An increased Russian presence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election brought Russo-American relations back into the global spotlight. The dramatic political upset of the election of Donald Trump spurred a renewed interest in Russian foreign policy due to American accusations of Russian interference and misinformation campaigns. Suddenly, years of contrasting geo-political agendas erupted into distrust and aggressive posturing. Combined with a growing global demand for energy and a changing climate, the future of Russo-American relations will be dominated by competition as the world’s focus shifts north.
The election of President Barack Obama brought a new promise of American leadership to renounce the aggressive nation building of his predecessor. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than in the enthusiastic steps toward resetting Russo-American relations, which had become strained in the latter half of the Bush administration. Despite Obama’s efforts to bridge the divide between the two nations, distrust still mars the relationship between the once cordial nations.
Since the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in 2012, Russia has taken on increasingly assertive foreign policy with the goals of: being recognized as a great power, consolidating its sphere of influence, and keeping western states at bay. Therefore, the 2012 Ukrainian coup was perceived, in Russian eyes, as the culmination of Western aggression into Russia’s sphere of influence. Even though previous Russian military action in the 2008 Georgian War had been met with minimal blowback from the West, the annexation of Crimea and subsequent insurgency resulted in severe sectoral sanctions and diplomatic isolation from the U.S. and its allies. Crimea’s annexation under Vladimir Putin marked a turning point of direct opposition against NATO and the United States resulting in Russia openly challenging NATO’s expansion through use of force.
Isolated diplomatically with U.S. sanctions through its actions in Crimea, combined with a recession and a slump in oil prices, Russia’s future is stymied by the actions of the past. However, warming temperatures have the possibility of changing both Russia’s position globally and its relationship with the United States with the probability of exacerbating hostility.
In September 2013, the Nordic Orion set sail from Vancouver and travelled to the Finnish port of Pori as the first commercial bulk carrier through the Northwest Passage. By taking a northern route, the Nordic Orion sailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean carrying 15,000 tons more cargo than would have been possible taking the Panama Canal and saved more than $80,000 in fuel costs. Opportunity opens its door both economically and strategically: Russia’s historical economic and military isolation by the Arctic ice may end.
With the demand for energy increasing worldwide, the opening of shipping routes in the Arctic, when coupled with Russia’s vast reserves of gas and oil, has the potential to reinvigorate Russian economic and political influence globally. This spurred investment initiatives encouraged by the Russian government in an effort to extract energy resources and build infrastructure to bring to market. Russia, with so much more arctic territory compared to the United States, has invested significantly more into its Northern infrastructure. This exacerbates the competitive air between Russia and the U.S, as the United States will have to more aggressively invest and develop its own Arctic territories. Alaska is faced with a situation similar to that of Siberia, where vast resources are relatively undisturbed because of inhospitable terrain and climate—it’s a land brimming with potential.
Melting Arctic ice will open the Arctic Ocean to the possibility of international shipping, and 97% of scientists agree that by 2050, the Arctic will finally see an ice-free year. This entails cheaper shipping and access to vast energy resources that have the potential to disrupt business interests in the United States. Increased attention toward the North threatens well-established energy-focused cities like Houston, which will have to adapt to a decreasing relevance compared to the North. Furthermore, American energy business interests have the potential to directly contradict those of foreign policy interests. For example, Exxon’s infrastructure negotiations with Rosneft, a Russian energy company, were cancelled by sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea.
The economic potential of the Arctic will complicate Russo-American relations because of Russia’s increased influence through access to both cheaper transportation and more energy reserves. On the other hand, American businesses could see potential investments which contradict the relatively tense confrontation between the American and Russian governments today.
However, Russia has invested in military installations in its inhospitable Arctic archipelagos. The value of the shipping routes in the Arctic and Russian interests necessitate protection, justifying Russia’s militarization of the Arctic. Therefore, the United States must confront the reality of competition over the Arctic, lest the U.S. cede influence over a vastly important territory. The thawing of ice has the potential to further freeze Russo-American relations with a new arms race over this increasingly critical territory. Both the United States and Russia will be intertwined in the Arctic, and though this has the potential of cooperation, competition seems to be the more probable outcome.
The past three American presidents have all begun their terms with the goal of a more productive relationship with Russia. However, declining American influence abroad coupled with a more assertive Russian foreign policy and the melting of the Arctic ice sets the stage for Russo-American relations to continue down their dark path of aggressive competition and rivalry. Time benefits the future Russian position, and conflicting American business and policy interests threaten to muddy the waters of a cohesive response. In the near future, though many would wish for a thaw, the reality is a new age of competition spanning the North Pole.