Russia wants to resume meetings between Arctic defense chiefs

Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Nikolay Korchunov said annual meetings of Arctic armed forces chiefs, halted in 2014, should begin again.

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Russian Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Nikolay Korchunov (center) during a panel conversation at the Arctic forum in St. Petersburg, April 2019. (Jonas Karlsbakk, the Barents Secretariat via HIgh North News)

As Russia prepares to take over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2021 to 2023, a top Russia official says the country welcomes closer engagement between militaries in the region, though not within the framework of the council.

Nikolay Korchunov, Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as the Senior Arctic Official of the Russian delegation to the Arctic Council, made the comments in an interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

Korchunov told the newspaper that sustainable development will be the main focus for the Russian Arctic Council chairmanship.

“The need to improve living conditions for the population in the Arctic region; adjusting life in the Arctic to climate change; preserving biological diversity; as well as the economic development in the Arctic, led by major projects for extraction and processing of natural resources; intensified shipping along the Northern Sea Route; and growth in tourism and trade, require collective efforts from all the states in the Arctic G8″, Korchunov told Kommersant.

Militarization of the Arctic

While the militarization of the Arctic has gained more attention in recent years, the mandate of the Arctic Council explicitly excludes military security.

When asked whether Russia will raise this issue during its chairmanship at the Arctic Council, the ambassador responded:

“Our country firmly maintains the line of diplomatic solutions to all controversial issues, including territorial and other disagreements, as registered by the five Arctic coast states in the Ilulissat Declaration of 2008. We see no reason to raise the issue of militarization separately as a part of the Council’s chairmanship.”

Korchunov continues:

“And we assume it to be a fact that there are no issues in the Arctic that require a military solution. Furthermore, the mandate of the Ottawa Declaration from 19 September 1996 excludes military security issues from the agenda of the organization.”

Resumption of meetings

Korchunov’s interviewer, Elena Chernenko, said that in the current situation, these issues cannot be ignored for too long, and asked whether or not Russia will touch upon security policy issues in any way during its chairmanship.

“Russia supports resuming the annual meetings of the Chiefs of the Armed Forces in the Arctic states in order to prevent deterioration of the military policy situation in the Arctic,” Korchunov replied. “This would be an effective measure to build trust and security in the region. As a first step towards resuming this format, it would be possible to consider the option of organizing a dialogue on the level of military experts from the Arctic Council’s member states, where issues such as establishing operative cooperation in order to prevent incidents in waters outside territorial zones could be discussed.”

These annual meetings were halted in 2014.

Chernenko further asked who Moscow believes to be carrying the main responsibility for the increased conflict potential in the Arctic.

“When the ice melts and accessibility of the region increases, there is an increase in military presence and activity in the region in both the Arctic states and non-Arctic NATO member states. As a result, the potential for conflict in the Arctic increases. During the past five years, it is assumed that NATO countries have doubled their military exercises and other battle training activities in the Arctic. The Armed Forces of non-Arctic NATO member states, as well as states that are not NATO members, are increasingly involved in participating in these”, Korchunov says and adds:

“The voyage into the Barents Sea early May 2020 by NATO forces consisting of American and British vessels under the pretext of ‘securing the safety and freedom of navigation of trade’ was clearly provocative.”

Russia also re-arming

Chernenko stresses that Russia, too, is building up its military presence in the Arctic.

“The measures taken by the Russian Federation in the Arctic is due to the importance of this region for national security and the economy of our country. Because the Arctic zone in Russia produces more than 10 percent of our gross national product and 20 percent of Russian exports. At the same time, our goal is to secure security and stability for conducting major economic projects and securing the socio-economic development of the Arctic zone under conditions with increased interest in this region from a series of states, including non-Arctic,” the Ambassador says and continues:

“Russia’s military activity in the Arctic does not violate any international obligations and is not aimed at any of the countries in the Arctic region and does not constitute a threat to their national security. I am sure NATO explains its actions and plans using the same arguments.” and adds:

“Unlike many other countries, Russia has consequently supported the creation of a system with strict adherence to international law in the Arctic region,” Korchunov said. “This system would adhere closely to the spirit and letter of the relevant conventions, expresses interest in preserving the region as a zone of peace, stability and constructive cooperation, such as reflected in the Ottawa Declaration, as well as a joint final declaration from ministers signed during the Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Rovaniemi on 6 May 2019.”