Arctic Geopolitics
No. 2 2016 April/June
Deng Beixi

Assistant Researcher with the Division of Polar Strategic Studies at the Polar Research Institute of China.

The Impact of U.S.-Russian Relations on Chinese-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic

In the post-Cold War era the countries bordering the Arctic have not secured a framework security treaty for operations in that extreme northern region. While attempting not to miss the considerable potential economic advantages, the Arctic nations have been careful to maintain a well-functioning cooperation mechanism and ensure favorable conditions for developing and investing in the region. However, the existing mechanism has failed to prevent negative global trends from affecting the region. The sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union on investment and the transfer of technologies to Russian oil and gas companies engaged in mineral prospecting and extraction have created a spirit of rivalry in the Arctic between the East and the West.

An analysis of Arctic geopolitics should include not only regional interstate relations, but also interaction between the region and the adjoining territories, as well as the impact of global geopolitics on this transborder region. A notable peculiarity of Arctic geopolitics is that the side effects of relations between great powers beyond the Arctic are still strong enough to make security in that region heavily dependent on U.S.-Russian relations. In this sense, U.S.-Russian relations remain the dominant factor shaping the geopolitical landscape in the Arctic. The correlation between U.S.-Russian relations in this region and a stronger role played by regional regimes comprise the core of Arctic geopolitics.

This article offers a survey of Arctic geopolitics, governance mechanisms, and a security system from a neo-realist position and provides a brief overview of U.S.-Russian relations in the region in a historical perspective. It is assumed that the easing of U.S.-Russian tensions after the Cold War provided a prerequisite and an impulse for an advantageous governance regime in the Arctic. Indeed, today U.S.-Russian relations make up the core of the geopolitical setup in the region. Finally, the article analyses the impact of current Arctic geopolitics, above all the U.S. factor, on Chinese-Russian cooperation in the Arctic today and in the future.



In the post-Cold War era the development of the Arctic governance regime reflects efforts by the Arctic countries to return to multiparty consultations in a bid to achieve regional peace and stability. This policy concerns the non-conventional nature of security with an emphasis on environmental issues and natural resources. However, the lack of framework accords, legal basis, law-enforcement practice, and mutual commitments puts constraints on the role of governance regime in Arctic geopolitics. From a neo-realist perspective such a regime actually suggests that the great powers seeking to sustain their selfish aspirations will have to share power.

The current regional governance mechanism embodied in the Arctic Council has long been viewed as a non-binding regime, a kind of a forum devoid of mutual legal commitments. Generally speaking, such a regime has little to do with geopolitics as it only regulates spheres of economic development (transport, logistics, infrastructure, etc.), environmental protection, and soft cooperation in security matters such as border control, prevention of radioactive contamination, and relief efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters and emergencies.

This regime has no opportunities or competence to resolve large political and security issues, especially lingering geopolitical rivalries and the lack of trust between the U.S. and Russia, while both countries remain the leading powers in the region. Such rivalry constantly endangers peace and stability in the Arctic. Regional cooperation is also impeded by U.S.-Russia competition in security matters, which cannot be eliminated by reinforcing the current Arctic cooperation regime.

In a way, the existing international regime in the Arctic and its agenda can be viewed as a product of evolving U.S.-Russian relations after the Cold War. As the only remaining superpower in the world, the U.S. has stopped considering the Arctic a foreign policy priority or headache in terms of national defense. The strategic significance of the Arctic for the U.S. has been gradually decreasing. Meanwhile, Russia’s main problem has been the consequences of NATO and EU enlargement to Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, which remain Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Russia, therefore, can hardly be a serious threat to the U.S. in the Arctic as was the case during the Cold War.

Consequently, after mutual threats and the deterrence regime eased off, both countries agreed to create stable geopolitical conditions in the Arctic for effective cooperation and to stop confrontation and the arms race. Taking security issues off the Arctic agenda is also in line with the two countries’ plans. From the very beginning, the U.S. refrained from including security and big politics issues in the Arctic Council’ agenda. For Russia, the Arctic Ocean has become a new vector of strategic development, especially in view of global warming. Russia is also interested in keeping the geopolitical advantages secured by its powerful Northern Fleet and preventing a reduction of its combat capability in a new agreement on security or arms control. The role Russia and the U.S. play in the Arctic reflects the fact that the key actors have the final say in establishing some kind of regime in the region, the rules of its functioning, and its agenda.



In retrospect, significant changes in U.S.-Russian relations have influenced the geopolitical situation in the Arctic region.

After the first Russian settlements sprang up in Alaska in the 18th century, the territory was annexed and placed under Russian jurisdiction. Situated in the far northwest of North America with a small population and harsh climate, Alaska was not economically profitable for Russia. In fact, the Imperial Treasury had to finance a military garrison deployed in the territory. By the middle of the 19th century, Russia, bogged down in the Crimean War, began to worry about the possible loss of Alaska, especially in the face of the rapid colonization of British Columbia by the United Kingdom. In 1867, Russia sold the Alaska territory to the U.S. This transaction made the U.S. an Arctic littoral state and laid the groundwork for its future development as a naval power and participant in Arctic affairs.

When the Civil War broke out in Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the United States, together with its European partners, launched the Archangel campaign by deploying troops near Murmansk in 1918. Subsequently, military intervention began to support the White Guard that had entrenched itself in northern Russia in the fight against the new Soviet power. Having withstood this military intervention, the Soviets realized that the Arctic Ocean, which had long been regarded as reliable safeguard for national defense, could be as vulnerable as other areas. These considerations made the Northern Fleet the most powerful branch of the Russian Navy in terms of size and capability.

During World War II, the United States and Russia were allies in the anti-Nazi coalition. In addition to opening the Western Front, the allies used the advantages of the Northern Sea Route to deliver strategic materials and military equipment (fuel and lubricants, ammunition and armored vehicles) to northern ports of the Soviet Union. The Arctic water routes running a sufficient distance from the main battlefields proved to be effective and relatively safe for military convoys and wartime logistics.

However, as political and military tensions arose between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War, the Artic, which accommodated key industrial enterprises that provided nuclear deterrence, took a strategic place in the confrontation between the two military blocs. Both powers deployed excessive capacities, ballistic missiles with nuclear strike capability, and strategic deterrence systems, including missile defense and early warning systems.

From the mid-18th century through the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Russia/Soviet relations in the Arctic alternated between confrontation and cooperation, as the table below illustrates. Until the end of the Cold War, U.S.-Russian relations in the Far North were a simplified projection of U.S.-Russia/Soviet relations in the world arena. When those two countries confronted mutual external enemies, the Arctic served their common interests or was used as a shortcut for logistics or delivery of aid. But if the two countries competed in the region or globally, the role of the Arctic increased as it became a bridgehead for military intervention or strategic deterrence.


Table 1. U.S.-Russian relations and their consequences for Arctic politics


State of bilateral relations

Impact on the Arctic region

Factors for tension



Russia sells Alaska to the U.S.

Great Britain is a mutual opponent



  1. troops land in the White Sea; military intervention during the Civil War in Soviet Russia
  1. resistance to the rising communist regime



Shipment of military and humanitarian cargoes by the Northern Sea Route to support the Soviet Union in fighting Hitler coalition countries

World War II allies



The Arctic as a strategic frontier for deployment of army units and nuclear deterrence facilities

Rivalry for world hegemony during the Cold War



Cooperation in the Arctic beyond the big politics sphere; parties have failed to get rid of Cold War legacy

A thaw in relations


As Soviet power waned in the last years of the Cold War, the country attempted to move away from confrontation and step up socio-economic development in the North. This prompted the Soviet Union to signal its readiness for detente. In 1987, the then Secretary General of the Communist Party Central Committee Mikhail Gorbachev suggested at a speech in Murmansk six proposals aimed at reducing the level of military confrontation in the Arctic and its demilitarization. Two of the six proposals called for establishing a regional security regime.

One proposal envisioned setting up a nuclear-free zone in the north of Europe and that the Soviet Union’s unilaterally dismantle a large number of missile launchers and nuclear facilities in northern military areas. Another proposal concerned restrictions on Russian Navy moves in the Arctic Ocean and littoral seas in order to stimulate confidence-building measures. Other proposals included cooperation and coordination in such important areas as mineral extraction in the Arctic, research, environmental protection, and commercial development of the Northern Sea Route. The Murmansk speech initiatives showed the Soviet Union’s readiness to contribute to the Arctic’s transformation from a region of confrontation to a region of cooperation. In response to these initiatives, the U.S. embarked on the path of cooperation in research and bilateral exchanges with the Soviet Union.

Subsequent talks on the sea border between the U.S. and Russia in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea became an even more obvious signal heralding the beginning of a new stage in bilateral Arctic relations. The parties coordinated and signed a new agreement in Washington D.C. on June 1, 1990 (the U.S. Senate ratified this agreement in September 1991, but the Russian State Duma has not yet approved this document). However, effective Russian legislation and official documents on the Northern Sea Route navigation point to the need “to limit the Northern Sea Route area in the east by a demarcation line with the U.S.” An example of this are amendments to Russian legislation on state regulation of commercial navigation in the Northern Sea Route area that were made public in July 2012. This thesis can be interpreted as Russia’s tacit acknowledgement of the sea border agreement.

In the post-Cold War era when tensions in U.S.-Russian relations eased and the strategic significance of the Arctic in terms of a stand-off between the navies and nuclear deterrence began to decrease, the U.S. and Russia began a period of cooperation. This helped to create the groundwork for developing regional cooperation and establishing institutional governance in the Arctic. Both countries have reached a consensus that creating favorable conditions for effective cooperation in issues of the Arctic agenda meets mutual interests despite different motivations. For Russia, peace and stability in the Arctic is a prerequisite for gaining markets, capital, technologies, and strategic development in the region, which is vital for its economic revival. For the U.S, the Arctic, free of conflicts and defense overspending, enables the country to scale back its global strategy and focus on the Asian-Pacific region. It should be noted that whereas the development of the Arctic is a top priority for Russia, the U.S. needs the Arctic only for the regional development of Alaska. This difference in economic potentials predetermines a relative imbalance of bilateral relations in the Arctic. Russia, in particular its economy, needs the U.S. in the Arctic more than the U.S. needs Russia, as the latter wants mineral deposits, technology, financing, etc. Apparently these differences will continue to impact U.S.-Russian relations in the Arctic.



Despite the growing importance of the Arctic in the global political arena, the region has had a limited impact on global geopolitics and is subject to outside influences. Notably, the Ukrainian crisis can serve as a good example. As the crisis dragged on and further escalated, Russian-U.S. tensions in the international arena began to exert a certain side effect on the Arctic. Eventually, these dynamics started influencing the economics of the Arctic region, the development of mineral deposits, research, and search and rescue operations.

For example, the U.S. cancelled joint search and rescue training operations by the Coastguard Service. The updated list of U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia mentions the economically significant energy sector as Western countries refused to transfer to Russia technology for deep-water drilling, prospecting for oil fields in the Arctic, and shale oil extraction. They also put restrictions on investment and financing oil and energy projects. Also, Western energy giants withdrew from the projects to develop Russia’s Arctic offshore zone.

Tensions in U.S.-Russian relations generated concerns about stability and security in the Arctic as littoral states began to revise their security and defense programs, planning to modernize and enhance their capabilities in the region. Game changing views were foremost voiced by the Scandinavian countries sandwiched between the U.S. and Russia. They are not homogenous in terms of size and power compared with the key players of the region. Iceland’s leaders publicly voiced their concern about the possibility of Russia’s tough position on Crimea affecting the Arctic. Norway urged NATO to safeguard the Arctic and ensure a military presence in the Far North with a view to ensuring practical deterrence of Russia. Sweden and Finland are not sure if they should keep their neutrality as non-aligned states. They, too, might resort to assisting NATO as a collective security guarantor. This is how a relatively stable political situation favorable for regional cooperation and prosperity was ruined by geopolitical changes.

Interstate relations of cooperation or conflict in the Arctic reflect, to a certain extent, U.S.-Russian relations in the global arena. However, the institutional mechanisms of cooperation in the Arctic created after the end of the Cold War have gradually begun to function as a “buffer” or “safety system” for the Arctic, protecting it from the influence of external factors. These mechanisms include the Arctic Council, the only multilateral regime of regional governance that embraces all Arctic states, as well as sub-regional groups such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Scandinavian Council, the Northern Forum, and the Northern Dimension. In addition, there are several bilateral or multilateral treaties and agreements that provide for practical activities in the Arctic: in search and rescue operations, fisheries management, and prevention of marine oil pollution.

These mechanisms are capable of, above all, smoothing out the impact of U.S.-Russian tensions on Arctic cooperation and serve as a reminder to the two countries that they should participate in settling pressing issues only as regional players. A number of agreements on establishing developing mechanisms to manage Arctic problems facilitate dialogue on security issues. They also help to reach the consensus that regional peace and stability benefit all and to limit the side effects of global geopolitical tensions on the Arctic region. In other words, the Arctic should not be involved in big politics and remain an area of cooperation, not a field for confrontation.

Another purpose of this peculiar protective wall is to keep regional powers from reckless moves and encourage them to restrain from getting involved in war games in the Arctic region. For the U.S., which has no plans to spend much money on defense and security in the Arctic, NATO’s intervention in the issues of Arctic security in the name of territorial defense or readiness to implement contingency plans in case of military scenarios (for example, as a response to events in Ukraine) is seen as a less expensive and feasible option.

However, this will inevitably lead to confrontation between the East and the West in the spirit of the Cold War. The possibility of Sweden or Finland joining NATO will also upset the regional balance of power. Russia will be compelled to take countermeasures and there is a risk that the United State will not want to put up with it. As for NATO interference in Arctic affairs, Russia and NATO member Canada have disagreed with the North Atlantic Alliance over this prospect, with Canada arguing that the Arctic can be governed independently by the Arctic states and that its problems should be settled within the framework of the Arctic Council and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea without NATO’s involvement.

Finally, as the Arctic’s strategic significance in the world increases, the geopolitical changes beyond the Arctic region, such as the Ukrainian crisis, will begin to indirectly impact the region. Taking into account regional governance mechanisms, negotiated consensus and cooperation, as well as the growing independence and exclusiveness of regional development, U.S.-Russian relations in the Arctic are no longer a simplified reflection of their relations on the global stage. The structural interstate conflict and inherent rivalry limit comprehensive cooperation between these two countries in the Arctic.

However, both parties are well aware that a stable Arctic free of military conflicts would create favorable conditions for Russia to implement a mining strategy and operate the Northern Sea Route as its economy recovers. Stability in the Arctic could also help the United States realize its strategy to shift the focus onto the Asian-Pacific region, because in that case it will not have to invest too much money in the Arctic. Consequently, it would be practical for the U.S. and Russia to avoid direct confrontation and exercise moderate restraint.

As mentioned above, the structure of geopolitical development in the Arctic could be generalized as interaction between two factors: U.S.-Russian relations in the Artic as the key geopolitical factor, and Arctic governance mechanisms. The latter’s role keeps increasing, as Fig.1 shows.


 Fig 1. Structure of Arctic geopolitics

From the historical perspective, easing tensions in U.S.-Soviet relations by the end of the Cold War played, on the one hand, a decisive role in establishing regional governance mechanisms in the Arctic, such as the Arctic Council and other sub-regional groups.

As the course towards multilateral cooperation/regime and cooperation mechanisms was adopted in international relations after the end of the Cold War, regional governance gradually became the key approach to problem solving in the Arctic. This is evidenced by the evolution of the Arctic Council, which turned from a regional cooperation forum into a regional organization. Initially, it was a multilateral treaty on the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). The recent adoption of legally binding treaties in such civil areas as search and rescue on the sea and the readiness to respond to emergencies caused by oil spills into the sea have strengthened the role of the Arctic Council as a regional governance body. However, the existing interaction mechanisms are not related to ensuring security in the Arctic while the Cold War legacy of the old U.S.-Russian rivalry still survives to an extent.

 Mistrust in relations between the two countries cannot be resolved through institutional agreements. Meanwhile, bilateral disputes in the region remain a painful problem, such as arguments over delimitation between sovereign and maritime law, jurisdiction over outer continental shelves, and disagreements over the legal status of Arctic sea routes between Russia, Canada, and other potential users. Therefore, in the foreseeable future the regimes of multilateral management of regional affairs cannot fully replace bilateral relations, and U.S.-Russian relations in the Arctic will remain a major factor in the region’s geopolitics.

On the other hand, the institutionalization of Arctic governance and the adoption of legally binding agreements would serve as a protective wall against global geopolitical changes, such as U.S.-Russian tensions emerging outside of the region. It is a guarantee that tensions in other regions will not impact the North. At the same time, such institutionalization makes it easier to cooperate in legal matters and in civil security within the regional framework. For example, parties could coordinate their search and rescue operations, oil spill clean-up activities on the sea, and emergency response.

Consistent efforts to strengthen the sub-regional legal groundwork and treaties, especially with Russia’s participation, such as the Barents Euro-Arctic Council, the Scandinavian Council and the Northern Dimension, as well as cooperation between the indigenous peoples of the North, implies stronger inter-dependence and interstate ties. This is why a sudden worsening of relations between Arctic neighbors would have a heavy toll on all conflicting parties. Thus, this is a temporary guarantee that the current status quo, i.e. relative stability, will hold.



As the crisis broke out in Ukraine and Western sanctions began to inflict economic damage to Russia’s energy sector, a natural question arose: At the current stage of development, should Russia, which needs financial support and potential clients and consumers of Arctic resources, turn to China as a long-term cooperation partner?

Russia has always viewed the Arctic as crucial, both for its economic development and national security. Its main tasks in the region are to ensure the strategic depth of national defense, strategic physical and energy infrastructure, and to create a northern transport system. Eyeing foreign markets, capital, and technology, Russia would keep the options open to satisfy its need for developing the Arctic. To avoid security and environmental risks, Russia’s ideal partner should have a large market potential, state-of-the-art technology, and considerable capital.

As the Ukrainian crisis escalated, not only other Arctic states but also some players outside of the region interested in the development of the Arctic’s energy resources (for example, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Japan) introduced sanctions and suspended current projects. In view of these circumstances, it is becoming increasingly important for Russia to find a powerful political ally free from U.S. influence. Consequently, China would be the most suitable partner for Russia’s development activities in the Arctic, especially since all the necessary prerequisites are in place for the development of cooperation between these two states in the Arctic.


Fig 2. Structure of Russia’s partnership relations in the Arctic

Russia and China complement each other in Arctic geo-economics. The vast expanses of Russia’s Far North are rich in minerals and fuels, yet they lack infrastructure, investment, and a labor force. Whereas China has a large demand for the diversification of fuel and mineral imports, Russia has a stronger political will, motivation, and resolve to develop Arctic oil and gas fields than any other Arctic state, and can become an ideal partner for China. China, too, plans to decrease its excessive dependence on the Strait of Malacca and is plotting new transport routes to secure the import of natural resources.

These factors increase the significance of the Northern Sea Route. Meanwhile, the distance between China’s northernmost Mohe County and Russia’s resource-rich Sakha Republic is approximately 500 kilometers. This geographical proximity enables the two states to develop close cooperation in the regions south of the Arctic Ocean (for example, the Chayanda-Yakutsk energy projects), which could extend to the Arctic over a long-term period. Some projects related to the Arctic are now at the stage of implementation. In 2013, Rosneft and China National Petroleum Corporation signed an agreement on a joint gas project to build gas pipelines from the Sakha Republic and Irkutsk Region to China’s northeastern provinces. In 2014, Yamal-LNG signed a binding treaty with CNPC (which holds a 20 percent stake in the Russian company) on supplying liquefied natural gas to China for twenty years. In addition, China’s shipping company COSCO made trial shipments along the Northern Sea Route in 2013 and 2015. As a result, fuel use and travel time have induced COSCO to work on a feasibility study of possible cargo shipment services.

Cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic has been pacing at an increasingly faster rate in the recent years and will inevitably grow in the future. It remains to be seen, however, how exactly these plans will materialize. Some factors might interfere with cooperation, such as Russia’s firm stance on the leading role of littoral Arctic states in the development of the Arctic region; China’s expertise in the development of the offshore zone which Russia lacks; and falling oil prices and a global economic recession impacting the prospects and profitability of mining minerals in the Arctic. To further step up and intensify cooperation in the Arctic, it is necessary to coordinate China’s and Russia’s policies at the state level and include the Arctic in the bilateral agenda, presented in Table 2 below.


Table 2. Political coordination of Russian-Chinese cooperation in the Arctic



National strategy

One way – one belt

Trans-Eurasian belt development

Regional development strategy

Revival of industrial base in northeastern provinces

Development in Eastern Siberia /the Far East

Energy strategy

Diversification of fuel supplies

Strategic relocation of technical raw materials base to the North and the East

In addition to Chinese-Russian cooperation in the Arctic region serving the interests of the two countries, the U.S. factor also contributes to stepping up this cooperation. The cumulative effect of the U.S.-Russian political rivalry as a consequence of the Ukrainian crisis and U.S. diplomacy shifting the focus to the Asian-Pacific region, i.e. towards China, increasingly strengthens the comprehensive Chinese-Russian partnership. In September 2015, five Chinese warships conducted a joint drill with the Russian Navy off Tanaga Island in the Aleutian archipelago in a move that was in line with international law.

Most likely, this drill was China’s reaction to U.S. provocations that violated stability in the South China Sea and was not a reflection of China’s strategic or military ambitions in the Arctic, as Western analysts tried to assert. China is not striving towards a revision of the existing Arctic order or projecting its military power to the Arctic. Incidentally, China is least interested in building up its military potential in the Arctic, but not only because of the logic of mutual nuclear deterrence with which China has always reckoned. A stable and peaceful Arctic is in China’s interests, as it is primarily focused on the use of the Northern Sea Route in the future diversification of fuel shipments and other economic opportunities. Cooperation between China and Russia in the Arctic does not envision a military build-up in the region; rather it guarantees mutual benefits from neutralizing U.S. influence and reanimating Arctic economic activity, which slumped after the Ukrainian crisis.