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Conflicting Values in the Arctic: Examining Russian-Canadian Tensions through Election Interference

As U.S. policymakers continue to debate whether or not the Kremlin had a hand in the results of the 2016 presidential election, Moscow may be looking further north. A forthcoming study from the University of Calgary predicts that Russian intelligence services may be interfering in the Canadian federal elections scheduled to take place at the end of October, 2019.

The sun rises over Ice Camp Sargo on the Arctic Circle, March 15, during Ice Exercise 2016. U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Edward Eagerton/released. Image made available under CC BY 2.0.

Russian-Canadian relations have borne numerous tensions in recent years, including Ottawa’s stance on Ukraine and its expulsion of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of the former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia. However, the study’s author, Dr. Sergey Sukhankin concluded that Russia’s primary concern in the Canadian elections has to do with the Arctic. As the international community comes to see the Arctic as an increasingly strategic region, Russia views Canada as its primary threat for strategic control owing to its international political clout and its territorial dominance of the Arctic.

It is generally accepted that Russian bots attempted to sway public opinion in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by using fake social media pages to support Donald Trump’s campaign. Moscow seems to have taken a different tactic in the Canadian elections, with disinformation campaigns instead directed at Russian audiences. Kremlin-supported hacktivists are reportedly engaged in a disinformation campaign to portray Canada as Russophobic and unduly influenced by the U.S., arguing that Ottawa’s support for same-sex marriage and cannabis legalization reveal the “ugly side of democracy and liberalism.” With such sweeping condemnations of Canada’s liberal policies this Russian campaign could be seen as an attack on any number of foreign policy initiatives, not the least of which is Ukraine, a years-long sore spot between Moscow and Ottawa. It is therefore necessary to examine further Russian-Canadian relations on Arctic issues specifically.

There is no broad consensus as to which countries should have a stake in polar affairs. The most selective club of countries is the “High Arctic,” those with territory above the Arctic Circle, including Russia, Canada, the United States (by virtue of Alaska), Iceland, Denmark (by virtue of Greenland), Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Widening the designation to the “Low Arctic” (hovering around 60˚ N latitude) does not change the countries included, but does give Russia and Canada a larger proportion of the included territory. Recently China has designated itself as a “near-Arctic” country. Arguing that the Arctic is a global resource, Beijing believes it should have a voice in Arctic affairs because China hosts the majority of the world’s population. Perhaps the most widely-accepted definition of Arctic power is encompassed by the Arctic Council, a non-binding, cooperative forum founded in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration. The Council enfranchised the eight Arctic states as permanent members with a rotating chairmanship, but also offers observer status for indigenous organizations and non-Arctic states such as China.

The eight members of the Arctic Council have an equal voice in institutional agreements, with no allowances made for the size of Arctic territory. In common dialogue, however, Russia and Canada clearly dominate. With such larger tracts of territory in the High or Low Arctic, these two states have made Arctic issues a central part of their domestic and foreign policy strategies. Nevertheless, with the Arctic Council widely seen as the preeminent voice in Arctic affairs it is easy to see how Russia may feel outflanked.

Internationally much has been made of Russia’s ‘militarization’ of the Arctic. While Moscow has taken steps to revitalize Soviet-era military bases in the far North it is generally accepted that this action is part of an international effort towards shoring up emergency response in the region. As growing numbers of scientific teams and even tourists travel to the Arctic it is critical to have resources close by to assist ice-bound ships, respond to oil spills, and offer medical assistance. Russia’s primary interest in the Arctic region is not warmongering but economic opportunity.

Since 2016 Russia has developed Arctic oil and gas infrastructure in earnest, offering tax benefits to industries willing to invest in a region riddled with technological challenges. These efforts leave Moscow as part of a very small club. Until early 2019 Russia was the only Arctic country that drilled for oil and gas in offshore Arctic ice. While President Donald Trump authorized drilling in Alaska this March, that order is still facing legal challenges in U.S. courts. European Arctic states have refrained from natural resource extraction in their far North regions—except in ice-free territory, where drilling poses little ecological threat —in line with a campaign led by Canada who deemed Arctic drilling “an unacceptable risk.”

Environmental conservation is a key tenant of the Arctic Council’s work, and although Russia has signed on to institutional efforts at environmental sustainability, natural resources clearly remain Moscow’s top priority. With at least six other Arctic Council members actively prioritizing environmental issues and with China⁠—Russia’s biggest ally in the body denied voting power⁠—Moscow likely fears that allowing Canada to continue as a leading voice on Arctic issues risks undermining a large sector of Russia’s economy. Given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s legacy of environmental policy in the Arctic, the Kremlin seems to be making a bogeyman out of Canada’s Liberal Party, perpetuating attacks against the progressive policies espoused by the party.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper⁠—Mr. Trudeau’s predecessor—made an excellent foil to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Arctic issues. In his famous “use it or lose it” approach he fiercely guarded Canadian interests in the far North, pushing to resolve territorial disputes with Russia and shoring up military assets to “assert Canada’s authority, independence, and sovereignty.” Prime Minister Harper did not see much of his rhetoric through to action, but he set Canada’s tone on the Arctic for ten years. Prime Minister Trudeau has distanced himself from his predecessor and political opponent. His approach to Arctic issues is built on consensus, and his government has prided itself on working closely with the Arctic Council and with then-president Barack Obama. Trudeau seems to have entirely disregarded military concerns in the region to focus attention on climate and indigenous peoples issues. While Harper’s “use it or lose it” policy may have posed a military threat to Russia, Trudeau’s liberal institutionalist approach represents a much more fundamental risk, threatening to undermine Russia’s economic investments in the Arctic.

When asked why Kremlin hacktivist campaigns were aimed at Russian nationals rather than Canadian voters, Dr. Sukhankin posited that because Canadian society is less divided on key issues it is less susceptible to disinformation campaigns than countries like the United States. Bearing that in mind, it is more important than ever for the Arctic Council to draw on its history of consensus-based actions, engaging Russia on the crucial issue of Arctic economic development and seeking out mutually beneficial solutions. Only through dialogue can Russia be persuaded to end its damaging meddling in foreign elections.

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Kathryn Urban

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