Any approach to regional cooperation in the Arctic that excludes Russian involvement in the long term will be difficult. However, according to some Western analysts, if the nature of Russian policy does not change, the continuation of cooperation with Russia within the framework of the Arctic Council over the long term will be problematic, writes Natalya Vyakhireva, Expert and Program Manager of the RIAC.
Given the deterioration of Russia's relations with the West in almost all respects since 2014, there were fears that these negative trends would extend to cooperation in the Arctic. However, during that time frame, until recently, the Arctic remained the region least affected by the crisis in relations between Russia and the West, where interaction continued despite many difficulties. At the same time, the Arctic Council (AC) played the role of the most authoritative intergovernmental forum for the development of cooperation in the Arctic and was considered one of the few remaining non-politicised platforms for interaction. The Arctic was often called a territory of peace and dialogue; many Russian and Western analysts have included the Arctic among the areas where interaction between Russia and Western countries is possible and promising, despite the general crisis in relations.
The year 2022 has served as a turning point for the activities of the Arctic Council and international Arctic cooperation. Shortly after the start of Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, seven member countries of the Arctic Council (Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, USA, Finland, Sweden) announced the suspension of their participation in all official events of the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies, in connection with the situation around Ukraine
, as well as their refusal to send representatives to Council meetings held in Russia
The countries participating in the Barents Euro-Arctic Council have also announced their suspension of cooperation with Russia.
The European Union, Iceland and Norway have suspended all projects under the "Northern Dimension” policy,
in which Russia and Belarus participate. The Arctic Economic Council did not suspend its activities involving Russia; however, it scrapped plans to hold the upcoming annual meeting in a mixed format in St. Petersburg, opting instead to hold the event online
The turning point came during the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which will last until 2023. Nikolai Korchunov, Ambassador-at-Large of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the AC, noted that the decision of the AC members will lead to an increase in the risks and challenges associated with maintaining security in the region. In connection with the current situation, the mechanisms of Russia's chairmanship in the AC will be reoriented towards solving the national problems of the development of northern territories
General political disagreements at the global level have previously influenced interaction within the Arctic Council. Thus, in April 2014, Canada, at that time the chair of the Arctic Council, stressed its disagreement with the Russian policy towards Crimea and Ukraine, refusing to send its representatives to the meeting of the AC Task Force on Methane and Soot Emissions, which was held in Moscow. At the time, it was about the refusal to participate in only one of the working groups of the Council, and not about the ministerial meeting, so the significance of this episode following its results should not be exaggerated, it is incomparable with the current situation.
In 2019, at the meeting of ministers of foreign affairs of the Arctic Council countries, for the first time in the history of the forum, the participants failed to sign the final declaration, because, contrary to the position of other members, the United States refused to recognise the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In addition, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised Russia's policy, allegedly aimed at fighting for influence in the Arctic, as well as China's Belt and Road project. This is another example where political confrontation on issues outside the scope of the Arctic agenda had a negative impact on the activities of the AC and cooperation in the Arctic region, but did not lead to a pause in its functioning. The current suspension of the activities of the Arctic Council is the first event of its kind since the council’s establishment in 1996. At the same time, this turn of events cannot be called a complete surprise. For example, the authors of the RIAC report "The Arctic Council: Status and Activities", published on the eve of the start of Russia's chairmanship in the AC, noted that, from the point of view of international law, the Arctic Council as a forum does not have any "monopoly" on coordinating interstate positions regarding the management of the Arctic region. And in the event of political and legal discord between the member states of the Arctic Council, alternative international mechanisms will come to the fore, contrary to the national long-term interests of Russia and other Arctic states
Most likely, a return to the usual nature of interaction within the framework of the Arctic Council should not be expected in the near future. There have been no further official announcements about the format of the AC’s work. In the short term, at the expert level, the seven Western countries of the AC are considering options for cooperation without Russia. Cooperation in the Arctic is proposed to be based on the common values and principles shared by the seven Arctic states that signed the statement, rather than any connection with the geography of the Arctic region. This entails building a new scheme for interaction, both under the auspices of the Arctic Council and within other existing platforms and options for creating new ones. Thus, Stefan Kirchner, professor at the University of Lapland, has proposed the creation of a Nordic Plus, a platform for interaction between Europe and North America in the Arctic, which will be based on the common values shared by the participating countries. In fact, we are talking about an extended version of the Nordic Council (Nordic cooperation).
Alice Rogoff, a member of the advisory board of Arctic Circe, is considering reformatting the Arctic Council into an Arctic Council 2.0, although the parameters for such a version of the forum remain unclear
. How would the members in this case deal with the consensus rule, the key for the Arctic Council, as to whether changes should be made to the Ottawa Declaration, the founding document of the AC? How would they address whether the range of issues the new version of the AC should be expanded, in particular, whether security issues are to be included in the agenda of the new version of the Council, and what will be the rules for AC observers?
These are all questions for which there are no answers yet. Some Western analysts point out that any approach to regional cooperation in the Arctic that excludes Russian involvement in the long term will be difficult
. Russia has the highest population inside the Arctic Circle; the Russian economy is the most connected with the resources of the North; Russia’s Arctic coast is the longest of any nation. However, according to some Western analysts, if the nature of Russian policy does not change, the continuation of cooperation with Russia within the framework of the Arctic Council over the long term will be problematic
At the moment, the future of the council remains uncertain. At the same time, it is obvious that solutions to many of the problems of the Arctic regarding ecology, the economics of culture, health care, the prevention of emergency situations, and the protection of the interests of the indigenous peoples of the North, are impossible without the participation of Russia.