Next May, Russia will succeed Iceland as chair of the Arctic Council. With the Far North heating up in terms of both climate change and geopolitical competition, Russia’s chairmanship comes at a critical juncture for the region. The next few years may well determine if we can mitigate Arctic environmental degradation—and preserve the region as a zone of peace rather than conflict.
Two key tensions will define Russia’s tenure at the helm of the Arctic Council. The first deals with military security: Russia’s increased pace of Arctic militarization versus the Council’s exclusion of hard security issues. The second tension concerns climate and energy security. The accelerating pace of polar climate change is evident, but Russia stands to gain economically from the warming Arctic. How Russian President Vladimir Putin squares this environmental circle will have major repercussions for not just the Russian Arctic, but the whole world.
The Arctic Council: Background and Role of Chair
Formed in 1996, the Arctic Council is the leading intergovernmental forum for polar cooperation. Its members are the eight states with territory in the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and America. The Council evolved from the 1991 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy and retained a singular focus on environmental issues like sustainable development. This singularity of focus, combined with the forum’s explicit exclusion of military security issues, means the Arctic Council is ill-equipped to single-handedly govern an increasingly open—and crowded—Far North.
Consensus among members drives Arctic Council guidelines, assessments, and recommendations, so the chair does not drastically impact the forum’s work. The chair does, however, manage the Council’s agenda, broker among members, and represent the organization on the world stage. These activities help legitimize the chair and influence the direction of Arctic international relations. Putin used Russia’s first chairmanship in 2004-2006, for example, to organize an international symposium on prospects for polar oil and gas exploration.
Toward an Arctic Security Dilemma
Shortly after concluding its first chairmanship, Russia made headlines by planting its flag in the North Pole seabed. Since then, Russia’s Arctic militarization has continued apace. The question is whether Putin’s polar ambitions are of an offensive or defensive nature. With 53% of the world’s Arctic coastline, Russia has a legitimate interest in protecting its polar territory. In recent years, however, Putin’s stance in the Far North has become increasingly aggressive. The latest examples of this include the escalating pace of Russian military exercises in the North Atlantic, repeated Russian aircraft activity over Alaska, and Putin’s plans for heavily armed icebreakers.
As Arctic Council chair, Russia will likely seek to advance its security interests in one of two ways. The first is a “split-screen” approach: Putin would completely separate Russia’s Arctic military build-up from its activities as chair. This scenario would place tremendous pressure on the Arctic Council. In 2014, there was concern cooperation would fall apart due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The Council overcame this barrier, but it is less clear the forum could do so if overt Russian aggression occurs in its backyard.
The second scenario is that Russia pushes to include military security in the Arctic Council’s remit. Since this institutional change requires a joint declaration among Council members, it is less likely than the split-screen approach. It is not, however, out of the question: Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs recently affirmed Russia would support such a move, and Finland and Iceland have expressed similar interest. Although a forum for Arctic security issues is desperately needed, this scenario is not ideal. Introducing military matters into Arctic Council deliberations may spark disagreements that spill over into other important issue areas, like environmental protection and sustainable development. The security talks would likely go nowhere, but their very existence would help legitimize Russia’s military activities in the Far North—especially while Russia is the chair.
Energy, Economics, and the Environment
Along with his Arctic military vision, Putin has a substantial economic interest in the region. Russia’s Arctic and sub-Arctic territories account for 90% of the country’s natural gas production and 10% of its oil production. Russia stands to benefit from climate change, since the warming Arctic means more natural resources to explore and exploit. Longer periods of warm temperatures and record-low sea ice levels facilitate the development of Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR), the shipping lane above Siberia that connects Europe and Asia. For its 2021-2023 Arctic Council chairmanship, Russia has already announced plans to explore further use of the NSR.
As recent headlines demonstrate, however, the Arctic environment is undergoing rapid and catastrophic change. Siberia has experienced unprecedented wildfires and heatwaves this summer, and the disastrous Norilsk Nickel oil spill will pollute the Arctic for decades to come. Experts agree permafrost thaw is largely to blame for the spill. As polar warming continues, more frequent permafrost melt may make Norilsk the norm rather than the exception—especially since Russia is 60% permafrost.
Russia’s unwillingness to request Arctic Council help for the Norilsk spill does not instill much hope for an environmentally-forward chairmanship. Nor does it bode well that Putin is removing critical indigenous voices while offering free land for Russians to develop sparsely-populated Arctic areas. These examples indicate Putin is likely to focus on Arctic economic development at the expense of traditional livelihoods and environmental protection.
What The U.S. Can Do
There are three steps the U.S. can take now to prepare for Russia’s chairmanship.
First and foremost, America must acknowledge climate change as an area of particular concern for the Arctic. Doing so will accomplish two vital tasks: crafting an Arctic strategy based on environmental realities in the Far North, and preventing Russia from claiming the mantle of climate leadership within the Arctic Council. This acknowledgment would also help the U.S. regain credibility after its objection to climate change language derailed last year’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland—the first meeting in Council history to end without a joint declaration.
Next, the U.S. should focus on creating a forum outside the Arctic Council for discussions on military security—thus preserving the Council’s environmental focus. The time for creating such a forum is now, to facilitate transparency and confidence-building measures before Russian and NATO Arctic military activities escalate even further. One possible option would be regular meetings of the eight Arctic defense ministers.
Finally, the U.S. must sustain the Arctic Council’s usefulness for environmental cooperation. Great power competition in the Far North should not distract from the catastrophic effects of climate change in the region—and from the fact that the warming Arctic contributes greatly to a warming world. By helping the Arctic Council do what it does best, the U.S. can project climate leadership from the top of the world.