Carol Morello, Washington Post
22 April 2015
A chill is already in the air ahead of the next meeting of the Arctic Council.
Not all of the heat emanating from the Arctic Circle this week will be due to climate change.
On Friday, diplomats from eight nations will meet in the Baffin Island town of Iqaluit, located in Canada’s far north, as the United States takes the reins of a body known as the Arctic Council.
Normally a forum for tackling environmental, safety and economic issues in the vast swath of ice and snow at the top of the world, this time the council is expected to be a venue for Canada’s representative to deliver a tough message to fellow member Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
That dispute, however, is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rising tensions with Russia.
Last month, Russia launched major war games in the Arctic, sending in 38,000 troops and dozens of warships and submarines. The country’s new military doctrine calls for expanding the presence of its armed forces in the resource-rich Arctic, in order to defend its interests there. It is also building new airfields and radar stations, refurbishing and reopening abandoned military bases and training commandos for Arctic warfare.
As Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s outspoken deputy prime minister and head of the country’s new commission on the Arctic, recently tweeted during a visit to a Norwegian archipelago while en route to the North Pole, “The Arctic is a Russian Mecca.”
The diplomatic frostiness may be infringing on the work of the Arctic Council, an organization known for the ability of its members to overlook their political differences for the good of the region and its 4 million residents.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov won’t be attending Friday’s meeting, an apparent tit for tat after Ottawa snubbed Moscow at an earlier Arctic Council meeting.
The cold-shoulder tactics could be an early indication of a rocky term ahead for the United States.
In a new report, a group of 50 international Arctic experts urged Washington to use its two-year chairmanship of the council to foster cooperation and wall off the Arctic from the tensions that have come to characterize relations between Russia and the West.
“The Arctic may be one of the few possible areas where constructive work with Russia may be possible in the future,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, one of the report’s authors.
While Canada focused on economic development during its time as council chair, the United States plans to emphasize climate change and ways to help indigenous inhabitants adapt.
The Arctic Circle is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and melting polar ice is opening new shipping lanes for commercial use and increasing opportunities for oil and gas exploration.
“As an Arctic nation, we have a moral obligation to use our human, financial, and scientific resources to help those in the region find ways to adapt to these changes, and to significantly reduce the pollutants driving global climate change,” Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the State Department’s special representative for the Arctic, wrote in a White House blog.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said at a 2013 Arctic Council meeting in Sweden that the effects of climate change present “one of the most obvious shared challenges on the face of the planet today.”
In its first years of existence, the council focused on the environment. It was founded in 1996, with a specific prohibition against taking up military and security issues. That was primarily done to lure a reluctant United States to become a member, overcoming opposition from members of Congress who considered such international organizations suspect.
What began as a concession to the U.S. came to be viewed as a strength. Because all the countries had a common interest in protecting the Arctic, it engendered a spirit of cooperation, no matter what was going on to the south.
“We believe the Arctic should and will continue to be a region of low tension,” said Martin Lidegaard, the foreign minister of Denmark, which administers Greenland. “Anything else will be a real problem. We can only manage environmental and climate measures together. If it’s not done in a peaceful way, it could lead to new conflicts, which is what we don’t need now.”
That cooperative sense began changing with Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ministers from the Arctic countries convene every two years, and this is their first get-together since the crisis in Ukraine.
In Canada, home to a large Ukrainian community, officials have been particularly outspoken in denouncing Russia. Last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Russian President Vladimir Putin, while shaking his hand at a Group of 20 (G-20) summit meeting, to “Get out of Ukraine.” And Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow last year as a “principled stand” to protest Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
“There are few places on the planet where eight nations are in continued engagement and dialogue, like in the Arctic Council,” said Michael Sfraga, a professor of Arctic policy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. “By Lavrov not coming, it could be an indication of a foreign policy strain now affecting Arctic Council dynamics. Everyone is fully aware of Russia’s renewed interest and expansion in the Arctic.”
Because all decisions by the Arctic Council must be unanimous, the forum is a good place for Moscow to send the message that its interests must be considered.
“Lavrov not attending is a reminder that if you don’t have Russia at the table, certain things don’t get done,” said Matt Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. “You get the sense that the Russian position is they are going to obstruct anything unless they’re treated as an equal party.”