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Arctic Council at a Crossroads

Mar 28, 2022
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR

The unfolding Russia-Ukraine conflict is leading to more Western sanctions on Russia, and their scope of influence is expanding. The tensions rippled all the way to the Arctic region this month, resulting in the suspension of governance mechanisms, a threat to economic cooperation and a risk of military escalation.

The Arctic Council has come to a crossroads, but its role as the core framework in Arctic governance remains unassailable for the time being.

Because of the Ukraine crisis, a split between Russia and the other seven Arctic nations — the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — plunged the regional and subregional governance mechanisms into crisis.

On March 3, the seven countries issued a joint statement on cooperation, condemning “Russia’s flagrant violation” of “core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity” and temporarily pausing participation in all meetings of the council and subsidiary bodies. Meanwhile, the Arctic Economic Council’s executive committee voted to condemn the invasion and changed its annual general meeting from St. Petersburg, Russia, to an online meeting.

It’s the first time that major Arctic governance mechanisms have come to a standstill since 2014, when the Arctic Chiefs of Defense Forum was suspended following the Crimea crisis.

In terms of subregional cooperation, the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Council of the Baltic Sea States halted their cooperation with Russia. On the other side, Moscow said it would withdraw from the Northern Dimension and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council.

This deconstruction trend in the frameworks of Arctic governance could be seen as an extension of a range of Western actions against Russia, including taming its influence on different international organizations and attaching the “bad guy” label to the country.

The Arctic is a unique geographical region and Arctic nations have long held that its peace and cooperation should not be affected by conflicts in other regions of the world. However, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has broken the normative concept of Arctic exceptionalism and will likely reconfigure the region’s geopolitical architecture. At the same time, however, we must see that the Arctic Council, in its 26 years of existence, has become a core mechanism in Arctic governance. Hence, disintegration doesn’t come easy. Nonetheless, there might be some adjustments in its future development.

The Arctic Council has not yet disbanded. The seven countries merely suspended their participation with Russia as the current chair and changed the St Petersburg meeting to be online. They didn’t declare they were disbanding. Though Moscow took a rather tough attitude toward the Arctic’s subregional cooperation mechanisms, it has maintained a flexible stand regarding the upheaval in the council. All this indicates that, both sides have a tacit understanding that the current framework should be maintained.

Back in 2014, Iceland was the rotating chair of the council during the Crimea crisis, and most activities went on as usual in Reykjavik. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even attended the council’s ministerial meeting that year, which actually offered an occasion for both sides to manage differences. Currently, by contrast, Russia chairs the council, so it would involve too much political symbolism for the other seven Arctic nations and observer states to send their envoys to attend meetings in Russia. The situation has not only deprived the council of its role as the main body for Arctic dialogue but has become another indicator of the Russia-West rupture.

Moreover, the Arctic Council can’t afford to disband. On one hand are obstacles that can hardly be circumvented. The Ottawa Declaration, which inaugurated the council, defines Russia as one of eight members and stipulates that decisions are to be made by the consensus of all states. Hence the other seven members will face an obstacle by kicking Russia out. On the other hand is the perennial governance conundrum. The Arctic Ocean is a semi-closed basin, meaning that any environmental or economic issue of any littoral state will likely cause repercussions in the region. As the Arctic warms ever faster, the challenges of climate change, fishery management and environmental protection must be dealt with in a coordinated way. The council has in past years contributed to search and rescue, emergency prevention and scientific research.

Under the current circumstances, it’s not difficult for the seven Arctic states to boycott talks with Russia, but it’s difficult to configure a new framework governance. Recently, the U.S. coordinator for the Arctic region, James Dehart, said, “Arctic cooperation and study must continue. … We will use this pause to figure out how we can proceed.” Such cooperation might involve engagement on technical issues. Russian officials will probably be excluded from the upcoming online meetings, and change may not occur until Norway takes over the chairmanship in 2023.

Regarding the future development of the council, it will likely be a U.S.-led regional governance concept. What effects that will have on Russia and the council’s observers is worthy of close attention.

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