(Commentary) Reykjavik: Next year, Norway will take over the Arctic Council leadership after Russia. That is to say, the plan is for Norway to take over this prestigious, international position. Perhaps it will not go like that after all. Resistance to giving the Arctic Council life without Russian participation could make the transition very demanding, if not impossible.
As with everything else, this is about Russia’s war against Ukraine. About a Russia that has paralyzed international cooperation in the North.
What Norway will possibly take over is therefore not the leadership of eight Arctic states. It is an organization of seven states, and only half of the geographical area known as the Arctic.
In that case, many claim it to be a completely new organization. Some even call it an organization without legitimacy. A still important body for cooperation in the Arctic, say others. Not least in the long term, and with a different Russia than the one we face today.
Norway must play its cards well if they are to succeed. So far, the Norwegian side is keeping its cards close to its chest. The strategy makes what is traditionally associated with quiet diplomacy appear like a megaphone. Whether the strategy is good or bad remains to be seen.
I have been in Reykjavik in Iceland for a short week and have followed the debate on the giant Arctic Circle conference. As usual, the official political Norway was absent from the program, and therefore could not, or would not, speak up every time the Arctic Council was buried from the podium.
Nor to Norway.
If anything, the conference emphasized that change has become the new normal in the Arctic. The Arctic peace project, which was still alive at the beginning of this year, has been replaced by generals and admirals with bulging budgets. The changes and the uncertainty are so great that almost every discussion, and almost regardless of the topic, both started and ended with the question of whether Russia’s belligerent warfare will spread to the Arctic.
Where we previously were presented with rising temperatures and melting ice with millimeter precision, we now received an introduction to a historical military rearmament below the sea surface, on the sea surface, and in the air. This is about the fact that seven of the eight original members of the Arctic Council are also members of NATO. Or From the admirals’ point of view:
"It is about the increased militarization of the Arctic, especially by Russia and China."
Rob Bauer is admiral and chair of NATO’s military committee. He pointed to Svalbard in particular as an area where Russian activity outside the coast of the archipelago has increased greatly.
Hope is not a strategy.
Special Envoy to the Arctic for China, Gao Feng, was asked if China would support an Arctic Council without Russia. He said they would not, and instead used its first trip abroad to emphasize that China still cooperates with Russia.
“I am unsure if the leadership will be left to anyone at all. Nor to Norway,” said Feng.
The countries that want to disband the Arctic Council are, like China, without affiliation to the Arctic, but nevertheless with a strong desire to play on the Arctic stage in the next decades. We are pawns in their hunt for food and energy, but also their hunt for new positions when the original Arctic cooperation model will be replaced by a new one. The breakdown of the Arctic Council, the sometimes only working link between East and West, attracts both new and old players.
I have written a lot about the militarization of the Arctic in the last weeks and months. On the flight from Reykjavik, I flip through my notes looking for glimmers of light in all the darkness.
The closest I get is a statement from the Icelandic Minister of Foreign Affairs, Thórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörd Gylfadóttir.
“Hope is not a strategy.”
No comfort there either. Nor any precise answers to whether the Russian brutality will spread to other borders, to the Arctic. Just a constant and direct emphasis on the fact that NATO is preparing with everything they have for that to happen.
People with different needs. War is not one of them.
“For NATO, it is no longer business as usual in the North. This is due to the increased military activity in the Arctic.”
We who live here
The admiral’s assurances may be reassuring for some, but they come because normal is no longer a part of Arctic everyday life.
“We will do what we must to keep the Arctic peaceful. If Russia threatens us from the North, we must react,” says the admiral on his way off the stage in the Harpa cultural center in Reykjavik. He receives applause. I find little to applaud.
Behind the scenes, hard work is being done to save the Arctic Council. In the end, it is about finding a way where Russia voluntarily hands over the leadership of an organization they are no longer allowed to participate in to Norway. The fact that it is their own fault is of no importance to Russia.
We live in a world where change is normal, and where humans are the only constant.
We who live here.
We are people with different needs. War is not one of them.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by Birgitte Annie Molid Martinussen.