Future of Arctic Council in doubt after end of Russian chairship

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, centre, arrives for the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 20, 2021. Russia is now passing the chairship of the Arctic Council on to Norway, but geopolitical experts are concerned about co-operation with Russia going forward in light of the war in Ukraine. (Saul Loeb/ Associated Press)

Russia’s two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council came to an end Thursday, leaving the future of the council’s role as a forum for international collaboration in doubt. 

In a low-key virtual ceremony attended by senior bureaucrats, Russia ceded the chair to Norway, which will lead the council for the next two years.

The style of the ceremony marked a shift for the council. The transfer of the chair is an opportunity for grand declarations and photo ops, as the foreign ministers of the eight Arctic countries mingle with Indigenous representatives and powerhouse observers like China and Japan.

It’s obvious what has changed — one year into its chairship, Russia went from problematic partner to international pariah with its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

“The idea of sitting with the Russians and talking about economic development while they’re bombing Kyiv — it just doesn’t work,” said Evan Bloom, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Wilson Center’s Polar Institute and a former diplomat who helped establish the Arctic Council in 1996.

Since March 2022, the seven other Arctic states — Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Canada and the United States — have suspended their co-operation with Russia, bringing a sudden stop to the majority of the work of the Arctic Council.

Though some projects have since resumed without Russia, the future of the council’s work is in doubt. How can the Arctic Council continue when, in the words of the incoming chair, co-operation with Moscow is “politically impossible”?

“Right now, it leaves the concept somewhat in tatters,” said Bloom. “Russia makes up about half the Arctic. You can’t really have an Arctic Council without Russia.”

A council above politics

The Arctic Council was formed amid a climate of optimism that followed the end of the Cold War.

Founded in 1996, the Council brings together the eight Arctic states with six Indigenous groups and dozens of observers to work in the spirit of consensus on issues facing the Arctic.

@Mapcreator/OSM.org. (CBC)

Despite the Arctic’s role as a Cold War theatre, from its beginnings, the council’s guiding documents prohibited any discussion of military security, which risked driving a rift between the Arctic nations.

“It was understood that if a body like this touched security issues… it would not go very well,” said Bloom.

That allowed the council to focus on other, more pressing Arctic concerns, like climate change, fisheries, sustainable development and Indigenous representation.

Over the next two decades, this helped give rise to an idea of “Arctic exceptionalism” — that the region was an arena for benevolent co-operation, immune to the geopolitical struggles occurring in the rest of the world.

But as soon as Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, “any dream of full-on Arctic exceptionalism… was over,” according to Whitney Lackenbauer, a Canada Research chair in the study of the Canadian North at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

“In essence, what we’re now seeing is that the Arctic, as a circumpolar region, is not isolated from geopolitics.”

New alliances

This has been further driven home by Sweden and Finland’s moves to join NATO, which would bring all seven Arctic nations besides Russia inside the Western security alliance.

“It’s such a stark change of reality,” said Timo Koivurova, a research professor at the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre and a frequent contributor to Arctic Council working groups.

Finland, he says, has been working closely on Arctic issues with their neighbour since the Second World War.

“Many of these projects are now seen as … too friendly to Russia,” he said.

That wariness is shared on both sides of the border.

“How can we … even if the Arctic Council resumes its work … build co-operation on a long-term basis?” Nikolay Korchunov, Russia’s Arctic ambassador, told the Russian news agency TASS.

“The most important element is lost — the trust is lost.”

That lack of trust has led to fears that the Arctic Council could devolve into an “Arctic 7,” an alliance of like-minded Western nations that formerly breaks with Russia — and divides the Arctic territory, literally, in half.

Talk of an ‘Arctic 7’

Russia lays claim to 53 per cent of Arctic coastline, and is home to two million of the approximately four million Arctic residents.

“I strenuously avoid the phrase Arctic 7, because I don’t want to bring it into being,” said Lackenbauer. “It’s a fundamentally different model, which means the Arctic Council is dead.”

“If Russia were to be excluded, or withdraws itself from the Arctic Council in coming years, then there is no Arctic Council as such,” said Svein Vigeland Rottem, a senior researcher and Arctic expert at Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

But keeping Russia in the council may be just as difficult. In the wake of the other members pausing their work, Russia has bolstered its outreach to countries like China that are trying to gain access to northern shipping routes and legitimacy as an Arctic player.

The HMCS Brandon sits outside Juneau, Alaska, while supporting divers as they conduct mine countermeasure missions on the ocean floor during Exercise Arctic Edge on March 8, 2022. (Submitted by Master Sailor Dan Bard, Canadian Armed Forces)

Russia “offer[s] what they can at the moment, and one thing they can offer is access to their slice of the Arctic,” said Bloom.

That has prompted worries that Russia could establish a rival body, and one that could increase the presence of non-Arctic nations in the region.

“You could have the deepening of these different camps,” said Elana Wilson Rowe, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo.

But a full break with the council may still be unlikely. Even before the Ukraine war, Wilson Rowe says, Russia was at times “concerned about being overly reliant on China,” which exerts a growing economic influence in the country. The Arctic Council and the collaborations made possible there often provided a welcome counterbalance to Chinese influence, she says.

The appetite for an Arctic 7 seems low, for now.

“The value of Arctic co-operation will not be meaningless, but it will have less value if not all Arctic states participate,” said Morten Høglund, the senior Arctic official chair who represented Norway at the handover this week.

“That’s not something we are hoping for, and we are definitely not steering towards.”

Zombie council

That leaves, for a time at least, only the middle way: a council that continues in its current form, somehow, without formal diplomatic relations with Russia.

“The big question is, how long can the door be kept ajar for Russia?” Vigeland Rottem said.

Already, the pause on work in Russia has had “a dramatic effect” on cross-border projects like the collection of environmental data, according to Lars-Otto Riersen, who led monitoring efforts at the Arctic Council for 25 years. He says most Russian monitoring projects were funded by transfers from the West.

“It is so important that the science continues, because you will never manage to build up again what we did,” he said.

The pause has also posed a major challenge for Indigenous participants like the Saami Council, whose members have been divided over support for the war.

Members of the Saami Council are seen at the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in 2021. One of the projects highlighted in the meeting was the Kola Waste Project, an initiative to help clean up garbage from remote Saami communities. (Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon)

The Arctic Council is one of very few international bodies where Indigenous groups participate on the same level as states. The loss of such a forum has been a major blow.

“The Arctic Council … is still of tremendous importance for the Saami Council, for the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic and for the environmental work we all depend upon,” said Aslaak Holmberg, president of the Saami Council. “This mandate is still important, maybe now more than ever.”

Continuing the work

Most analysts are optimistic the Arctic Council can continue its role in some form, even without the diplomatic participation of Russia.

“Rather than putting a lot of emphasis on the Arctic Council … producing more binding treaties… I think we’re going to see a return to the origins of the Arctic Council, focusing on science, on low politics,” said Lackenbauer.

That means fewer ministerial meetings and unanimous declarations, and more done on the level of working groups, which Wilson Rowe says may be given more latitude to work with or without Russia.

For scientists, Riersen says, the Arctic Council could help co-ordinate information exchange between individual researchers, at a time when working directly with Russian scientific institutions remains unpalatable.

In that way, Lackenbauer says, “the council can become a clearinghouse for international science,” helping institutions source global data without formally collaborating across enemy lines.

Canadian geophysicist Larry Newitt, right, of the Geological Survey of Canada and French geologist Jean-Jacques Orgeval of the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières are seen measuring the intensity and direction of the Earth’s magnetic field in the Canadian Arctic in 2005. (Stéphane Nicolopoulos/AFP via Getty Images)

Analysts were in agreement that Norway was uniquely well-positioned to manage this difficult time in the council’s history.

Norway has a long history of pragmatic, bilateral relations with Russia, despite being a founding member of NATO. It has managed to maintain a fishery agreement with Russia and a line of communication to its northern fleet despite the outbreak of the war.

Høglund, Norway’s senior Arctic official, is more modest about his country’s prospects.

“I don’t think Norway has a magic formula,” he said.

But he recognizes that despite a long list of priorities, from oceans to Indigenous development, Norway’s most important job is to find a way to continue work with Russia “on some level.”

“We will propose alternatives which can get us going quite far, even without political participation,” he said.

“Our responsibility as chair of the council is to ensure the council survives.”

A report written John Last

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: U.S. report claims Trudeau told NATO Canada will never meet military spending target, CBC News

Denmark: Arctic security key in upcoming defence agreement: acting Danish defence minister, Eye on the Arctic

FinlandRussian cyber attacks, espionage pose growing threat to Finnish national security, Yle news

Greenland: Growing focus on Arctic puts Greenland at higher risk of cyber attacks: assessment, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: NATO anti-submarine warfare exercise underway in North Atlantic, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Russia-China coast guard cooperation big step, says Arctic security expert, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian Arctic rescue exercise attended by observers from Iran and Saudi Arabia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Russian spy ships surveying Nordic energy infrastructure, Radio Sweden

United States: U.S. nominates Alaskan as first Arctic ambassador, Eye on the Arctic

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