Arne O. Holm says The Arctic Council is Dead. Long Live the Arctic Council.

One big happy family, back in 2018 during the Arctic Council's ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi in Finland. (Photo: Arctic Council Secretariat/Linnea Nordström)

Tromsø (High North News): Today, the Norwegian government presents its program for the Arctic Council ahead of the formal Norwegian takeover of the chairship after Russia on the 11th of May. The foremost ambition will be to ensure the council's survival for the next two years.

As a meeting place between East and West at a high political level, also after 2014 and Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Arctic Council is stone dead.

As a forum for research and cooperation on issues such as climate, indigenous rights, and demography, there is still hope that the council will survive.

Does not depend on Russia only

The Arctic Council's future as a scientific workshop for the High North does not depend only on Russia. It is also about how far the seven western Arctic states are willing to go to involve Russian actors.

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the breakdown of the Arctic Council, Norway, with diplomat Morten Høglund in front, has worked continuously to stake out a future for the council. A split with Russia at a political level was inevitable. But many, especially on climate-related issues, have been concerned with continuing the cooperation. The problem is that without Russian researchers, as half of the Arctic is in Russia, major parts of the climate research falls apart.

As a political meeting place between East and West, the Arctic Council is dead.

Today, cooperation with Russian institutions is on the list of sanctions towards Russia. Without some form of loosening of these sanctions, Arctic climate research is rather left in the mud.

There are many perspectives on this among the western members of the Arctic Council. The Arctic states who are members of the EU as well and must follow the EU's sanctions regime, have especially created challenges in the work of securing a transition from Russian to Norwegian chairship. Finland and Sweden are bound by EU's sanctions regime and the same can apply to Denmark to a certain degree, even though their membership of the Arctic Council is connected to Greenland.

It bodes well

In the long term, the tension is linked to whether it is at all possible to organize a cooperation that includes all the eight Arctic states, i.e. including Russia.

In the short term, until the formal takeover on the 11th of May, there is also tension linked to the formal process.

In an interview with High North News yesterday, Monday, Russia's Arctic ambassador Nikolay Korchunov, said that Russia still considers the Arctic Council an important forum for cooperation. Nor does he question the process that is taking place in May.

That bodes well.

The Arctic Council is a bit like cross-country skiing.

In its recent strategy, Russia wishes to diminish the significance of the Arctic Council and rather shift the center of gravity of Arctic issues towards China and India. However, that does not necessarily mean that Russia is putting a spanner in the works of Norwegian chairship. 

The shift in the leadership of the Arctic Council often entails grandeur. That will not be the case this time. The meetings will be digital and without national political participation. Nor will there come a joint, strategic, and political statement, as is tradition.

Like cross-country skiing

However, we need not go back any further than to 2018, when Finland handed over the chairship to Iceland. Back then, it was the US who put a spanner in the works of a joint declaration. When Canada handed over the chairship to the US in 2015, the conflicts with Russia were so intense that the meeting of ministers was organized in a way that almost made it impossible for a journalist or others who follow these processes to be present. Now, it is Norway's turn, in the council's most demanding era. 

To claim that the process is followed with interest by the rest of the world would be a gross exaggeration. The Arctic Council is becoming a bit like the winter sport of cross-country skiing, with Russia banned and Norway in the lead.

However, both the Arctic population and the rest of the world benefit from international cooperation on issues that determine the future of the planet.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.