Public Release: 

Majorities in Arctic nations favor cooperation with Russia despite Ukraine; conflict worries rise

10,000 people in 8 nations with Arctic territory surveyed; results released on eve of Arctic Council meeting in Nunavut; Secretary of State John Kerry scheduled to participate as US succeeds Canada into Arctic Council chair

The Gordon Foundation

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A survey of 10,000 people in nations with Arctic territory shows majorities in Russia (50%), Iceland (58%) and Finland (51%) believe the threat of military conflict in the Arctic has... view more

Credit: The Gordon Foundation

Differing levels of trust, geopolitical tension, and a general lack of public awareness of Arctic issues provide the backdrop for this week's meeting of high level representatives of the eight Arctic states in Iqaluit, Nunavut.

A survey of 10,000 respondents in countries with Arctic territory reveals major differences of opinion on issues ranging from Arctic co-operation with Russia to the threat of military conflict north of the 60th parallel, to whether the Northwest Passage is a Canadian or international waterway.

It also shows that the Arctic Council, a forum for the eight nations to manage mutual Arctic concerns and interests, is only vaguely known, if at all, among citizens in the countries surveyed. Governments, on the other hand -including non-Arctic states-and other stakeholders, are according the Council increasing political priority given the North's vast natural resources, centrality to global climate change, and potential as a far shorter route for shipping goods between the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Such is the importance of the Council to the United States, for example, that Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to attend meetings in Iqaluit, capital of Canada's Nunavut Territory, on April 24, 2015. During these meetings, the U.S. will accept from Canada the Council chair for a two-year term.

Commissioned by the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program based in Canada and the Institute of the North in Alaska, and conducted by EKOS Research Associates, the polling uses many of the same questions used in their 2010 survey, revealing how public opinion has changed over the last five years.

Citizens acknowledge in this survey the reality of rising geopolitical tensions and their implications for the Arctic. While they include a strengthened military as one response, the favoured option is diplomatic and co-operative approaches. This is evident in a specific question on how best to deal with Russia and in general, support for the "softer" approaches of negotiation and co-operation are endorsed particularly in the Nordic countries.

It also sheds light on divides between Canadians living in Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut and their northern American neighbours in Alaska. It highlights the differences between the northern and southern citizens of Canada and the U.S.

Tables of the complete survey are available online at http://bit.ly/1P5a8QI

Among highlights:

  • Conflict threat: Majorities in Russia (50%), Iceland (58%) and Finland (51%) believe the threat of military conflict in the Arctic has increased in the past year, a view shared by significant proportions of citizens of other countries with Arctic territory: the U.S. (South 24%, Alaska 34%), Canada (South 36%, North 30%), Norway (35%), Sweden (33%) and Denmark (29%).

  • Co-operation with Russia: Only 5% of Russians believe that their country should withdraw from international co-operation in the Arctic. This view is supported in most of the Arctic Council nations where only minorities are supportive of excluding Russia from co-operative Arctic forums: Canada South (38%), Canada North (36%), Alaska (37%), U.S. South (32%), Denmark (31%), Finland (22%), Norway (19%). Sweden and Iceland (44% and 43%, respectively) were most likely to agree that Russia should "withdraw from international co-operation arrangements like the Arctic Council in light of recent developments in Ukraine."

  • Strengthening military in the North: Support has dipped in Canada for strengthening the nation's military presence in the North "to protect against international threats." Agreed in Canada North (45%) and Canada South (49%, down from 60%). Alaska (52%) and U.S. South (45%).

  • Protecting northern interests: Given the statement: "The best way to protect Canada's/America's interests in the Arctic is to have Canadians/Americans living there," as in 2010 a majority agreed in both Canada North (78%) and South (69%). In Alaska, 51% agreed, as did 48% of those in the U.S. South.

  • Approach to border disputes: Despite real concern about security tensions in the Arctic, it is remarkable that when dealing with dispute resolution, support for a "firm line" is only endorsed by a minority of respondents in all countries and that support for the harder approach has gone down - not up - over the past five years. Even in Russia where 43% support a firm line, 28% support negotiations. In all other countries surveyed there was more support for negotiation than pursuing a firm line: Canada North (47%), Canada South (41%), Alaska (39%), U.S. South (34%), Denmark (31%), Finland (28%), Iceland (29%), Norway (32%) and Sweden (28%).

  • Northwest Passage: A vast majority (71%) in Canada North say the Northwest Passage is within Canadian waters, a view shared by a plurality in Canada South (45%). Just 22% of Alaskans and 14% of other Americans, however, and very small minorities in Norway (11%), Sweden (9%), Russia (8%), Finland (7%), Iceland (6%) and Denmark (6%) express that view.

  • In Russia, a majority (51%) consider the Northwest Passage an international waterway, a view widely shared in Alaska (41%) and Denmark (40%). Elsewhere: Finland (35%), Norway (34%), U.S. South (33%), Sweden (30%), Iceland (28%), Canada North (15%) and Canada South (9%).

  • Arctic Council awareness: Awareness of the Arctic Council is strongest in Iceland (49% recall it clearly), followed by Canada North (32%), Denmark (28%), Alaska (15%), U.S. South (12%), Russia (12%), Norway (12%), Sweden (11%), Canada South (8%) and Finland (8%).

  • Arctic Council, indigenous representation: Among northerners of the U.S. and Canada, awareness of the Council's inclusion of indigenous representation is substantial: Nunavut (52%), Northwest Territories and Yukon (44%), and Alaska (41%).

  • Arctic Council, awareness of Canadian chair: Among Canadians, awareness that Canada has been the chair of the Arctic Council is strongest in Nunavut (45%), followed by the NWT (41%), Yukon (35%) and Canada South (10%).

  • Arctic Council, military mandate: Respondents were largely in favour of the Arctic Council mandate being expanded to include military security, though the proportion holding that view is declining in many places. A majority of respondents in Russia agreed (79%, largely unchanged from 2010), Finland (71%, up from 39% in 2010), Denmark (63%, up from 48% in 2010), Canada North (57%, largely unchanged from 2010), Canada South (55%, down from 62% in 2010), Alaska (56%) and Sweden (53%, possibly down from 61% in 2010). Elsewhere, that is the view of substantial minorities in Iceland (44%, unchanged from 2010), and Norway (46%, largely unchanged from 2010), while the U.S. South was evenly divided (50%).

  • Arctic Council, non-Arctic states: Asked if countries without far northern territory should "have a say in Arctic affairs," only in Finland did a majority of respondents agree (63%). Those who agreed elsewhere: Alaska (49%), Sweden (47%), Russia (46%), Iceland (42%), Canada North (32%), Denmark (31%), Norway (31%), the U.S. South (29%) and Canada South (26%).

  • Nuclear weapons-free: Except in Alaska, large majorities of people say the U.S. and Russia should remove their nuclear weapons and the Arctic designated a nuclear weapons-free zone like Antarctica. Results: Sweden (90%), Finland and Iceland (88%), Norway and Denmark (83%), Canada South (81%), Canada North (79%), Russia (68%), U.S. South (67%), Alaska (46%).

Says Nils Andreassen, Executive Director, Institute of the North: "We need this polling data to know where we can make a difference and improve awareness of issues, address concerns, and develop a more sophisticated and substantive outreach and public education campaign around the Arctic Council and the issues with which it deals."

"During the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, we can leverage that leadership role into real gains for Alaskans and people across the North," says Andreassen.

Adds Arctic issues expert Sara French, Senior Policy Analyst at The Gordon Foundation: "This is a one of a kind study that allows us to understand more clearly public attitudes on a wide variety of Arctic issues in order to help decision makers make more informed public policy choices that are reflective of the views of Canadians and Americans who call the Arctic home."

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The Gordon Foundation

Our mission is to promote innovative public policies for the North and in fresh water management based on our values of independent thought, protecting the environment, and full participation of indigenous people in the decisions that affect their well-being.

Institute of the North

Our mission is vital to Alaska's role as a key stakeholder in policy affecting the Arctic. We stand at a pivotal place where ideas and connections matter -across the state and on a global scale.

Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program

A partnership between the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, and The Gordon Foundation, the Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program is dedicated to studying and promoting four overarching areas of concern: Emergency Preparedness in the Arctic; Arctic peoples and security; The Arctic Council; Public opinion in and about the North. The Munk-Gordon Arctic Security Program undertakes original research and hosts interactive gatherings to achieve its vision.

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