In Arctic, no sign of cooling Russia-West relations

There is little evidence that Moscow's poisoned relations with Western capitals his it considering going it alone in the Arctic, according to the Finnish chair of the Arctic Council.

By Kevin McGwin - March 24, 2018
A group photo of the delegates to the SAO meeting in Levi, Finland, this week (Photo: Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström)

Collaboration between Russia and the West in the Arctic remains robust, despite being dogged by relations elsewhere in the world, Aleksi Härkönen, the Finnish ambassador currently leading the Arctic Council, said Friday at the close of the group’s second meeting held during his county’s chairmanship.

“There is a risk that things could be such in the international situation that various forms of international cooperation could be put on hold, but we don’t see any signs of this in the Arctic Council.”

Comments of this sort have become the standard refrain among the eight members of the Arctic Council in the wake of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and later foreign affairs disputes over its involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

A ban on Russian participation in the Winter Olympics last month, and most recently, suspected Kremlin involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy living in Britain, and his daughter, have put a further strain on relations between Russia and the West.

[Meteorologists urge closer collaboration to improve safety, climate assessments]

However, the situation appeared to be poised to spill over into the region this week after Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, commented on Thursday that Russian activities in a number of world issues, including the Arctic, were irresponsible.

The Russian embassy in Canada responded on social media that Trudeau’s statement itself was “counterproductive … for bilateral dialogue on important issues, like the Arctic”.

Härkönen, who hesitantly described relations with Moscow as “poisoned,” explained that Russia and the other members of the Arctic Council were still working together on regional issues.

As an example, he highlighted a joint-presentation by U.S. and Russian officials on a recent submission to UN maritime body the IMO to improve shipping safety in the Bering Strait.

[US military warns against Russian Arctic expansion]

Russia was also heavily represented during an Arctic Council event in February focusing on shipping issues in the region.

The meeting in Levi, Finland, this week likewise saw Russian contributions to discussions about two of Finland’s main themes for its two-year chairmanship: improved telecommunications in the region and the introduction of meteorological cooperation as a formal order of business for the council.

Telecommunications was first taken up during the previous chairmanship, held by the U.S., which ended in 2017, but with the technological progress seen in communications technologies in recent years, finding ways to provide services had become more crucial than ever, according to Härkönen.

“The main idea is to improve connectivity in the Arctic in different ways, which means that all the inhabitants of the region should have modern means of communications and services so that they will be well-prepared for the changes foreseen in the Arctic,” he said.

[All Russian Arctic settlements to get fast internet]

Härkönen believes that states have a responsibility of providing their citizens with adequate levels of communications, but stressed that public-private partnerships would be the Finns’ preferred method of setting up communications networks.

Until now, though, providing telecommunications in the Arctic has been too costly for private firms, due to the limited number of potential subscribers and because of the difficulty of connecting with telecommunications satellites, which typically orbit near the equator.

Instead, the Finns are hoping that successful meteorological collaboration could also provide a cornerstone for new communications networks.

This is because meteorological observation systems would require space and land-based infrastructure that could also be used for personal communications.