Lavrov: "The Arctic Council’s Future Depends on Whether a Civilized Dialogue Can Continue"

Sergey Lavrov og Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, AC ministermøte 2021
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the Arctic Council's Ministerial Meeting in Reykjavik in 2021 together with Iceland's then Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson. (Photo: Arctic Council)

Last week, Russia transferred the chairship of the Arctic Council to Norway. A way forward for the council requires joint efforts for dialogue to preserve the Arctic as a peaceful and stable region with constructive cooperation, says the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Last Thursday, Russia completed its two-year chairship of the Arctic Council and handed over the baton to Norway. This took place at a meeting in Salekhard, Western Siberia, with digital participation from the Western Arctic countries. 

In a video speech to the participants of the meeting, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, made the following statement:

"Further effective work and the future of the Arctic Council as a whole will depend on whether we can jointly find opportunities for continuing a civilized dialogue to preserve the Arctic as a territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation," states Lavrov, reports the Russian news agency TASS.

The MFA reminded "that the council's work has been disrupted by the West's position, which froze the council's activities under the far-fetched pretext of the situation in Ukraine." Russia was suspended from the council's cooperation activities shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.

"We consider this step by our Western colleagues as politicized and counterproductive. It erodes collective approaches to responsible administration of the Arctic," he insists.

The importance of the Arctic

According to Lavrov, Russia has, as chairship, based its work on shared Arctic interests in order to ensure sustainable and safe development of the entire region and its inhabitants, including indigenous peoples.

He also points to how Moscow pays great attention to the Arctic region:

"The importance of the Arctic to our country's strategic interests was also confirmed in the updated Foreign Policy Concept, approved by Vladimir Putin at the end of March."

Willing to cooperate – with conditions

As reported by HNN, Russia's Arctic Ambassador, Nikolay Korchunov, elaborated on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' views on the council at the press conference after the meeting:

"The future of the council is obviously a concern. But Norway is in a position to keep the organization going and restore the council to its original format," says Korchunov.

He also expresses that Russia is willing to cooperate and emphasizes that it will be impossible to maintain the council going forward without interaction between the Arctic countries.

Furthermore, Kurchonov rejects that Russia has intentions to develop alternative forums to the Arctic Council – at least not as long as the council continues to work in a way that is in Russia's national interest.

The Russian ambassador also repeats Russian worry about the NATO expansion in the Nordic region and calls for dialogue between the Arctic states on military issues. 

At the same time, he notes that such issues are not connected to the council (military security is explicitly excluded from its mandate), but relates such dialogue to essential trust-building with significance for its work.

Russian participation up for discussion

In regard to a (certain) resumption of cooperation with the Russian side in the council, Norway's MFA Anniken Huitfeldt (Labor) says to HNN that all issues around Russia will be discussed among the Western Arctic countries before any decisions are made.

"We will consult with the other members about the work going forward. As of now, it is not possible for Russia to be included. Now, we can start the work and the conversations with the members on how to proceed. We will focus on projects that do not involve Russia," she says.

According to Huitfeldt, no member countries have advocated for expelling Russia from the council. 

On Thursday, all eight member countries made a joint statement that describes the council's work in the upcoming period.

Wants to play the field

Even though the development of alternative Arctic cooperation forum is not on the Russian agenda, Korchunov also emphasizes that Russia neither can nor should lean on just one format for Arctic cooperation.

The Russian diplomat points to how the country can have Arctic cooperation both bilaterally, trilaterally, and multilaterally on different levels with the involvement of various geographic actors.

He has previously expressed a Russian expectation of the weakening of the Arctic Council – and thereby wishes to strengthen cooperation in the Arctic with non-Arctic countries, such as the BRICS states.

The will to develop cooperation around activities in the region with countries outside it is also articulated by Aleksey Chekunkov, Russia's Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic:

"Russia has fulfilled all its commitments in regard to the chairship. We have all witnessed that it is impossible to imagine the development of the Arctic without Russia. We now conclude our chairship with openness to all states who are ready to engage in the development of the Arctic in the name of peace," says Chekunkov.

The statement came at a meeting on last Thursday of the Council for the Development of the Far East, Arctic, and Antarctica of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, reports TASS. 'Relevant issues around safeguarding of national interests in Russia's Arctic zone,' was the topic of the meeting.'

Cooperation with "friendly countries"

Furthermore, Chekunkov insists that the Russian chairship of the Arctic Council – "despite actions of unfriendly countries" – has delivered more results for the population in the Russian Arctic than first planned.

It is pointed out that Russia organized a number of events last year, with the participation of experts from "friendly countries," such as China, India, Mongolia, Brazil, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In total, 43 events in 10 different regions with more than 28 000 participants are said to have been organized.

Most recently, at the end of April, experts from Russia and Brazil met to discuss cooperation in the Arctic within science and other areas for sustainable development of the region, reads the website of the Russian chairship.

As reported by HNN, Russia wants to develop an Arctic research station on Svalbard together with BRICS partners, such as Brazil, India, China, and South Africa.

Russia and China also recently initiated maritime authority cooperation in Murmansk. China has also expressed that it will support Norway in restoring the Arctic Council.

Cooperation with non-Arctic states in the region requires that they do not come with military agendas, Ambassador Korchunov has clarified to Reuters.

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