Russia: “The Risk of Weakening the Arctic Council Should Not Be Underestimated”

Russia's Arctic Ambassador, Nikolay Korchunov (in the middle), led the first meeting of Arctic officials in the Arctic Council during the Russian chairship, in Salekhard in December 2021. Yesterday, at a digital meeting, he handed over the baton to Morten Høglund, Norway's Arctic Ambassador and Chair of the Senior Arctic Officials in the Arctic Council. (Photo: Vjatsjeslav Viktorov, Roscongress)

On Thursday, Norway took over the Chairship of the Arctic Council from Russia. "The future of the council and cooperation within this format under Norwegian chairship appear uncertain," said Nikolay Korchunov, Russian Arctic Ambassador, to High North News on Wednesday.

Yesterday, Russia transferred the Arctic Council chairship to Norway. In contrast to previous years, the chairship was not transferred at a summit with the MFAs from the eight member countries.

There was, however, a digital meeting based in the Russian Arctic city of Salekhard – without political participation from the Western Arctic states. Norway was represented by Morten Høglund, Arctic Ambassador and now Chair of the Norwegian Chairship.

The cooperation with Russia within the Arctic Council was suspended by the seven Western Arctic states after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The council's projects were partially resumed in June without Russian participation.

Furthermore, a major issue has been whether the transfer of chairship would go over well. There has also been tension connected to whether the council will survive as the most important international cooperation format for Arctic issues, which is Norway's overarching goal. Seen from the Norwegian side, this implies the involvement of Russia at one level or another.

"I consider the transfer a part of the decision that can be made in Salekhard on the 11th of May," wrote Nikolay Korchunov, Russia's Arctic Ambassador and head of the Russian chairship of the council, to High North News on Wednesday.

Hesitant toward the future

Former statements from Korchunov suggested that Russia was prepared to hand over the baton in an orderly fashion. Russia has, from the Norwegian side, been perceived as constructive in regard to the transfer, according to Høglund. 

At the same time, Korchunov has also expressed a Russian expectation of a weakening of the council – and thereby a desire to strengthen cooperation in the Arctic with non-Arctic countries, such as the BRICS states.

To HNN, he has clarified that Russia still considers the council an important forum, but perceives that its role has been diminished.

Recently, the top Russian Arctic diplomat stated that it is difficult to envision the development of long-term cooperation with the Western Arctic states even if the Arctic Council's operations are restored – and pointed to a lack of trust.

HNN asks Korchunov to elaborate on how the sees the time coming with Norwegian chairship.

"The future of the Arctic Council and cooperation within this format appear uncertain. The risk of further fragmentation of cooperation and weakening of the council is real – and should not be underestimated," emphasizes Korchunov. 

Awaits specification

At the end of March, Norway presented its main priorities for its chairship; oceans, climate and environment, sustainable economic development, and people in the north. These reflect a focus on the council's core tasks and important areas of interest for all of the Arctic countries, according to the Norwegian government.

From Norway's side, climate and environment have been pointed out as important areas for cooperation with Russia and also areas where collaboration may be the least difficult.

What are your thoughts on Norway's priorities for its chairship?

"We were informed of these priorities and they are broad. What specific content they will entail, remains to be seen, wrote Korchunov.

The Russian chairship prioritized the following areas: People of the Arctic, including Indigenous People: environment protection, including climate change; socio-economic development – and the strengthening of the Arctic Council. 

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