Tromsø (High North News): Can the Arctic Council survive Russia's war in Ukraine? Not without Russia, says Arctic Council expert Svein Vigeland Rottem. "Russia is, and has always been, a constructive member of the Council," assures Norway's Senior Arctic Official Solveig Rossebø.
“It is easy to argue that the survival of the Arctic Council is in danger. However, it is still functioning partly,” says researcher Svein Vigeland Rottem at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute during a panel debate at the Arctic Frontier conference in Tromsø, Northern Norway.
Since February 2022, the future of the Arctic Council has been under great international scrutiny.
The cooled relations between Russia and the West have affected the Council greatly since the 7 Western Arctic states paused all official work within the Council until Norway took over leadership of the Council last May.
The main arena
If the Arctic Council fails to survive the crisis of having one of its members at war, the web of carefully built-up networks might collapse, which cannot be rebuilt overnight.
“I heard someone say that it can be rebuilt in another fashion, but one cannot imagine how long it takes for an organization to build up credibility and the power necessary for it to be heard,” Rottem states.
We are not the Arctic 7. We are 8.
The Arctic Council is highlighted by all Arctic states as the main arena for cooperation in the Arctic.
Not 7, but 8
But will the Council survive this crisis? And is it politicly and morally possible for the West to continue to cooperate with Russia?
Solveig Rossebø is the new Senior Arctic Official (SAO) for Norway in the Arctic Council, as the former SAO Morten Høglund, now is chair during the Norwegian leadership. She makes it clear during the debate, that membership in the Arctic Council is not decided by election, but by geography.
“We are not the Arctic 7. We are 8. We are the Arctic”.
It is however, challenging to have one of the members invading another country.
"From Norway's perspective, the Arctic Council is still special as a cooperation between the eight and indigenous organizations."
The indigenous peoples are distributed differently than the states, across borders, and hold a unique position at the Council table.
Rossebø assures that the Arctic Council is alive and continues to develop.
"We need multilateral cooperation to combat climate change. To get the full picture, we need circumpolar data, and not only from half the region. The Norwegian perspective is long-term," says the Norwegian SAO.
The survival of the Council might be even more significant as the Arctic has already seen two Northern organizations change format: the Barents Council and the Council of the Baltic Sea States.
About the Arctic Council
The Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, Arctic Indigenous Peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. It was formally established in 1996.
All Arctic Council decisions and statements require consensus of the eight Arctic States.
Risk losing it
Rossebø agrees with Rottem that it will be difficult to reestablish the Council should it be lost. Not all change is good change.
“To revalue the cooperation too much is to risk losing it. Since we took over the chair, we have been working to resume the work that was put on pause after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has been challenging and difficult. We still have not reached our goals, but the cooperation cannot be as it used to be. We must compromise and lower the pace. Still, we are working to increase the activity,” the SAO explains.
The Arctic Council must continue to deliver results to remain relevant, and the Norwegian chairship is working to find solutions that work for all eight states.
“The most important thing for the Norwegian chairship is to ensure that the Arctic Council as a whole with all its eight members remains the most important bilateral forum for Arctic cooperation,” Rossebø states.
Call for transparency
Going forward, the challenge is to find ways to make the working groups from all eight countries work together in a way that is acceptable to all eight states.
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"We are using all our creativity and fantasy, and we are discussing it with the working groups. But all eight countries agree that we must keep the Arctic Council as the premier forum for Arctic cooperation."
Malgorzata Smieszek, a Researcher at UiT - The Arctic University of Norway - took the opportunity to call for greater transparency during the crisis.
"After the war, most Arctic Council observers did not know what was happening; their regular communication channels were broken. And even now, it is at times difficult to know what is happening in the Council," says Smieszek.
The UIT researcher thinks that more openness could also serve the Arctic Council in terms of reconfirming its position.
"Otherwise, one might think that there is not so much happening in the Council."
The Arctic Council in the form we know it will die if Russia leaves the Council
Rossebø nods in recognition. The leadership received many similar comments from observer states. She says she understands that the first year after Norway's takeover from Russia was difficult with little information.
"The observers used to participate in the formal meetings, and now there were no more of those. The challenge for the Norwegian chairship is that we are in a process, so we do not know either what will happen. We are working with the other members and the indigenous peoples to find out how to do this. We have not reached our goal yet. But we are open to having more meetings with the observers," the SAO reassures.
The fact that the 8 Arctic states must agree on everything – Russia included - is a balancing act.
Regularly Russian contact
Rossebø informs that they are, in fact, in touch with their Russian counterparts regularly.
"As the chair of the Arctic Council, we have discussions with all the members, including Russia. We have discussions with our Russian colleagues regularly."
Going into the Norwegian chairship in May last year, there was discussion about whether Russia would sabotage the council or use it for its own propaganda. So far, that has not happened, according to Solveig Rossebø.
In fact, she says that Russia has been “very constructive in Arctic cooperation as it has always been.”
“Russia wants to stay a member of the Arctic Council, and that is why they also cooperate.”
“What would happen if Russia decided to leave the Arctic Council?”
Researcher Svein Vigeland Rottem is in no doubt.
“The Arctic Council in the form we know it will die if Russia leaves the Council,” Rottem says in a comment to High North News.
“But I do not think Russia will withdraw from the Arctic Council, even if they send mixed signals sometimes. It is not in their interest”, says the Arctic Council expert.
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Half of the Arctic
"I think the working groups would still be alive and kicking. But we must acknowledge that half of the Arctic is Russian, and the Arctic Council is a product of the end of the Cold War and is all about circumpolar cooperation. So, if that happens, the Arctic Council will be dead letters".
"Or it becomes something else, like the Barents cooperation, which has become a Nordic cooperation now without Russia," suggests Solveig Rossebø.
But a great loss it would be still, so the Norwegian chairship is hard at work to keep all eight states in the Council.
Even if the Arctic Council were to evaporate, the Arctic issues would not go away and would still have to be solved.
"The Arctic cooperation would not be dead even if the Arctic Council would be," Rottem states.
For the indigenous peoples it would be a great loss
A great loss
Half into the Norwegian chairship of the Council, it is all about looking ahead.
"Now it is war, and we cannot see an end to this terrible situation. But we want to think long term to keep the Council. We have kept the forums of the indigenous peoples and met with them two or three times. The last meeting was on Monday", says the SAO.
There are six indigenous people's organizations in the Council.
"For the indigenous peoples, it would be a great loss."
Denmark is next
Going forward, the Council will be active.
"We understand for the Arctic Council to be relevant and not dead letters, we must produce results. We also understand that the written procedure we started with is not very efficient. You cannot discuss projects via email. We are in the process of finding a more efficient way of working, but we do not know how it will end," says Rossebø.
After Norway, Denmark, then Sweden will take on leadership of the Arctic Council. Rossebø hopes the Nordic neighbors will continue the work that Norway started when the chairship is delivered to Denmark in May next year.
Impossible to know
"Svein Vigeland Rottem, how long do you think this situation will continue?"
"That is impossible to know."
SAO Solveig Rossebø did not wish to elaborate on her comments to High North News.