Arctic Council under pressure as Norway readies for handoff from Russia

The body's two-year rotating chairship is set to pass from Russia to Norway — but cooperation has been on hold since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

By Gwladys Fouche, Reuters, Gloria Dickie, Reuters - March 28, 2023
Flags of the eight member nations and 6 permanent participants of the Arctic Council stand at the body’s ministerial meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland on May 20, 2021. (Gunnar Vigfússon / Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs via Arctic Council)

OSLO/LONDON — Norway said it will prioritize a smooth transition with Russia as it plans to assume the chair of the Moscow-helmed Arctic Council on May 11, but will not commit to restarting stalled cooperation given the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Arctic Council was created in 1996 to discuss issues affecting the polar region, ranging from pollution to local economic development to search-and-rescue missions.

Norway announced its priorities on Tuesday, noting it would focus its work as chair on climate change, the oceans, sustainable economic development and the peoples of the Arctic.

The Arctic Council comprises the eight Arctic states of Russia, the United States, Canada, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark. Other nations, including China and India, are official observers to the council’s activities.

At the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Russia was halfway through its two-year chairmanship of the council which rotates between members.

This led the other seven Arctic nations to soon pause cooperation with Moscow, putting about a third of the Council’s 130 projects on hold because they had direct Russian involvement. Russia called the action “regrettable.”

Russia’s possible degree of involvement with the Council once Norway takes over is still unclear. For now, the focus is squarely on attaining a seamless shift from Russia to Norway.

“We want an orderly transition,” Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Eivind Vad Petersson told Reuters, adding, “Norway is in contact with Russia to prepare the transition.”

“At the same time, it is out of the question to have senior political officials going to a ministerial event in Russia and we have communicated that clearly to Russia.”

Asked whether the pause would continue under Norway’s chairmanship, Petersson said: “We will not be able to communicate on the future work of the council until we have taken up the chairship role.”

Diplomacy on ice

A trouble-free transition of the chairmanship is not yet guaranteed.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had earlier extended an invitation to Arctic officials to attend a transition ceremony in Salekhard, Siberia.

Instead, Norway said the transition event will take place digitally and will be limited to the level of civil servants, not political leaders.

Russian Arctic Ambassador Nikolay Korchunov, chair of the Senior Arctic Officials on the council, told Reuters the transition would “presuppose active and responsible participation of all Arctic Council member states in this preparatory process.”

Norway’s foreign ministry declined to comment on Korchunov’s statement.

During the pause, Russia has instead focused on domestic events, including a conference in Murmansk regarding the removal of radioactive waste from the Arctic Ocean, Korchunov said.

He said that because Norway was one of the countries that had decided to put cooperation on hold, “this creates uncertainty about the eventual future of the Norwegian chairmanship and what approach it will follow with regard to Arctic Council activities.”

Still, political experts emphasized to Reuters that it was “lucky” Norway was next in line to take over the chairmanship.

“No other country who is a member of the Arctic Council has had more day-to-day experience of working with Russia,” said Klaus Dodds, a professor of geopolitics at Britain’s Royal Holloway University.

Rebecca Pincus, director of the Wilson Center’s Polar Institute, a U.S. think tank, noted “there would be a level of awkwardness if the chairmanship was transitioning to the U.S., or Finland or Sweden who are poised to join NATO.”

A U.S. State Department official told Reuters they are “focused on the work on the transition of the chairmanship right now” and that “this may be the only area where we’ve been interacting with them (the Russians).”

An escalation of rhetoric or an unforeseen incident between Russia and the West during the next month could jeopardize the transition, Pincus said.

Reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo and Gloria Dickie in London; Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, David Stanway in Singapore and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen.

This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Today and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

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