While geopolitical tensions in Ukraine threatened to overshadow the recent meeting of the Arctic Council in Canada, Russia and the other major Arctic powers appear willing to pursue a cooperative strategy in the High North.

The Kremlin is persistent in its strategy of keeping the Arctic Council’s activities immune from geopolitical competition in other regions. Photo: TASS

The Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting in the northern Canadian town of Iqaluit in the late April resulted in a lot of speculation even before the event took place. The forecasts ranged from pessimistic (complete failure) to optimistic (a breakthrough in Arctic cooperation). There were also some compromise versions between these two extremes that more or less boiled down to the trivial formula of business as usual.

The pessimistic scenario was quite popular among experts, based as it was on the assumption that current tensions between the West and Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis could spill over to the Arctic and undermine the entire basis of regional cooperation. The experts paid attention to the fact that Canada, as chair of the Arctic Council (AC) in 2013-15, nonetheless ignored a number of its task force and working group meetings held in Russia as a protest against Moscow’s Ukrainian policy.

It was expected that Canada or some other Western delegations could raise the Ukrainian question at the Iqaluit meeting. Shortly before the meeting, Moscow announced that – for the first time at the meetings of such format – it would be represented by the minister of natural resources and environment rather than by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who was unable to attend – officially, due to a busy schedule. This symbolic gesture by Moscow was one more warning signal added to the suspicions about a possible negative outcome of the Iqaluit meeting.

The optimistic scenario was a rather unpopular one and it was based mainly on Ottawa’s demonstrated dedication to the ambitious agenda of its Arctic Council chairmanship and Washington’s promise to continue this agenda during its presidency in 2015-17.

The “business as usual” scenario seemed a rather plausible one because, on a number of occasions, top-ranking representatives of the Arctic powers made cautious statements that their governments would like to exclude High North cooperation from any repercussions of the Ukrainian crisis and, in so doing, avoid a “new Cold War” in this region.

The Iqaluit meeting, however, did not justify these scenarios and ended up with some unexpected results, leaving open various options for the future.

In contrast with gloomy prognoses on the possible failure of the Canadian AC presidency, the Iqaluit meeting demonstrated that Ottawa’s chairmanship was a rather productive one.

For example, a key achievement during the Canadian presidency was the establishment of the Arctic Economic Council, a new independent forum of business representatives to facilitate Arctic business-to-business activities in the region. Other important achievements include:

 - The publication of a compendium of best practices in promoting the traditional ways of life of Arctic indigenous peoples;

 - Recommendations on how to better use traditional and local knowledge in the work of the Council to improve decision-making and research;

 - The creation of a framework plan for cooperation on prevention of oil pollution from petroleum and maritime activities in the marine areas of the Arctic;

 - The publication of a guide on how to respond to oil spills in snow and ice conditions in the Arctic;

 - A collection of work related to short-lived climate pollutants that will lead to local health, economic and climate benefits;

 - The publication of “Arctic Pollution Issues 2015: Summary for Policymakers,” which presents the conclusions and recommendations of three assessments on human health, trends in persistent organic pollutants and radioactivity in the Arctic;

 - The development of the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan (2015-2025), which aims to provide a framework to protect Arctic marine and coastal ecosystems and to promote sustainable development in the region; 

 - Arctic biodiversity work, including an action plan to implement recommendations from the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, and a detailed work plan to protect migratory birds along key international flight paths.

Despite threats from Leona Aglukkak, the Canadian chair of the Arctic Council, to use the forum to censure Moscow over its involvement in Ukraine, criticism was made behind closed doors, not publicly. Moreover, Lavrov’s replacement in Iqaluit, Sergei Donskoi, the Russian natural resources and environment minister, also took a conciliatory line, reassuring the forum that stability and cooperation must remain a mainstay of the Council.

“There is no room for conflict and confrontation,” he underlined.

Other results from the Iqaluit meeting were less surprising and impressive.

As was expected, the ministers agreed to defer decisions on pending observer applications and examine the roles and responsibilities of observers within the Arctic Council. There was widespread agreement by the Council that the observer system needs to be seriously revamped before more nations can be let in.

In the specific case of the EU, which also wants its status in the AC upgraded and which is seen as a promising candidate for observer status, the decision was postponed because Canada and some indigenous peoples organizations were displeased with the European ban on seal products that Inuit hunters say is ruinous to local economies. Moscow joined the opposition to the EU observer application because of its dissatisfaction with sanctions imposed by Brussels last summer.

The U.S. chairmanship agenda presented in Iqaluit was neither disappointing nor particularly inspiring. Rather, it was predictable because various American diplomats, including Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. Special Representative for the Arctic, have already publicized, on several occasions, the U.S. Arctic Council program for the next two years.

As expected, the U.S. AC program will focus heavily on traditional Council issues, like global warming and renewable energy, but less so on the human aspects the Canadian chairmanship had prioritized. Good news, however, that Washington – contrary to the past – takes the Council seriously and calls for multilateral cooperative efforts in the region. On the other hand, it is difficult to say whether such a cooperative and multilateral spirit of the U.S. Arctic strategy will remain if the Republicans win the next presidential elections in 2016.

The popular Chinese saying  “May you live in interesting times”  is fully applicable to the situation in which the Arctic Council and the whole Arctic region find themselves. It is true that we are living in a turbulent and – at times  dangerous era where further developments are often unpredictable. However, to make our times truly “interesting” (in terms of creativity, not turbulence), international actors should possess strong political will and strategic vision.

To put the Arctic Council on the right track, Russia should be firm and persistent in its strategy of keeping the Council’s activities immune from geopolitical competition in other regions and avoid discussing any problematic security issues within the AC. Moscow should also further continue its line on making the Arctic Council the most authoritative international institution in the region, in which Russia plays a key and constructive role.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.