Tromsø, Northern Norway: Arctic experts trust Norway to maneuver the transfer of the Arctic Council Chairmanship from Russia based on Norway's long-lasting relationship with the country. “Norway has been balancing and protecting the cooperation with Russia for many years while pushing back Russian aggression", says American professor Evan Bloom.
Since all official collaboration with Russia has ended after the invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of anticipation riding on the transfer of the chairmanship of the Arctic Council (AC) from Russia to Norway on the 11th of May 2023.
Right now, there are more questions than answers.
What seems to be clear is that there is no Arctic Council without the 45 percent of the Arctic that Russia represents.
No Arctic 7
“There is no Arctic Council without Russia. We need to abolish the term Arctic 7," says Whitney Lackenbauer.
He is a Canadian researcher and professor at Canada Trent University and gives the statement during a debate about the future of the Arctic Council at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Northern Norway.
We cannot go back to it as it was
When it comes to resuming the work with Russia, Lackenbauer says it is important to be patient.
“I do not think that we can dive into cooperation with Russia. We cannot go back to it as it was. Remember that the Russian narrative is different from the Western one," says the Canadian professor.
Going forward, he says it will be important to focus on which areas the rest of the Arctic needs Russia to cooperate on.
Elana Wilson Rowe, a research professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), says that the rest of the Arctic states have to accept the space of uncertainty.
“We also have to reinterpret how Russia sees international relations," says the researcher and adds that she is concerned about the coming years.
“In a broad sense, the Arctic Council has had an important global effect. It shows that the regions are governed well."
“Things have also changed in Russia, and we cannot just resume the cooperation after the war," says Rowe.
Life after May 11
So what lies beyond May 11th? What happens to the Arctic Council if the transfer of the chairmanship does not happen in a way that makes it possible for the Council to move forward?
About the Arctic Council
- The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.
- It was formally established in 1996.
- All Arctic Council decisions and statements require consensus of the eight Arctic States.
Evan Bloom, who is a Senior Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, is hopeful about the continued existence of the Council.
“It is strange to talk about the future of the Arctic Council when not too long ago it seemed like a success story that bridged the gap to Russia. But we have seen some signs that make us hopeful for the transfer from Russia to Norway," says Bloom.
Bloom refers to the fact that the Council still exists as an institution, that Russia never was thrown out, and that Norway has been balancing and protecting the cooperation with Russia for many years.
“We need to honor the procedure of rules. The Arctic Council is made up of 8 Arctic states and any decision is a consensus between the 8 states. If Norway can move forward, the future of the Council is good”, says Bloom.
They know how to do it
How to actually move forward, is the big question the Norwegian Chairmanship faces.
"Can Russia have a Senior Official? Can they take part in the cooperation on lower levels? And even if the Council survives and is somehow kept together with duct tape, the efficiency is reduced. In the end, you cannot take Russia out of the Arctic or the Arctic Council," says Bloom.
“We have to deal with these questions and the fact is that it is not possible to work with Russia until the war is over."
Malgorzata Smieszek, Researcher at UiT, the Arctic University of Norway, is pleased to observe a “tremendous will” to keep the Arctic Council going.
“And there is a will to find ways to transition from Norway to Russia in May. I think that a lot of creativity will go into making the Arctic Council resilient going into the future. Like strengthening the working groups and focus on how we can organize the work internally in the Council, so next time we hit a crisis we will be better prepared," suggests Smieszek.
In Norway we trust
In the end, Smieszek is hopeful for the transfer based on Norway’s long history of successful pragmatic collaboration with its Eastern neighbor.
"They know how to do it."
The researcher reminds the room that defending the Arctic Council as it is and as it has been is not the goal, but rather what it achieves.
“The Council has always been in a state of change. It is not today what it was in the beginning. The Arctic Council is not static, but always in the making," says Smieszek, hinting that the AC might not come out on the other side of this crisis unchanged.
The consequences of an AC breakdown might be to “lose” Russia and all the research and connections that have taken place since the end of the Cold War.
That system is now broken.
"The Arctic Council is the forum that puts a dividing line between the Arctic and non-Arctic states. From the beginning, the AC has been a doorway to Russia and has been a good way to engage with them," says the Tromsø-based researcher.
For Lars-Otto Reiersen, the Director of Arctic Knowledge, the loss of the AC means the loss of the already reduced scientific work with Russia.
"If the AC breaks down, we will feel this more as the situation progresses. The Western build-up and financing of Russian research and research stations have been a success. That system is now broken. Russian researchers do not have the money to continue research on areas that affect the whole Arctic," says Reiersen.
The lack of cooperation will be noticeable.
Elana Wilson Rowe takes the opportunity to remind the crowd that not all institutions are meant to last forever,
Have the AC simply run its course?
“This is a geopolitical apocalyptic event. But in the last 200 years, 500 governmental institutions have broken down and the life span of any governmental institution is 23 years," Rowe says.
Rowe says she brought up this statistic as a reminder that in the longer-term, institutional landscapes do change. But noted that the Arctic Council had already made it past an important milestone.
The AC is in its 27th year.
"Focusing on shared policy goals and core governance principles, like inclusiveness, are important to focus on while navigating institutionally complex times", say Rowe.
Evan Bloom points out that the future of the AC is different from the future of Arctic cooperation.
“Most Arctic cooperation does not go through the AC. There is a huge amount of activity going on between the Arctic states outside this.”
Ultimately, Bloom thinks that nothing will change until the end of the war.
Whitney Lackenbauer is clear that coming back to the AC is in Russia's hands.
“It is not the AC's job to find out where Russia will fit in after the war," says the Canadian professor.
But if the Arctic Council breaks down, he is sure of one thing;
“The area of Arctic exceptionalism is over."