The Arctic Council can continue without Russia

With some creativity, the remaining seven Arctic states can move forward on the body’s vital work.

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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)

On February 24, Russia launched an armed attack on Ukraine and extended the war it had already begun in 2014 to the whole of Ukraine. Currently, the war is raging in Ukraine and more than 2 million refugees have left the country. The situation in Ukraine is still changing, so we need to be cautious in saying anything affirmative as to what will happen next.

While many things are still uncertain, however, it can already be said with certainty that Vladimir Putin’s Russia has violated one of the most fundamental prohibitions in international law: that a state is forbidden to attack another independent state without a legal basis. Russia has given some light legal arguments for its attack, but they are so strange that no one will take them seriously. This reflects the statements by the Putin regime before the invasion: that the world operates around the great powers, and the smaller states need to adapt their behavior to the wishes and the interests of the big ones. Russia says in its words, deeds and actions that it does not agree to act on the basis of the rules of international law, and treats Ukraine as if it is its own rebel territory.

The seven other Arctic Council member states (hereinafter the “Arctic 7” or “A-7”) explicitly condemned Russia’s illegal actions in a joint statement on March 3. The countries stated that the work of the Arctic Council is based on respect for fundamental rules of international law, in particular those of sovereignty of states and their territorial integrity. When Russia insulted these so flagrantly by attacking Ukraine, seven other member states noted the “grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic, that Russia’s actions have caused” and decided to suspend the co-operation for the time being. It seems clear that the Arctic 7 cannot simply return to Arctic Council cooperation: By condemning Russia’s actions as flagrant violations of fundamental principles of international law, the other members of the council have also committed themselves to follow what Russia does in Ukraine in the days, months, or even years to come.

[It’s time for an Arctic Council 2.0]

On the other hand, the A-7 states also stressed in their statement the importance of continued cooperation in the Arctic: “We remain convinced of the enduring value of the Arctic Council for Circumpolar cooperation and reiterate our support for this institution and its work. We hold a responsibility to the people of the Arctic, including the indigenous peoples, who contribute to and benefit from the important work undertaken in the Council.”

By halting the co-operation for now, the A-7 have given themselves more time to ponder on how cooperation can move forward.

In my view, the signal from the A-7 states is clear. They want to continue the Arctic Council’s cooperation, but not, for the time being, with Russia. Although Russia is currently chairing the Arctic Council, I think it is clear that the A-7 countries will now have to continue the Arctic Council’s cooperation without Russia. Time is now needed to consider how this can be done in practice.

The Arctic Council’s own internal rules are based on the 1996 Ottawa Declaration and many other detailed sets of rules. They are built on the premise that the council has eight member states. The A-7 states do not receive direct guidance from these rules. In this situation it is a kind of relief that the Arctic Council is just an intergovernmental forum. It was established by a declaration — not via a legally binding treaty — and is therefore not governed by the same rules of international law that apply to intergovernmental organizations. This leaves room for A-7 states to creatively apply the existing rules to a situation where Russia’s membership is suspended for the time being. This is also very important, given e.g. that the Arctic Council has a huge number of projects that need to be able to continue in one way or another. In most of them, Russia does not have a leadership role, nor does it lead the other working groups of the council, other than the Sustainable Development Working Group.

The most urgent solution is needed for how the Arctic Council can act now that Russia holds the council’s chairmanship, and with it chairing key bodies such as the Senior Arctic Officials and the SDWG. In my view, the A-7 countries can find a solution to how to continue without the Russian chairmanship with interim arrangements. Exceptional times require leadership from the A-7 to find a suitable solution to how to run the ongoing Arctic Council chairmanship, and, in case the preconditions for Russia to join the co-operation have not been met, continue without Russia. The internal rules of the Arctic Council would apply, but with the awareness that there are, for now, seven members in the Council. This will require flexible attitudes from all sides, but, given that the A-7 have affirmed the importance of Arctic Council cooperation, it seems likely that they will adopt one or another form of interim arrangement.

It is much more challenging to say how long Russia, the largest state in the Arctic, will remain outside of the Arctic Council, because it is needed badly for this cooperation. Many have argued that, as a result of this war, Russia will for a long time be an outcast in the international system. If it occupies more regions of Ukraine, or even the whole country, it is difficult to say how long it will take for Russia to be accepted back as a member of various forms of international cooperation, including in the North. Under international law, territorial gains from war cannot be considered legal, so these will continue to hamper the relations between Russia and most states of the world, if Russia continues to occupy parts of Ukraine. What can be said is that if Russia keeps on insisting that it can govern its own sphere of influence as it likes, and discards the fundamental rules of international law, it will be problematic to continue also Arctic Council cooperation with Russia. Our hope is that Russia will return to the work of the Arctic Council as soon as possible, given that so much is at stake, whether it is mitigating and adapting to climate change or advancing sustainable development in Arctic communities.

Timo Koivurova is a research professor and former director of the Arctic Center at the University of Lapland.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.