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What to Expect from Russia’s Leadership of the Arctic Council

On May 20th, Russia assumed the rotating chairship of the Arctic Council from Iceland, a country who defined its time at the helm through liberal-minded action on northern sustainability. Established in 1996, the Arctic Council was established to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues. For the next two years, Moscow will exert significant influence over the Arctic Council’s direction, setting the agenda for approximately 50 high-level meetings during its chairship. 

What issues will shape Russia’s leadership of the Arctic Council? How will the institution’s agenda intersect with domestic politics and priorities? Here are four trends to watch for in the next two years of Arctic geopolitics.

  1. Arctic shipping emerging as a central agenda item

Especially as melting ice makes the northern region more traversable, the Northern Sea Route is an area of huge economic potential for Russia. President Putin has painted year-round shipping in the region as a means of connecting Russia’s Barents Sea to the North Atlantic. In addition to opening the country’s hydrocarbons trade to new markets, interest in the Northern Sea Route has invited darker speculation on the use of the route for military transport. With Putin’s popularity slipping domestically, he will be anxious to leverage Russia’s position in the Arctic Council to deliver progress on a new economic lifeline.

A look at Russia’s planned events for its Arctic Council chairship includes a series of events showcasing the Northern Shipping Route’s economic potential and examining means of international trade and scientific cooperation.

2. Softening institutional taboos on military discussions

Military affairs have historically been outside the parlance of the Arctic Council, with the institution’s founding documents including a statutory prohibition on such policies. That reluctance to engage may erode under Russian leadership, with high-ranking Moscow officials demanding the Russia take advantage of its Arctic Council chairship as “an opportunity to promote our own initiatives aimed at strengthening [national] interests in the Arctic.”

There is precedent for hard security engagement under the Arctic Council umbrella: The institution supported an annual dialogue among the Arctic states’ armed forces until the forum was ended in 2014 under the Canadian chairship. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has underscored that his country is seeking only to revive these talks. Russia’s Arctic Ambassador Nikola Kurchunov echoed the sentiment, arguing that increasing conflict potential in the Far North makes such military engagement an international imperative. To date, much of the animosity surrounding northern militarization has occurred between the U.S. and Russia, with American experts warning of Russia’s “worrisome and troublesome” military buildup in the region and Moscow condemning NATO exercises in the Arctic.

3. Strengthening the roles of peripheral Arctic Council actors

With every other Arctic Council country as either a NATO member or preferred partner, Russia has historically felt like the odd one out of the clubhouse. Despite a long track record of cooperation in the Arctic Council, the historic rivalry between Russia and the alliance creates a fundamental misalignment on geopolitical and security issues. Virtually any state beyond the NATO umbrella has the potential to be a Russian partner, going some ways towards balancing the opposition to Moscow’s position.

China and Greenland are the two states that are most likely to support Russian positions. Respectively serving as an Arctic Council observer state and a subset of Denmark’s representation, they have not played a pivotal role in the body’s decision-making processes. Both, however, have sought out a larger role.

Greenland has long toyed with ambitions of independence from Denmark, but a newly-elected national government has committed to prioritizing the interests of the island state as an independent actor. Russia is already in talks with Greenland about bolstering its Arctic Council participation to the level of an autonomous actor.

China has been called Russia’s priority partner in the Arctic. Despite commitments from Lavrov that Russia will focus on Arctic Council member states during its chairship, it seems inevitable that the bilateral warmth will spill over in the institution’s affairs.

4. (Wary) cooperation with the U.S.

The Trump Administration touted hawkish rhetoric on the Arctic, refusing to sign Arctic Council documents with language referencing climate protections and disparaging Chinese and Russian activities in the Far North both in institutional fora and during diplomatic visits. In seeking to distance himself from his predecessor, President Biden is now anxious to portray the U.S. as a team player in the Arctic Council, pursuing initiatives such as an American ambassador-at-large for the Arctic.

Especially as U.S.-Russia relations deteriorate elsewhere in the world, officials on both sides of the pond tout the Arctic as “one of [the] few fields where Russia and the USA successfully manage to have a dialogue on a decent level.” In a recent high-level meeting between Biden and Putin, the American president opened a discussion on the Northern Sea Route. With Russian maritime development as such a contentious issue in the U.S., the bilateral talks indicate how anxious the Biden Administration is to keep the Arctic channel open with Russia.

Despite Russia’s commitment to retaining the Arctic Council’s “spirit of cooperation,” U.S.-Russian dialogue doesn’t necessarily indicate a relationship of trust. The Russia vs. NATO dynamic, ties with China, and natural resource projects remain contentious issues among the Arctic superpowers. From a political standpoint, however, soft issues like climate and trade offer opportunities for demonstrating common ground. 

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Kathryn Urban

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