After Ukraine? Russia and the Arctic Council

Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021-2023) suffered a blow when the other member states of the Arctic Council resolved to “pause” collaboration with the largest Arctic state. Against the backdrop of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, their statement condemned President Putin’s decision to violate “the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity”. It is worth noting that Ukraine’s territorial integrity had already been violated, notably by the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and this had led to the imposition of sanctions by the European Union (EU) and the United States. Up to February 2022, however, the Arctic Council membership had been largely able to weather the fall-out from the annexation of Crimea and focus attention on preventing so-called “spill-over” into the Arctic region. The Arctic Coast Guard Forum met in Russia in October 2021, for example.

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum. Established in 1996, the forum created a mechanism for dialogue and collaboration between the eight self-declared Arctic states – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. As part of its innovative architecture, the Council recognised the presence of so-called permanent participants – indigenous organisations which represent the Arctic’s rich linguistic, cultural, and geographic mosaic. Notably, the Russian-based organisation the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON, established 1990), as are others such as the Saami Council and Inuit Circumpolar Council. Beyond that, the Council created the observer category, and a host of observers – state, non-state and international governmental – were recognised. From 2013 onwards, Asian countries such as China, India, Japan, and South Korea were admitted to the observer community. Russia was reluctant to admit China at the time.

The eight Arctic states share a rotating chairmanship (lasting two years), and the Council’s work focuses on environmental protection, sustainable development, scientific cooperation, search and rescue and rights of indigenous peoples. A fisheries agreement involving Russia, China, the EU, and the Arctic states entered into force in June 2021. The Council’s working groups and task forces, with support from a permanent secretariat based in northern Norway, ensure that the membership is enriched by high-quality scientific and technical assessments. Notably, the Council does not consider security matters.

What sets apart the Arctic Council as an intergovernmental forum are two fundamental dimensions. First, it played a key role in transforming the Arctic into a “circumpolar region” where environmental protection and sustainable development became normalised in the post-Cold War era. The Arctic had been on the frontline of the Cold War and was subject to high levels of militarisation. Second, the Arctic Council was integral to Arctic exceptionalism – a belief that the Arctic was a place for cooperation and dialogue largely immune from wider geopolitical pressures. And one where the rights and interests of indigenous peoples of the Arctic would be accorded greater overall respect. As part of that, the Arctic Council helped to create a transnational knowledge sharing economy.

Up to February 2022, however, the Arctic Council membership had been largely able to weather the fall-out from the annexation of Crimea and focus attention on preventing so-called “spill-over” into the Arctic region.

Russia’s engagement with the Arctic Council comes out of optimism expressed by Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev in a widely noted speech delivered in the northern city of Murmansk. Speaking in October 1987, Gorbachev articulated a vision of the Arctic, which was defined as a pole of peace. His description of the Arctic was one shaped by a sense of the region as a “meeting place” rather than a frontline populated by opposing forces. The genesis of the Arctic Council lies in a coordinated approach to improving relations with the post-Cold War Soviet Union. The 1991 Arctic Environment Protection Strategy (AEPS) championed by Finland is often cited as a precursor. The AEPS focused on environmental protection as a circumpolar intervention designed to highlight areas of common concern, and in the 1980s, there was a growing recognition that the Arctic was being assaulted by long-range pollution and “acid rain”. Over 50% of the Arctic’s landmass was and is under Russian sovereignty. Over two million people live in the Russian Arctic, again representing over 50% of the Arctic’s total population.

Russia has been an active participant in the Arctic Council, holding its first chairmanship back in 2004-6. The 2006 Ministerial Declaration, issued on the 10th anniversary of the Council, notes that “for the past decade the Arctic Council has proved to be an important forum for increased mutual understanding and cooperation in the circumpolar area and has provided a major contribution into the well-being of the inhabitants of the Arctic…”. The underlying logic for Russia’s engagement with the Arctic Council is not hard to discern – the Council does not discuss military and security matters (and Russia’s nuclear strike capabilities are stationed in the Arctic), and any international observers have to affirm their commitment to respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of the Arctic states and the interests, rights and wishes of permanent participants.

The Arctic Council’s working groups and task forces address areas of direct interest to Russia, such as climate change, sustainable development, and environmental monitoring. What Russia, under President Putin especially, has been very clear on is that the resource development of Russia’s Arctic is a strategic priority for the Federation. Despite all the concerns about climate change affecting the Arctic, Russia will continue to exploit oil and natural gas.

But what has changed, especially post-2007 and post-2014, is that the Nordic and North American relationship with Russia has become more competitive, congested and confrontational. There are several reasons for this. First, the Arctic Ocean has become a zone of competitive interest. Three Arctic Ocean coastal states, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, and Russia, have been investing heavily in mapping and surveying the seabed for the expressed purpose of extending their sovereign rights. In August 2007, a Russian flag was planted at the bottom of the central Arctic Ocean. Endorsed by the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, this investment in time and resources has inevitably heightened interest in the resource potential of the Arctic Ocean. Each country is entertaining hopes that they can claim their sovereign rights extend to the North Pole and beyond. Second, diminishing sea ice cover has stimulated speculation that the Arctic is “opening up” – literally and figuratively. China’s growing involvement with the Arctic is heralded as a game-changer, and post-2014, Russia’s energy and security relationship with China has been monitored closely by western observers. India’s Arctic interests likewise attract a great deal of interest. Russia will use, in effect, its relationship with India and China to bypass the EU and United States. The flow of natural gas eastwards and southwards is one obvious corollary of that. Third, NATO’s involvement in the High North/Arctic is a source of contention for Russia. If Finland and Sweden join the alliance, then Russia will be facing a 7+1 NATO-non-NATO split.

What happens next? “Pausing” the work of the Arctic Council is understandable if tragic for an organisation being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize not so long ago. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, following on from the annexation of Crimea, has also been accompanied by aggressive disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks directed toward Nordic and Baltic states such as Estonia and Finland. The work of the Arctic Council has, for the last 15 years, had to run alongside a distinctly less comfortable reality. NATO countries, Russia, China and India and others are all interested in resource potential, sea lines of communication, underwater communication cables, domain awareness, critical infrastructure, and climate change which will place a considerable cost burden on the largest Arctic state, Russia.

For those who instigated the “pause”, what is it going to take to normalise the work of the Arctic Council again? Russia might conclude that working with Asian partners in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation is far more important than the resumption of Council business.

Klaus Dodds

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway University of London and co-author of The Arctic: A Very Short Introduction (with Jamie Woodward, Oxford University Press 2021). His next book will address the contested geopolitics of the Arctic, to be published by Yale University Press. @KlausDodds

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