The Arctic Council Goes Back to Basics

Press Conference of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarsson [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Sigurjón Ragnar]

by Marc Lanteigne

After the tumultuous Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi two years ago, which concluded with no unanimous formal declaration, and with a significant wedge driven between the United States and the other seven members of the organisation, there was an general feeling of relief that this week’s gathering [video] of Arctic foreign ministers in Reykjavík was very much a ‘no drama’ affair. 

There was much general agreement about the need for redoubled efforts to address regional climate change threats, as well as combat sources of local pollution. A Reykjavík Declaration, along with a Arctic Council Strategic Plan which will guide the group’s activities until 2030, was signed by all parties. The meeting, held using a hybrid format due to ongoing restrictions caused by the pandemic, concluded with Iceland passing the Chair position to Russia for the next two years.

In the days leading up to the meeting, there had been two distinct sets of messages from the Russian government regarding its Arctic interests as well as its plans for the Council during its Chairing period. One pointedly spoke of Moscow’s willingness to defend its Arctic interests. Last month, the government of Vladimir Putin cited the Russian Arctic as a ‘red line’ which the West should be wary of challenging. More recently, foreign news agencies were granted a tour [video] of Russia’s Arctic Trefoil military base, (also known as Nagurskoye / Нагурское), on Franz Josef Land (Земля Франца-Иосифа), immediately before the start of the Reykjavík meeting, providing an opportunity for Moscow to demonstrate its augmented military capabilities in its Arctic lands. 

The Putin government also elaborated on various contributions which Russia could offer to regional cooperation initiatives in the Arctic, with an emphasis on sustainable development. The policy document published by the Russian delegation, which outlined the country’s priorities for the Council, placed much emphasis on environmental protection and human capital, including the roles of Indigenous Peoples and youth. The document also acknowledged the economic potential of the Arctic in the areas of shipping and tourism, and called for improved regional cooperation with like-minded regimes, including the Arctic Economic Council

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accepting the gavel of the Arctic Council Ministerial from Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarsson [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon]

One recommendation made at the gathering by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov which generated some comment was the idea that the option of holding military dialogues in conjunction with the Council should be revisited. In his statement [pdf], Mr Lavrov suggested that although the Arctic was ‘a territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation’, it was nonetheless necessary to expand cooperation, ‘to encompass the military sphere as well’. This would potentially involve meetings between military Chiefs in the Arctic states, along similar lines as what took place before 2014, when those activities were suspended after the Russian annexation of Crimea. 

Military affairs had traditionally been the ‘third rail’ of the Arctic Council, and it was stated in the original 1996 Ottawa Declaration which founded the Arctic Council that the body ‘should not deal with matters related to military security.’ In a short press conference after the meeting, Mr Lavrov reiterated his support for rebutted military dialogues. However, the host of the gathering. Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, stated he was not in agreement with that proposal.

The Ministerial meeting provided the first opportunity for a face-to-face meeting between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart. The side meeting between the two was positive, and appeared to set the stage for a potential summit later this year with President Putin and US President Joe Biden. The Biden government also agreed this week to drop plans to place sanctions on a firm overseeing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline, a decision which further lowered the diplomatic temperature.

However, Mr Blinken had made it clear before the Reykjavík meeting that Moscow was advancing ‘unlawful maritime claims’ in the Arctic Ocean, suggesting that security concerns had not been removed from Washington’s regional agenda. 

The US Secretary of State’s remarks confirmed that his country was seeking to return to the spirit of greater Arctic cooperation, including in combatting threats to the regional environment. This provided a welcome contrast to the stance of the previous administration, which repeatedly denied the very existence of climate change. Mr Blinken focused on the specific threats of black carbon and methane emissions as well as maritime plastic pollution. He also stated the Arctic was becoming a space for greater competition, but that ‘the Arctic is more than a strategically or economically significant region. It’s home to our people. Its hallmark has been and must remain peaceful cooperation.’

Yes, I’m signing! US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken adds his name to the Reykjavík Declaration [Photo: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs/Gunnar Vigfússon]

Secretary of State Blinken had travelled to Reykjavík as part of a greater Nordic regional tour, starting with a meetup in Copenhagen with Danish officials and Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, (Mr Blinken also confirmed the US government had abandoned the prospect of buying Greenland). After the Reykjavík conference, he then traveled to Kangerlussuaq to meet with Greenlandic Prime Minister Múte Bourup Egede on matters related to closer bilateral economic cooperation, including via the October 2020 Common Plan for US-Greenland Cooperation [pdf].

There were few surprises in either the Reykjavík Declaration or the Arctic Council Strategic Plan, reflecting an interest in keeping thorny political and security issues at bay in favour of focussing on the core agendas of the Council: environmental and scientific cooperation. The Declaration emphasized the necessity of ongoing cooperation in the areas of addressing climate change and green energy, sustainable regional development, human security, and marine protection. The paper also called for a further strengthening of the Council and cooperation with related bodies including the UArctic educational network and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum.

One notable omission from this year’s Declaration, however, was a decision taken on the admission of new Council observers. Four states, (Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland and Turkey), had submitted applications to become formal observers in the organisation, potentially joining the thirteen governments with that status.

However, there was no mention of observer admissions in the final agreement, suggesting any decision in this regard had been deferred, similar to the situation in 2015, when the Council’s Ministerial meeting in Iqaluit also concluded without an agreement on new observers. Switzerland, which had been seeking a formal observer position that year, reapplied and was successfully admitted at the 2017 meeting in Fairbanks.  

There was much fanfare surrounding the publication of the Council’s first ever Strategic Plan. However, the final document did not significantly differ from either the Reykjavík Declaration or previous policy statements made by the organisation.

Again, there was a concentration on climate change concerns, development, human security and strengthening the Council, along with the need to improve regional knowledge and communications. As one commenter noted, there was little in the way of specific reforms as well as a lack of ambition in the paper. With the Arctic continuing to gain more global attention, including from non-Arctic states and involving questions of evolving security concerns, there remains the question of whether the Council may be required to further evolve in order to meet these changed conditions. 

Politics aside, the environmental threats of to the Arctic show no signs of going away. This week, both Russia and parts of central Canada were experiencing record high springtime temperatures, further underscoring the fact that climate change continues to represent a significant challenge to the Arctic, and well beyond. 

Arctic News Roundup: 10-16 May

The Harpa concert hall and conference centre in Reykjavík, where this month’s Arctic Council Ministerial meeting will take place [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) A story in the Iceland Monitor (Morgunblaðið) revealed how fish skin has been used for medical purposes in Iceland, by citing a case of a local patient who suffered from skin burns in an accident, and who received treatment which included fish skin is used to promote the healing process.

2) According to the Greenlandic news service KNR, Naaja H. Nathanielsen, (representing the Inuit Ataqatigiit party), the Minister of Raw Materials in the current Government of Greenland, has been planning to propose a zero tolerance policy against extraction of radioactive elements to the Parliament of Greenland (Inatsisartut). The ban on the mining of such materials was lifted in 2013 by the administration of Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond (until now). Minister Nathanielsen also stressed that her party does not oppose mining activities in general in Greenland, but there would be no green light in regards to mining uranium.

3) India’s expanding polar interests were the subject of a study paper by the Arctic Institute. New Delhi had published a draft governmental policy statement on the Arctic in January this year, the first document of its type. As with other countries in the Asia-Pacific, India’s Arctic interests include scientific and economic areas. The paper recommended that India’s Arctic policies include a clarification of how it views the region as a ‘global commons’, and that the Indian government appoint an Arctic ambassador.

4) Over the Circle published a new post, describing how developing Arctic security policies by Russia and the United States might affect the prospects of great power cooperation (or competition) during and after the Arctic Council’s Ministerial meeting in Reykjavík this week. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had expressed optimism about new prospects for multilateralism with the other members of the Council. Russia will be assuming the chair position of the Council for the next two years.

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.

Arctic News Roundup: 3-9 May

[Photo by Mats Hansson via Pixabay]

by Mingming Shi

1) Visit Greenland, a platform for Greenlandic tourism promoting, published a new article about the history of Hans Egede’s missionary journey in Greenland three hundred years ago, and its centuries-long influence on this Arctic island.

2) As the Canadian news service Eye on the Arctic reported, the Government of Iceland has approved the proposal to open the Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson institute, a research centre dedicated to Arctic affairs and named for the former president of the country. The facilities will be created to strengthen Iceland’s overall Arctic profile.

3) A commentary on Sweden’s latest Arctic strategy was published by the Arctic Institute. The author praised the document for reflecting policy continuance regarding Stockholm’s Arctic interests, and noted that the European Union also had a potential expanded role in play in regional affairs, including development areas. The comment was also critical of the strategy paper for not detailing ways of improving cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic actors, as well as not more robustly addressing the difficult security milieu has begun to appear in the far north in recent years.

4) According to the Barents Observer, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences (Российская академия наук) expressed fears that lung cancer cases may soon rise as a result of radon gas being released due to ongoing melting permafrost. This potential phenomenon would not only damage the health of human beings, but also Arctic fauna. Since this gas does not have any colour or odour, it is difficult to detect without specific instruments.

5) The Atlantic published a feature story on the recent elections in Greenland and the role which the debate over rare earths mining played in it. This year’s vote drew an unusual degree of international attention since many of the issues surrounding it were related to wider debates on climate change, globalization, the opening up of the Arctic to greater economic activity, and great power politics.

6) Biophilia, a site overseen by the Spanish BBVA Foundation, announced the publication of a new, free online book [pdf] which presents a multidisciplinary look at issues relating to climate change in the Arctic and the melting of regional ice.

7) Norway’s High North News, remarking on a story from the Greenlandic news service Sermitsiaq, reported that Greenland would lift entry restrictions for tourists from 3 May, with limited numbers of arrivals per week, and quarantine regulations to be followed.

Arctic News Roundup: 26 April – 2 May

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) As RÚV reported, the discovery of micro-plastics within Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier in Europe, in Iceland, has been confirmed, based on latest research. The Hofsjökull glacier in the country was also found to contain microscopic plastic debris. Einar Jón Ásbjörnsson, one of the scientists behind the study, noted that the source of the contamination has not been fully ascertained.

2) The German Arctic Office, in conjunction with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, published a fact sheet entitled ‘Tourism in Polar Regions’ [pdf]. The document contains answers to several commonly asked questions regarding the tourism sector in both Arctic and Antarctic regions, with explanations about differences in industry regulations between the two regions, various tourism activities, environmental and societal impacts of the industry, and predictions for the future of polar tourism.

3) According to The Local.no, the language test which accompanies citizenship applications in Norway will be more challenging, with the minimum Norwegian language competency level raised from A2 to B1, using the the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. However, the new regulations will not come into force immediately.

4) Specialists on Arctic affairs from both Estonia and the United States participated in a webinar [video], organised by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which focused on the roles of Estonia in promoting regional cooperation. The speakers shared their comments on the questions of far northern climate change and regional sustainable development. Tallinn has applied to become a formal observer government in the Arctic Council this year.

5) The question of whether the Arctic requires a pan-regional regime to regulate the emerging area of Arctic Ocean fishing was addressed in a piece by the Arctic Institute written by Dr Ekaterina Uryupova. the article explained that while there has been significant regional movement in addressing the question of sustainable Arctic fishing, including the 2018 Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement, further cooperation and standardisation was necessary, given that more of the ocean is opening up to various potential fishing activities.