The Arctic Council Meets (With American and Russian Security Concerns on the Margins)

The US Navy submarine USS New Mexico surfaces in the Arctic Ocean, March 2014 [Photo by the US Department of Defence via Wikimedia Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

In Reykjavik, on 20 May, the Arctic Council will hold its twelfth Ministerial meeting, which will include delegations, including foreign ministers, from the eight member states, and representatives of the Permanent Participants. Due to the hybrid format of the meeting, other officials will be attending virtually. 

An extensive roster of issues which the meeting will address, will include jump-starting discussions on polar climate change. According to a Council press release issued earlier this month, the meeting is expected to include an assessment of eighty ‘deliverables’, as well as confirmation of a new strategic plan as the organisation observes its silver anniversary this year. The event will also mark the end of Iceland’s chairing of the Council, with the position being forwarded to the Russian Federation until 2023 when it will rotate to Norway. 

Upon its founding in 1996, the Arctic Council was specifically designed to eschew military dialogues. However, given current global debates about Arctic security, there is likely to be much focus upon both Russia and the United States and their emerging Arctic security stances, at the gathering. Russia, as the largest Arctic state, has been increasingly at odds with both Washington and its NATO allies, over regional militarisation. As for the US, after four years of near-withdrawal from Arctic affairs, this Council meeting represents a comeback tour of sorts for the American delegation. 

In recent years, the Russian Arctic has assumed a greater role in Moscow’s domestic planning, with the Putin government repeatedly recognising both the potential of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the development of the emerging ‘Polar Silk Road’ in cooperation with China, to contribute much more to the country’s economy, especially at a time when financial strains are increasing. The Russian government has also promised to keep discussions of military affairs away from its Council agenda in favour of environmental and developmental issues. 

One important project related to the expansion of Russian regional research is the planned Snowflake (Снежинка) station, scheduled to open by 2022 in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (Ямало-Ненецкий автономный округ) region of north-central Siberia. Both China and South Korea have recently expressed interest in assisting with the construction of the facilities, which are being touted not only as a new centre of Arctic studies but also a model of green energy use. The latter point is noteworthy given the recent hits to Moscow’s environmental record in in the Arctic, including last year’s Norilsk incident and reporting this week of a serious oil spill in Usinsk (Усинск) near the Kolva River in Siberia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with President Vladimir Putin, November 2016 [Photo by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office via Wikimedia Commons]

Concerns about Russian strategic assertiveness in the Arctic are not difficult to find amongst other Arctic Council member governments. Moscow has continued to move military forces and materiel to its northern reaches, and has reportedly been testing a new weapons platform, the Poseidon (Посейдон) 3M29 stealth torpedo with the potential to carry a nuclear payload, in the region. In January of this year, a Russian government decree which elevates the country’s Northern Fleet to the status of a military district came into effect. These events were noted, along with ongoing Russian military activities in both the Arctic Ocean and Baltic Sea region, in a newly-published Military Intelligence Report [pdf] by the Finnish Defence Forces.

As for the United States, considering the negative impressions given by the American delegation to the last Council Ministerial in Rovaniemi in May 2019, with then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivering an acerbic speech asserting US de facto unilateralism in the Arctic, dismissing climate change, and directly citing Russian, as well as Chinese, threats in the far north, thus? breaking with several meeting protocols, it can be argued that Washington has much diplomatic ground to recover. With the government of President Joe Biden promising closer cooperation with allies, including in northern Europe, as well as re-joining the Paris climate agreement, the US is back in a position to take a more active role in promoting regional cooperation, including via NATO. 

This does not mean, however, that the US is downplaying the growing number of strategic questions regarding the Arctic. As with the previous administration, Greenland remains very much front and centre in President Biden’s developing foreign policy interests.

It was announced last week that US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will visit Copenhagen before traveling to Reykjavík for the Ministerial meeting, and then travel to the transit hub of Kangerlussuaq to meet with representatives of the new government in Greenland, including Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede, to discuss methods of further deepening the bilateral relationship. From an economic viewpoint, although the Kuannersuit uranium and rare earths extraction project is now on hold, other mining endeavours continue on the island, at various stages. Greenland’s resources continue to draw international interest, including from a security viewpoint. 

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, January 2021 [Photo by the US State Department via Wikimedia Commons]

The United States has also continued to support a stronger, NATO-led military presence in the Arctic. This includes a joint agreement between Oslo and Washington last month which would allow the use and development of three Norwegian air force stations (Evenes, Rygge and Sola) and one naval facility, the Ramsund Navy Base, in the northern county of Troms og Finnmark. The agreement, which needs to be ratified by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), was strongly denigrated in Moscow and also received much criticism within Norway itself over the question of the degree to which the country’s sovereignty in security affairs would be affected. 

Also controversial was an agreement made by Norway for NATO naval submarines, including those which use nuclear-powered propulsion, to stop at the Tønsnes port, (which is usually reserved for civilian ships), near the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø, a development which many in the region are opposed to. Until recently, such vessels normally docked at Olavsvern in the Ramfjord area, well away from Tromsø proper. Last week, a US Navy nuclear submarine, the Virginia-class USS New Mexicodocked at Tønsnes, escorted [in Norwegian] by the Norwegian Coast Guard vessel Harstad

The submarine deal has raised local concerns both about escalating tensions with Russia, which shares a short border with northern Norway, in addition to environmental concerns about having nuclear powered engines operating so close to civilian population centres. As well, the controversy illustrated a (not unusual) north/south political divide within Norway on the issue, as well as worries that civilian views were being bypassed [in Norwegian] in Oslo’s decision-making processes. 

It has been confirmed that Mr Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of the Reykjavík forum in order to discuss both bilateral and global diplomatic issues as well as to potentially set the stage for a summit in Europe between President Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month.

Nikolay Korchunov, Moscow’s main Arctic Council representative, recently noted there was much common policy ground between the American and Russian governments in the Arctic to act as a foundation for future dialogues within the Council. This raises the interesting question of whether the tradition of checking one’s (non-Arctic) politics at the door during Arctic Council meetings, a custom which has come under strain in recent years, will be observed this week in Reykjavík.