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Arctic cooperation remains a conundrum

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The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February 2022 has impacted the whole world, including the Arctic. The region has long been considered a place where global political tensions were successfully mediated through peaceful cooperation


Arctic cooperation remains a conundrum

The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February 2022 has impacted the whole world, including the Arctic. The region has long been considered a place where global political tensions were successfully mediated through peaceful cooperation, not only between the eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States) but also among the Indigenous Peoples who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Arctic Council, the leading governance body in the region, was especially commended as an example of the “Arctic Exceptionalism” that, according to some, characterized the cooperation in the region.

This perception and the reality on the ground changed profoundly in the aftermath of the events of February 24, 2022. The Arctic Council has paused its cooperation with Moscow, freezing around a third of its 130 projects because of direct involvement from Russia. The handover of the rotating Chairmanship of the Arctic Council on May 11, 2023, from Russia to Norway was therefore anticipated with great apprehension in the region. Although this transfer went smoothly and the structures of the Arctic Council were safeguarded, the question of whether and how to cooperate with Russia in the region remains.

Given the severe impact of climate change on the region and the socioeconomic realities on the ground, some level of cooperation among the eight Arctic states remains necessary. As the West is distancing itself from Russia, Moscow is increasingly turning its gaze to the East and Global South to build Arctic partnerships. These developments could fundamentally change the dynamics of cooperation in the region and the strength of its governance bodies.

The role of the Arctic Council

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 to discuss issues that affect the region, including issues related to climate change and environmental protection, local economic development and the needs of Arctic communities. It gives a voice to the Indigenous Peoples of the region who have the statute of Permanent Participants and allows non-Arctic states and organizations to engage in its Working Groups.

Fears of a tumultuous handover of the Chairmanship from Russia to Norway seemed unfounded.  After a low-profile event held in Salekhard and online, the eight Arctic states and the Permanent Participants released a joint statement, pledging to safeguard and strengthen the intergovernmental body. The parties recognized “the historic and unique role of the Arctic Council for constructive cooperation, stability and dialog between people in the Arctic region” and acknowledged “the commitment to work to safeguard and strengthen the Arctic Council”. Given the sensitive nature of the geopolitical context, this smooth transfer indicates a skillful display of diplomacy and reflects how much importance is still attached to the Arctic Council.

New Chair Norway awaits the delicate task of continuing the work of the Arctic Council while recognizing that Russia cannot hold the same position as it did before February 2022. It will have to isolate Russia while not provoking it. Norway is well-positioned to do so, as it has a long and pragmatic history of dealing with Russia as a neighbor in the region. It has balanced and protected cooperation with Russia for many years while also pushing back against its aggression. Norway will prioritizethe impacts of climate change, sustainable development and efforts to enhance the well-being of people living in the region” during its two-year leadership, which is in line with the Arctic Council Strategic Plan.

While the Arctic Council is an internationally recognized flagship for Arctic governance, it is not the only governing body in the region. In addition, there is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Polar Code of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the COP of the Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement to name a few. Russia is still active in some of these bodies.

Russia: too large to ignore?

The impact of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine shows that the Arctic cannot be separated from geopolitics. The decision by Sweden and Finland to join NATO has made this even clearer. Geographically speaking, Russia makes up more than half of the Arctic Ocean Coastline and is home to two of the approximately four million inhabitants of the region. No Arctic governance body can exist without acknowledging this regional reality. However, this does not give Russia a free pass to continue “business as usual” in the Arctic while waging war and committing crimes against humanity in independent countries. It is impossible to reconcile these actions with calls to maintain Russian participation in the Arctic Council.

This creates an impasse. The past year has shown that sidelining Russia weakens the Arctic Council, yet if it were expelled or withdraws from the organization, there will be no Arctic Council as such. Isolated by the West, Moscow is increasingly focusing on its ties with other states, primarily China but also emerging nations such as Brazil, India, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In addition, Russia updated its Arctic strategy on February 21, 2023, removing an explicit mention of the Arctic Council and replacing it with a greater emphasis on bilateral cooperation in the region on science and business. Yet Russia’s Arctic Official Nikolay Korchunov stated that ” so far we do not have any plans to exit the Arctic Council, but if the organization becomes useless or our rights are violated, we could consider leaving“. Previously, he iterated that even if the Arctic Council resumes its work, building cooperation on a long-term basis requires trust, which is now lost.

If Russia were to establish such a separate governance mechanism, it would include its non-Western partners, while likely excluding the other Arctic states and Indigenous Peoples of the region who have used the Arctic Council as a platform to voice their concerns on regional issues and gain a seat at the negotiating table. This structure would provide legitimacy to China to an extent that Russia would probably not welcome, given China’s growing economic influence in the country.

The show must go on…but how?

The orderly handover of the Chairmanship from Russia to Norway has removed one obstacle: that of an organization led by a member that is effectively sidelined by all other parties. However, many issues remain. It is unclear how the Arctic Council can function when cooperation with Moscow is politically impossible for the other Arctic states and when an Arctic Council without Russia would diminish its legitimacy. Environmental and socio-economic issues should not be put on hold until the Arctic’s geopolitical situation improves. This would affect both scientific cooperation on climate change and the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the region, for whom the Arctic Council is a central mechanism where they weigh on political issues across policy domains.

Focusing on scientific cooperation and low-level politics while continuing the work of the Working Groups or at the personal level might be a way forward for the time being, steering away from previous high-level ministerial summits and declarations. Keeping institutions and structures intact and preserving them to remain relevant in the future will be vital for the survival of the Arctic Council.

But the key question remains unresolved: how long should the door be left ajar for Russia, whose choices have put it in this position? Its ties with the West are unlikely to improve in the near future while the impact of climate change in the region is becoming more acute and needs to be addressed urgently.

(Photo credit:  Pixabay)