Arctic Council: Should Russia Push for Including Security Issues During its Chairmanship?

The 2021–2023 Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council comes at a watershed moment for the region and the institution alike. Climate change has become an omnipresent threat in the region. The Arctic experiences the effects of climate change three times faster as compared to other areas of the globe. Climate change has allowed for greater accessibility to the region, and with this accessibility come significant challenges. The Arctic has historically been designated as a “low-tension” arena of cooperation for environmental and scientific causes. Recently, the Arctic has become the newest front in the renewed great power competition between the United States, Russia and the self-proclaimed “near-Arctic state” China.

Much has been made about Russia’s increased military presence in the Arctic. While still far below levels of militarization seen in the Soviet era, Russia’s increased military presence in the region has prompted concern and countermeasures by other Arctic states. With increased potential for conflict in the Arctic and no established institutional framework for dialogue on security issues in the region, the question must be asked: Should Russia use its position as the chair of the Arctic Council to expand its mandate and include security issues?

To further explore this possibility, it is first necessary to make note of the Arctic Council’s raison d’être. Established under the 1996 Ottawa Declaration, the Arctic Council is a forum for cooperation and coordination between the eight Arctic states (Russia, Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark/Greenland and Norway) and the indigenous peoples residing in the Arctic regions. The Arctic Council was founded with the explicit understanding of member states and permanent participants that the forum was a space for cooperation on sustainable development and environmental preservation, not security issues.

At that time, security issues were secondary to ecological concerns. The Arctic Council operates on the basis of consensus between member states and joint declarations. This has been achieved in all but one of the Arctic Council’s previous chairmanship periods. The notable exception to this is the 2019 conference in Rovaniemi, Finland. At Rovaniemi, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to support the joint declaration due to the language regarding climate change as well as opposition to Canada, Denmark and Russia’s positions regarding continental shelf limits, among other issues.

Is Expanding the Mandate in Russia’s Best Interests?

The issue of expanding the Arctic Council’s mandate to include growing security concerns in the region would not be to Russia’s benefit. The Arctic Council is one of the few institutions in which Russia currently maintains a productive dialogue with Western nations following the 2014 Ukrainian Crisis and the ongoing disputes over election interference, hacking, and human rights issues.

Russia and several Arctic states share common ground on many issues pertaining to the region. Canada and Russia share similar positions regarding sovereignty over the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage in opposition to the U.S. assertion that these routes constitute international waters. Russia, Canada and Denmark are also seeking to establish the extent of their respective continental shelves in the Arctic in hopes of extending Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ’s), as outlined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Other areas of cooperation include the desire for greater hydrocarbon and resource extraction with states such as Norway. There is also the pressing issue of the environment. Last year’s infamous Norilsk Nickel diesel spill demonstrated that thawing permafrost may have catastrophic effects on the environment going forward. Russia’s hesitancy to utilize the Arctic Council in containing and mitigating the effects of the spill demonstrates that increased tensions may hinder the institution’s ability to promote cooperation in the region.

Extending the mandate of the Arctic Council to include security issues would likely provide greater opportunity for disagreement and discourage efforts to cooperate on pressing environmental issues and sustainable development in the region. Five of the eight Arctic Council members are also members of NATO, with the other two, Sweden and Finland, being close partners to the alliance. Finding common ground on security issues would prove very difficult in this setting. Expanding the mandate of the Arctic Council would also likely prompt greater internationalization of the institution—a prospect towards which member states, including Canada and Russia, have long-standing opposition.

Advocating against broadening the mandate of the Arctic Council is not to say that a forum for dialogue on security issues in the region is not a necessity as the region becomes more accessible. As militarization and climate change persist in the Arctic moving forward, a space for constructive dialogue must be established for the region. However, the Arctic Council is unlikely to be a useful arena for such discussion. The Arctic Council functions best as a tool to maintain the Arctic’s status as a low-tension area and to provide space for cooperation and dialogue between states that have a vested interest in mitigating the potentially disastrous impact of climate change.

Will The Arctic Council’s Mandate Expand During Russia’s Chairmanship?

Due to the above-mentioned problems with expanding the Arctic Council’s mandate, it seems unlikely that Russia will utilize its term as chair to do so. Instead, Russia’s priorities—as outlined by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov—include promoting socio-economic cooperation between the Arctic regions, boosting the construction of resilient infrastructures, mitigating the effects of climate change and increasing the quality of life of the Arctic communities, including indigenous peoples.

There is still potential for a forum for security issues regarding the Arctic. Pundits and governments alike have floated ideas including a regular meeting of Arctic state’s defense ministers. Russia has signaled its willingness to explore greater security dialogue in the region. Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, stated in an interview in June 2020 that Russia would be open to establishing greater engagement between officials on this matter. Ryabkov’s remarks did not amount to an endorsement of expanding the Arctic Council’s formal mandate but did point to further engagement on the sidelines of the institution’s official engagements.

This level of engagement on security issues is supported by several member states including Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Canada, which also support enhanced dialogue on Arctic security. For this type of dialogue to be included in the Arctic Council’s formal mandate, a joint declaration and consensus of the eight Arctic states would be necessary. Based on the failure to reach a consensus on a joint declaration in 2019 over climate change issues and continental shelves, it seems unlikely that the Arctic Council will be able to reach such a consensus irrespective of the new administration in Washington.

From our partner RIAC

Carter Boone
Carter Boone
BA in History, Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, MA Student at the University of Helsinki