This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will be meeting in Alaska to discuss topics of mutual concern in the Arctic. After a tumultuous start to relations with the new administration, there could be room for a legitimate aligning of interests. Moscow’s interest in exploring the region could be part of a larger thawing in relations between the two countries.
As it stands, relations between the White House and Kremlin are the worst they have been in years. The vaunted promise of a reset in relations was shattered with the chemical attack in Syria last month, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and other members of his administration reversed public positions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. stance on the regime in Damascus is now rather unclear. However, the new announcement from Secretary Tillerson that, “[o]ur values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated -- those are our values. Those are not our policies” seems to be an olive branch to the Russians, extended in advance of the meeting. Perhaps the administration will try at least to cool relations with Moscow.
The reason that the Arctic could be a point of mutual benefit for the United States and Russia is clear. The Kremlin is critically dependent on oil and gas revenues as part of the state budget, a large share of which comes from the export of energy products. Because energy is so critical to the government’s income, Russian planners have emphasized the importance of the Arctic as part of Russia’s overall economic health. Moscow recently unveiled a new facility to highlight this point, part of Russia’s goals in the region to control Arctic shipping routes and protect the nation’s oil and gas interests, as well as defending against intrusions by foreign warships and other threats.
The impact of oil and gas prices was shown clearly last year as Russia’s GDP fell. The economic hit Russia took was in part due to Western sanctions, but it owed more to the steep fall in the price of oil. The choice to drill in the perilous Arctic is partially explained by Russia’s economic hardships, in addition to the fact that oil and gas fields throughout the country are “are depleting and are depleting fast,” according to Mika Mered in an article from Politico. The Kremlin realizes that it needs to move beyond the country’s already fairly old oil and gas fields and look for fresh fields to the north.
There is also the American angle to consider. Russia has long looked to the West for help in developing its energy resources. Indeed, the American energy titan ExxonMobil and Russian state energy company Rosneft have worked together on shared long-term strategic goals. The two companies signed deals in 2012 to explore the Black Sea and Kara Sea and in 2013 to further explore the Chukchi and Laptev Seas, in addition to regions in the Far East. This cooperation was put on hold in 2014, due to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the U.S. government sanctions that followed.
ExxonMobil has petitioned to be exempted from sanctions on exploring oil and gas resources in Russia, but was recently denied by the Treasury Department. Given the American domestic political climate, and the debate about the extent of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, this setback is no huge surprise. Secretary Tillerson’s own connections to Exxon, and the potential profits his former company could earn in the case of a relaxation of sanctions on Russia, has also conjured thoughts on the risk of a conflict of interests.
Setting aside the rocky relations between Moscow and Washington, the meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov could facilitate a discussion on how to advance American interests. If Trump is truly invested in making “America First,” this could start in the Arctic. He has already enacted an executive order aimed at easing the restrictions on drilling in the region that he claims will create “thousands and thousands of jobs.” In order for the United States to take advantage of energy resources farther north, it also requires infrastructure to transport oil and gas back south in order to be refined in American facilities. Steps have been taken in this direction with the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Besides the potential for spurring job creation in the United States, trying to strike a deal with the Russians in the Arctic could establish some level of trust between the two. Because the Kremlin considers the Arctic so critical to its own security -- and especially since America has relatively few naval assets in the region or icebreakers -- cooperation appears possible. The mere mention of accommodating Moscow in a region where it already has significant advantages would be a win-win and could help solve other conflicts in which Washington and Moscow are involved, whether those be in the scorched lands of Syria or amid the simmering conflict in Ukraine. It is perhaps a stretch to believe a greater understanding can be found while Russia hysteria so pervades Washington, but this could be the one area where a mutually beneficial arrangement can be reached right now.