WASHINGTON/LONDON/OSLO (Reuters) – For nearly three decades, the Arctic Council has been a successful example of post-Cold War cooperation. Eight member countries, including Russia and the United States, have collaborated on climate change research and social development in this ecologically sensitive region.
However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, member states ceased cooperation with Russia. Experts fear the Arctic Council’s raison d’être could be threatened if it can’t cooperate with Russia, which controls more than half of the Arctic coastline. Norway will take over the chair from Russia on 11th of this month.
A dysfunctional Arctic Council could have disastrous consequences for the region’s environment and its 4 million inhabitants. This is due to the impact of melting sea ice and the interest of non-Arctic nations in their largely untapped mineral resources.
The Council is made up of eight Arctic nations: Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Canada and the United States. In the past, it has produced binding agreements on environmental protection and conservation.
The council is also a valuable platform for Arctic indigenous peoples to have their voices heard. It does not deal with security issues.
But with Russia’s severing of cooperation, about a third of its 130 projects have been shelved, new projects stalled and existing ones unable to be renewed. Western and Russian scientists no longer share climate change research, and have stopped cooperating on search and rescue operations and oil spills.
US Senator Angus King told Reuters, “I am concerned that this situation will seriously hamper the Arctic Council’s ability to resolve various issues.”
The Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of the world.
With sea ice disappearing, the Arctic waters are opening up to shipping and industries eager to exploit natural resources such as oil, gas, gold, iron ore and rare earths.
Divergences between Russia and other member states have greatly reduced the likelihood of an effective response to these changes.
“Norway is in big trouble,” said John Holdren, co-director of the Arctic Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School and former US President Barack Obama’s scientific adviser. It’s a matter of maximizing our activities,” he said.
Russia, on the other hand, insists it cannot continue without it. The country’s ambassador to the Arctic, Nikolai Kolchunov, told Reuters that the Arctic Council was weakened and he was not confident that it “can continue to be the main platform on Arctic affairs”.
Even more worrisome is the possibility that Russia will not only tread its own course in regional affairs, but also set up a rival council.
Russia has recently taken steps to expand cooperation with non-Arctic countries in the Arctic. On April 24, Russia and China signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between their coast guards in the Arctic.
Prior to that, on April 14, Russia invited the BRICS countries of China, India, Brazil and South Africa to the Russian settlement in Svalbard to conduct a survey. Although the islands are under Norwegian sovereignty, other countries can also conduct industrial activities on them under a 1920 treaty.
“This is concerning as Russia seeks to establish relationships with countries outside the Arctic, especially China,” said David Barton, executive director of the White House Arctic Steering Committee.
Russia’s Kolchunov said Moscow welcomes non-Arctic countries to the Arctic as long as they do not have military intentions. “Our commitment to a purely peaceful form of partnership also reflects the need to build scientific and economic cooperation with non-Arctic countries,” he said.
Norway says it is “optimistic” about a smooth handover of the presidency from Russia. The reason is that it is in the interests of all Arctic nations to maintain the Arctic Council.
“The Arctic Council needs to be preserved and preserved as the most important international forum for Arctic cooperation,” Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Petersson told Reuters.
But that won’t be easy at a time when Norway itself has strained relations with Russia. In April, Norway expelled 15 Russian diplomats for being spies. Russia denies this. Kolchunov said the ouster undermined the trust needed for cooperation.
Still, Norway is well-suited to a delicate balancing act with Russia, analysts say. Norway is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and shares a border with Russia in the Arctic Circle.
Svein Vigeland Rottem, senior fellow in Arctic Governance and Security at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, said: “We will keep the door open to welcome Russia back into the Arctic Council if politically permissible. “Norway has been the most outspoken about the possibilities.”
Danish lawmaker Aaja Chemnitz Larsen said, “There can be no future Arctic council without Russia.” “We need to be prepared for when the war[in Ukraine]ends and other times come,” he said.
(Reporters Humeyra Pamuk, Gloria Dickie, Gwladys Fouche)