Canada and Russia’s Arctic path to reconciliation

Canada and Russia’s Arctic path to reconciliation

Much attention has been paid to Moscow’s interest in developing the emerging Northern Sea Route that runs the length of the Russian Arctic coast. However, Russia can also benefit from the development of the lesser-known Arctic Bridge Route (ABR), where it finds an unlikely partner: Canada.

Russia-Canada relations have been far from cordial since the 2014 Crimean Invasion, and with tensions escalating over the past year, the bad blood has spilled over into a shared domain of increasing importance: the Arctic.

As the two largest and most powerful states in the region, Russia and Canada have grown critical of the strategies each has employed to protect their military and economic interests. However, with Arctic seas opening up for more frequent travel, a little-known passage known as the Arctic Bridge Route may serve as a reconciliatory project for the two Arctic powers.

The ABR is an underutilized seasonal maritime passage that runs between the Russian port of Murmansk and the Canadian port of Churchill, Manitoba. The route is presently only open for four months a year, but will continue to become available more widely throughout the year as climate change shortens the duration of ice periods.

Currently, shipments from Murmansk to Canada via the “well-worn route through the St. Lawrence Seaway and Great Lakes… to Ontario” takes an average of 17 days.

In comparison, a maritime voyage from Murmansk to Churchill via the Arctic Bridge is only 8 days long in good conditions, and from there shipments can be quickly dispersed through rail links throughout Eurasia and North America respectively.

It is with this ease of access that the ABR becomes truly an unignorable asset. For Russia and Canada alike, a developed ABR would represent unparalleled trade accessibility to highly important markets. Russia would gain access to North America, while Canada would secure a firm linkage to Eurasia — opportunities that will become increasingly difficult to pass up as the ice continues to thaw.

Shared interests achieved through the ABR

Looking past the existing sanctions levied against Moscow, Canada and Russia have a great interest in increasing trade through the ABR.

For one, the route would fuel growth and positive momentum in two economies which are presently performing below expectations. In addition to the obvious gains of trade, both countries would benefit from the more developed Arctic economies that would naturally follow an increase in activity along their respective Arctic shores.

Such developments would raise standards of living for isolated regions with little other means to develop.

Furthermore, the ABR would open up each country as gateways for their broader continents. Russia would gain significant prestige as a gateway for the entire Eurasian continent — including the export-led economies of Asia — while Canada could serve as the beachhead for American and Mexican goods into Eurasia.

The route would also serve the military interests of both nations. Development of the ABR would be synonymous with the development of Canadian and Russian Arctic infrastructure, the navigational and hydrographic support integral to increased military operations.

This would justify a greater military presence — something both nations have sought in order to protect their increasingly valuable territory — while also ensuring bilateral cooperation.

Underlying each of these joint interests is the simple shared benefit provided by a rekindling of more amicable relations.

The Arctic Bridge is one of the only foreseeable realms actually alluring enough to warm Russia-Canadian relations in the near future; a collaborative effort to develop the ABR would serve the dual purpose of stabilizing present relations and laying the foundation for less Arctic tension in the years to come.

Prospects for development

In 2011, the Canadian and Russian foreign ministries began discussing more seriously the prospect of the Arctic Bridge Route.

However, these discussions have since appeared to have tapered off – with virtually no media reports put forth after the initial 2011 announcement – and have now likely been put on hold given the ongoing bilateral tensions.

Beyond these existing sources of attrition, the most pressing roadblock against moving forward with the ABR is the risk associated with shipping in the Arctic.

While some estimates attribute savings of $80,000 in fuel costs due to the shorter distance, insurers must become confident in the ability of shipping companies to perceive and adapt to the harsh climate that the Arctic presents before trade along the Arctic Bridge can become viable.

Yet, with Arctic melting now largely agreed to be an irreversible phenomena, the ABR is more a matter of when rather than if.

Should the Arctic’s oil and gas industry take off, the ships that facilitate production and transportation may lead the way in both infrastructure and insurance within as little as 15 years. Further down the line, there will come a point around mid-century when Arctic passages will become available more often than not, and it is difficult to see either side remaining stubborn for long beyond that.

Even if tensions remain, the opportunity the ABR presents will become too tempting for Canada, Russia, and the global economy to ignore.

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.