you can’t do anything.”
One of the most widely mentioned moves suggested to punish Russia would be to kick it out of the G8 club of major economies. Russia also sits on the Arctic Council, a policy co-ordination group for the region. Officially there has been no suggestion that it should be excluded from the group, but, even if it came to that, throwing them out would be all but impossible, given the organisation’s more formal structure. It would also be undesirable, Rahbek-Clemmensen said.
“These countries have too much of an interest in keeping Russia in. What you have to keep in mind is that there will be a time after Ukraine. In three months the conflict will be forgotten and then it is back to normal.”
While Russia frequently finds itself at odds with the West over things like gay rights, Syria and Iran, in the Arctic the tone has been more conciliatory. Still, being on opposite sides in the Ukraine conflict will have an inevitable impact on Arctic relations, according to Martin Breum, a journalist with Danish public broadcaster DR and author of several books about the region.
“Security is a critically important part of Arctic relations,” he said. “The situation in the Ukraine is a serious crisis and that is going to have an effect on the overall confidence level between the West and Russia.”
Unlike trans-Atlantic relations, multi-lateral Arctic relations have a short history. The Arctic Council only came into existence in 1996, and its permanent secretariat wasn’t established until 2012. Those “nascent relations”, Breum said, were going to be severely tested by the situation in the Ukraine.
“This is likely to show that relations in the Arctic are not as simple as people had been hoping.”
Even though Breum expected the pace of Arctic diplomacy to be slowed because of the situation in Ukraine, Russia’s interests in the Arctic – and its interests in maintaining peaceful relations – were so great that it would most likely work to avoid any long-lasting threats to peace in the region.
“Russia needs the Arctic much more than the US or Canada or even Norway. It needs its oil and it needs the Northern Sea Route and it needs both badly.”