Op-ed: What Effects Has the Ukraine war Had on the Arctic Council?

Sergey Lavrov og Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, AC ministermøte 2021
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov receives the gavel from Icelands Foreign Minister, Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson during the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland May 20, 2021. (Photo: Arctic Council)

Op-Ed: On Tuesday, March 28, Norway announced the priorities for its Chairship of the Arctic Council (AC) that is about to start in May. With the transition from Russia to Norway at the helm of the AC on the horizon, it is important to ask the question – what effects has the Ukraine war had on the AC to date?

The opinions expressed here belongs to the author and do not represent the views of High North News. 

Russia´s invasion on Ukraine in February 2022 has brought about the deepest rift in international relations and in the circumpolar and northern regional collaboration since the end of Cold War.

Among institutions most deeply affected by the war in Ukraine has been the Arctic Council (AC), the intergovernmental forum established in the 1990s by eight Arctic states to promote cooperation on Arctic issues with the involvement of Arctic Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants.

The AC does not deal with military matters and its main focus have been the environmental protection and sustainable development in the region.

Even though the AC has no authority to make binding decisions nor material resources to implement them, since its foundation it has evolved to become the centerpiece of Arctic institutional landscape, the major producer of knowledge on the state of and changes in the Arctic, a platform for Arctic science-policy dialogue, and the biennial meeting place for Arctic ministers of foreign affairs.

All this came to a halt in early 2022.

Russia, which is the current AC Chair, called the move “regrettable”.

In response to Russia´s attack on Ukraine, seven Arctic states - Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States - on March 3, 2022, announced a pause in participation in all meetings of the AC, including the Council´s scientific Working and Expert Groups.

Russia, which is the current AC Chair and, as such, officially leads the Council´s work, called the move “regrettable” and announced it would continue with the realization of its Chairship program by refocusing on domestic events and needs in the region.

The pause announced by the seven nations was intended to be temporary – pending improved circumstances.

When those did not improve and the war in Ukraine continued, in early June 2022 the same states announced a limited resumption of Council´s work on projects that do not involve Russia´s participation.

Even if as the interim measure the solution made some sense, it did not change the reality of a longer-term, formal break from the AC´s normal mode of operation and from decisions based on consensus among eight Arctic states.

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Norway is to take over the Council´s Chairship from Russia in May 2023 in a highly anticipated transition that is hoped to restore some possibilities for circumpolar collaboration.

While the exact modalities of how the transition will happen are still worked on, ahead of Norway´s time at the helm of the AC it is worth to ask the question about the effects that the more than a year-long pause has had, and continues to have, on the AC.

Those could be listed under four categories.

First, the decision to put the AC´s work on hold affected six organizations of Arctic Indigenous Peoples that as Permanent Participants (PPs) have full consultation rights in connection with AC´s deliberations and decisions.

The arrangement with Permanent Participants is unique on a global scale and provides Arctic Indigenous Peoples with a platform to directly engage with Arctic states and express their views, including on the highest political levels, on all matters under discussion.

The AC Working Groups and implementation and quality of their work have been affected by the pause.

Yet, when it came to a decision by the seven Arctic states on pausing the AC´s work, Permanent Participants were not consulted on it. PPs remain also adversely affected by the lack of formal communication channels that the Arctic Council normally provides.

Second, even though work on some AC projects without Russia´s participation resumed, operation of the AC Working Groups and implementation and quality of their work have been affected and continue to be affected by the pause.

Under normal circumstances, WGs´ heads of delegations from Arctic states, Permanent Participants, and AC Observer countries and organizations meet regularly to receive updates about the projects, develop and convey guidance to WG experts, and plan future work.

None of this is possible under current conditions, even if some WGs have been able to go ahead with some of their activities.

The lack of ability to take official decisions and of regular formal WG meetings means it is difficult for WGs to follow their guiding principles and rules of procedure, involve representatives of Permanent Participants and Observers in the work in an appropriate manner, and to apply for funding for future projects and activities.

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Importantly, the replacement of WGs´ coordinated work and assessments with informal scientific and expert collaboration does not carry the same weight and visibility in terms of their policy - relevance - neither in Arctic states nor on the international arena.

The longer the situation goes on, the greater the risk that experts who engage with WGs might lose their motivation to do so. This, in turn, may lead to the loss of knowledge and the disintegration of established expert groups and networks.

Third, the pause on the AC´s work means there is no regular and structured dialogue with more than 30 states and organizations that hold the Observer status to the Council, among them, China, Japan, South Korea, International Maritime Organization (IMO), World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and the WWF.

The Council´s meetings provide not only a venue where Observers can offer their contributions to AC´s projects and activities. They also serve as a place where Observers can learn about Arctic perspectives and engage directly both with Arctic states and Indigenous Peoples.

The AC offers transparency to a dialogue between Arctic and non-Arctic states and actors in a way that no other mechanism provides.

The Arctic Council has become the trusted Arctic “messenger”.

At present, there are no formal contacts with Observers en masse and it cannot be excluded that their interest in the AC and in contributing to its work might wane with time if regular mode of operation is not restored.

Finally, the longer the pause continues, the more the role and the visibility of the AC erode. Over the last 30 years, the Arctic Council has become the trusted Arctic “messenger” delivering Arctic knowledge and putting the Arctic on the agenda at the global level.

Many projects of its WGs have been synchronized with timelines of relevant international conventions to which AC Working Groups deliver updated Arctic information and data – the ongoing pause puts at risk their capacity to do it in the future.

Since March 2022, there have been no news or updates published across any websites of the AC or its subsidiary bodies – only the announcement that the AC is pausing all its official meetings until further notice.

As a result of restrictions on AC´s official communication and outreach (complicated due to Russia´s holding the AC Chairship), misunderstandings arise and spread regarding the status of the Council. Without being corrected, they further undermine the AC´s role and international standing.

As Norway gets ready to take over the Arctic Council Chairship, there are no easy answers on how to move forward with the AC and circumpolar collaboration with Russia. What remains clear is the need for the inclusive forum dedicated to Arctic issues.

Following the successful transition in May this year, Norway could begin its AC Chairship from reestablishing dialogue with Permanent Participants, restoring active communication with Observers, and reengaging from the outset in outreach activities.

Those would be the constructive first steps to send the right message and reaffirm the AC´s standing.

Importantly, they are also all in the discretion of the AC Chair.

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