An Amber Light Ahead: Norway Prepares for the Arctic Council Chair

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt speaking at the Arctic Frontiers Conference, Tromsø, January 2023
[Photo by David Jensen / Arctic Frontiers]

by Marc Lanteigne

In the coming weeks, Norway will be assuming the chair of the Arctic Council after a difficult, and unprecedented, year for the group. Since March 2022, the Council has been bifurcated, with Russia, the current chair, operating alone in the wake of the decision by the other seven members to ‘pause’ participation after Moscow’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Although some work has been jointly undertaken by the ‘A7’ nations since then, questions have persisted as to how the chair title would be transferred from Russia to Norway this spring. The standard procedure, which would entail holding a Ministerial Meeting in a Russian locale to officially transfer the gavel, was deemed not possible under current geopolitical conditions. Afterwards, how would Norway oversee the Council during its upcoming two-year tenure, and with what level of Russian participation?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov did send invitations to the A7 governments to a Council meeting in Salekhard, a Siberian town in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, on 11 May, to formally transfer the chair. However, Anniken Huitfeldt, Foreign Minister of Norway, had confirmed at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø in January that she would not attend any such meeting, nor have any other A7 states agreed to send their representatives to Russia for a handover ceremony.

Thus, a virtual meeting and transfer is currently under negotiation between Norwegian and Russian officials, with the government of Norway confirming that it would assume the role on schedule and as smoothly as possible. Minister Huitfeldt also stressed [in Norwegian] that it was essential for the Arctic Council to maintain operations, given that the alternative was that other organisations would take the lead in regional policymaking should the Council become a cypher. 

Official-level government contacts between Moscow and Oslo remain in abeyance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin recently commented in a policy speech that his country’s relationship with Norway had dropped to ‘a minimum’ [in Russian], which have had negative effects on bilateral cooperation, including in the Arctic, (Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre responded [in Norwegian] to Putin’s comments by saying that Moscow was to blame for current ‘minimal’ state of Norwegian-Russian relations).

Bilateral links have further eroded over the past year in the wake of spying and drone scandals, the suspension of the 2007 visa agreement which had facilitated travel over the Norway-Russia border, and the reduction of activities within the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, a subregional grouping which had been a major point of contact between northern Norway and neighbouring Russian communities. 

The Finnish flag raised at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, April 2023 [Photo via NATO]

Even after the handover, however, there will still be the conundrum of where Council deliberations will go from there, especially as the Arctic becomes a growing military concern to both Russia and the West. On 4 April, Finland formally joined NATO as the thirty-first member, doubling the alliance’s borders with Russia, (Finland’s own Russian border is about 1340km in length, and it was previously announced that Helsinki would soon be fortifying that frontier). Meanwhile, Sweden’s own NATO application remains active, but it still faces opposition from alliance member governments Hungary and Türkiye (Turkey) over political and human rights policy differences with Stockholm.

Finland’s successful NATO admission prompted vows from the Russian government that ‘countermeasures’ would be taken, and during the past year the Putin regime has continued to augment its own Arctic military presence. In a foreign policy document [in Russian] released by the Kremlin last month, blame was placed on ‘unfriendly states’ seeking to militarise the Arctic, while Moscow promised to work with non-Arctic governments on regional initiatives.

For example, Arctic cooperation was included in the joint statement [in Chinese] between China’s President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin when the former visited Moscow last month, with both leaders calling for the Arctic to continue being ‘a place of peace, stability and constructive cooperation’ and promising further cooperation on economic endeavours including the Northern Sea Route. As well, a February 2023 policy document [in Russian] on the Arctic notably omitted any mention of Russia’s cooperation with the Arctic Council, instead calling for regional cooperation on a state-to-state basis. 

The deteriorated diplomatic situation between Russia and the A7 governments was only further underscored by the detainment last month in Yekaterinburg of Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal

The degree to which Russian engagement in the Council will take place during Norway’s chair will affect many issues within the far north and likely well outside of it. Climate change and environmental affairs will remain high [in Norwegian] on the organisation’s agenda, as alarms [pdf] continue to sound about tipping points being reached or surpassed in the Polar Regions along with other parts of the world. As the largest Arctic state, as well as a major concern in regards to local pollution, omitting Moscow from Arctic environmental policymaking may serve to slow down joint actions in combatting climate change threats in the far north. 

There are also the questions of how Indigenous groups, representing the Permanent Participants in the Council, will be affected by the situation, as well as how the observer organisations and governments will operate. At the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavík last October, China’s senior Arctic official, Gao Feng, stated [video] that it would be difficult for his country (which has been a formal observer in the Council since 2013), to participate in the Council should Russia continue to be excluded, a point which he reiterated at the Tokyo Arctic Circle Japan Forum in March this year. The situation also remains hazy for potential new formal observers, including Estonia and Latvia, as these positions are normally designated via unanimous support of the Council’s eight members. 

Cover of Norway’s Arctic Council Chair Report, April 2023 [Image via the Government of Norway]

On 23 March, Oslo published its policy document [pdf] detailing its priorities during its 2023-5 Council chairing period. The paper, in keeping with Arctic Council traditions of keeping hard security matters as abbreviated as possible, made only oblique references to the geopolitical situation in the region, citing the ‘difficult and challenging time for international cooperation’ in which the Council is currently operating. Acknowledging the Council’s 2021-2030 Strategic Plan [pdf], originally adopted in Reykjavík two years ago, the Norwegian government outlined four priorities for its chair position over the next two years: climate and the environmentthe oceansthe peoples of the north, and sustainable economic development

These priorities reflect the diverse nature of both environmental and socio-economic challenges the Arctic is now facing. As responses, Oslo has promised initiatives including protecting regional biodiversity, reducing black carbon and methane emissions, promoting improved data sharing, preparing for the green transition in the Arctic, combatting marine pollution, support stronger economic, health and cultural cooperation, advocate gender equality and diversity policies, and organise an Arctic Youth Conference.

Norway’s Council policy paper has illustrated its government’s ‘the show must go on’ approach to its upcoming chairing duties, expressing a determination to make sure that the group does not deviate from its core interests in addressing the considerable environmental and human security travails which, as many policymakers have pressed, cannot be placed on hold until the Arctic’s strategic situation improves. 

Oslo has given itself an ambitious, and lengthy, to-do list for its two years as Council chair, and in addition to the logistics of completing these tasks, the Norwegian government will constantly need to observe how and where the changed security situation in the Arctic is spilling over into ongoing efforts to improve livelihoods in the far north.