Norway takes control of the Arctic Council at an especially troubled time

The flags of Arctic Council members.
The flags of Arctic Council members.
Arctic Council Secretariat / Linnea Nordström

Publish date: May 30, 2023

Written by: Bellona

Norway's chairmanship of the Arctic Council will be one of the most difficult in the entire existence of this international body. Thanks to the suspension of work by the Council with Russia over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, international control over Russia's actions in the Arctic has been reduced to a minimum. Numerous international projects and expeditions related to the study of the Russian part of the Arctic have also been frozen.

Norway’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council will be one of the most difficult in the entire existence of this international body. Thanks to the suspension of work by the Council with Russia over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, international control over Russia’s actions in the Arctic has been reduced to a minimum. Numerous international projects and expeditions related to the study of the Russian part of the Arctic have also been frozen.

Against this background, persistent statements by Russian politicians and businesses about the desire to develop mineral deposits in the Arctic zone and increase the use of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) are causing worries among the international community about the increased environmental risks associated with this. Whether the Arctic Council, under the chairmanship of Norway, will be able to establish effective efforts to protect the region’s environment without the participation of Russia remains a big question.

26 years of cooperation

The Arctic is a region that is extremely sensitive to any anthropogenic impact. In 1991, mindful of the importance and urgency of taking joint measures to protect the Arctic from pollution, eight Arctic nations — Canada, the USA, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Russia — along with six associations representing the indigenous peoples of the North, signed the Strategy for the Protection of the Arctic Environment (also known as the Rovaniemi declaration).

In 1996, at the initiative of Canada, the Arctic Council was established as an intergovernmental forum to promote cooperation, coordination, and interaction between the Arctic states so they could jointly address the challenges facing the region, specifically ensuring sustainable development and environmental protection.

Over the more than twenty-five years of the history of the Arctic Council, hundreds of joint expeditions and studies have been produced, including those related to biodiversity conservation, pollution of the Arctic, the impact of climate change on the ecosystems of the region, and many others. The results obtained by this work formed the basis of Council programs and projects to reduce negative anthropogenic impacts on the region’s environment, specifically preventing man-made accidents.

Moreover, the member countries developed and signed a number of important agreements: on cooperation in the field of aviation and maritime search and rescue in the Arctic (2011); on Cooperation in Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution in the Arctic (2013); on strengthening international Arctic scientific cooperation (2017).

Every two years, one of the permanent member states becomes the Council’s chairman, coordinating its activities for that period. From May 2021 to May 2023, Russia chaired the Arctic Council. But after February 24, 2022, when Russia attacked Ukraine, the activity of the council essentially ground to a halt. Each of the other seven nations condemned the invasion and refused to participate in council meetings and events held in Russia. The transition of the chairmanship to Norway on May 11, 2023, gives hope for the resumption of the Council’s activities, albeit in a truncated form.

Russian Chairmanship: The Arctic will not develop itself

Lavrov Todarson Arctic council Transfer of the chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Iceland to Russia. In the photo (left to right): Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Tor Thordarson Credit: Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs / Gunnar Vigfússon

The Arctic region has traditionally played an outsized role in the Russian economy. According to Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, 80% of Russian natural gas, 17% of oil, 90% of nickel and cobalt, 60% of copper and almost 100% of diamonds and rare earth metals are produced here. In total, the region accounts for 10% of Russia’s GDP and 20% of all exports from Russia. At the same time, as Aleksey Chekunkov, head of the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, emphasized, Russia accounts for more than 70% of all economic activity in the region.

It is no coincidence that Russian official documents related to the Arctic prioritize economic development over environmental protection. This holds especially true for

Moscow’s “Priorities of the Chairmanship of the Russian Federation in the Arctic Council in 2021-2023”.

The document says that at present the socio-economic direction of cooperation in the council is “noticeably inferior to the environmental one” and that Russia intends to “take steps to form a more balanced contribution of the Council to solving problems of sustainable development of the Arctic.”  What this has amounted to is a decrease in attention to the environmental agenda and an increase in activities geared toward development.

The state program “Socio-economic development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation“, adopted in 2021, also aims to “increase the economic contribution of the Arctic zone to the Russian economy, ensure sustainable development of the region, and attract new investors.”

These goals would be achieved with the help of various tax preferences, administrative support and other means to facilitate business engagement in the region.

To this end, back in 2020, “the largest economic zone in Russia and the world with a single set of preferences for investment activities” was organized on the territory of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF).

According to Chekunkov, by the beginning of 2023, the mechanisms of state support for entrepreneurial activity in the Arctic have already made it possible to attract 1.6 trillion rubles (more than 18.5 billion euros) in investment toward 673 projects.

By 2035, more than 180,000 new jobs are forecast to be created in the Arctic, primarily in the industrial development of the region. This was the figure stated by Elena Kudryashova, the rector of the Northern (Arctic) Federal University in the name of M.V. Lomonosov, during a conference last November entitled “The Arctic is a national megaproject: staffing and scientific support.”

The geography of these projects is extensive and affects Novaya Zemlya, where Rosatom plans to build a mining and processing plant. The planned production volume —  220 thousand tons of zinc concentrate and 50 thousand tons of lead concentrate — would be unprecedented for the archipelago.

The Murmansk region would see the development of the Polmostundrovskoye and Kolmozerskoye lithium deposits, while the nearby Yamal Nenets Autonomous Region would see a number of new gas wells, including on floodplains of the Kara Sea. These and numerous other projects in envisioned in the government plans would impact the Arctic environment from Murmansk to far eastern Chukotka.

The transport infrastructure for these projects is also being developed in the form of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Investments in its development for the period before 2035 could amount to 1.791 trillion rubles (20.7 billion euros), which would focus mostly on the construction of new ports. Among those is the port of in Indiga in the Nenets Autonomous Region, through which titanium ores will be transported.

In February, Rosatom presented a federal project geared toward year-round navigation on the Northern Sea Route, which is now being approved by the government. According to the document, by 2030, the cargo flow along the NSR would swell to 150 million tons per year.

At the same time, with the growth of Western sanctions pressure, the issue of reorienting the export of raw materials mined in the Russian Arctic from west to east, including to Southeast Asia, is becoming more and more urgent.

Climate Change: Denial – Anger – Bargaining – Adaptation

When discussing Russia’s environmental program withing the context of its chairmanship of the Arctic Council, it must be noted that Moscow put the most focus on climate change. Russia even held two events dedicated to the issue — the July 2022 Conference on Adaptation to Climate Change in the Arctic held in St Petersburg, and the March 2023 Scientific and Practical Conference on Climate Change and Permafrost Melting conference, held in Yakutsk

However, even here, economic issues emerged as the primary concern.

Warning that “as a result of the thawing of permafrost, the risks for infrastructure facilities created in the region are increasing,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in his opening speech, spoke about specific climate problems in the Arctic region.

“We see our task as doing everything necessary to maintain peace and stability, increase environmental sustainability, and provide favorable conditions for the socio-economic development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation,” he said. “One of the ways to solve it is to establish mutually beneficial international cooperation in the interests of developing the Far North with a balanced combination of social, economic and environmental aspects.”

At the St. Petersburg conference, the rhetoric was devoted to “adaptation of key sectors of the economy [in the Arctic region] to new climatic conditions.”

About 40% of Russia’s northern infrastructure is being damaged due to the melting of permafrost, according to the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources. At the same time, the potential economic damage to Russia from the thawing of permafrost by 2050 could amount to at least 5 trillion rubles (57.8 billion euros). These data are provided by Deputy Minister of Ecology of the Russian Federation Sergey Anoprienko.

Thus, the thawing of permafrost and the impact of this process on Arctic infrastructure has become one of the points where Russia, which has previously been criticized for climate change denial  — denial that infects top officials all the way up to the president of the country —  has finally oriented its attention toward the challenges of climate change.

To quickly monitor changes in the Russian Arctic, officials say they will create a government monitoring system to keep tabs on the state of permafrost. To that end, a paragraph was inserted in February of 2023 in the revised version of the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period up to 2035. The creation of the system will cost the Russian budget 12 billion rubles. (138.8 million euros), Mikhail Zheleznyak, director of the Permafrost Institute of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said at a conference in Yakutsk.

The project is being carried out as part of the implementation of the National Action Plan for the second stage of adaptation to climate change for the period up to 2025. In total, the plan lists 17 events. This doesn’t include specific adaptation measures. The  plan provides only their organizational, legal, scientific, methodological and information support. The plan for the third stage for the period up to 2028 should be prepared before the end of 2025.

arctic coastal erosion permafrost Coastal erosion in the Arctic caused by melting permafrost Credit: US Geological Survey

At the same time, such measures amount to adaptation to climate change — both in the Arctic and in general — in those cases where it is economically justified. These are the conclusions of the authors of a report published in March 2021 by the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) with the telling title: “Russia’s Climate Policy: Between Denial and Adaptation.”

Lavrov, speaking at the Yakutsk conference, confirmed the point of view that global warming makes navigation easier, “expanding the possibilities of delivering goods.” And Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, emphasized that thanks to climate change in the Arctic, “paths for the development of navigation have opened up,” and that interactions with other countries will increase the efficiency in the extraction of minerals.

Thus, it’s clear that Russia’s environmental focus within the framework of the Arctic Council doesn’t much differ from the general paradigm of developing the Arctic region’s resources and come thanks to economic expediency, not environmental considerations.

The invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent refusal of the council members to cooperate with Russia did not significantly affect Moscow’s Arctic policy. However, under the new conditions, the trend towards the economic development of the region is intensifying. For example, if the AZRF Development Strategy adopted in 2020 stated that “the effective development of natural resources” should take place “in compliance with high environmental standards”, and that now it should be carried out “in the interests of the sustainable development of the Arctic.”

It should also be noted that many importers of Russian products, who abandoned them due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have stricter environmental standards than the partners with whom Russia is developing cooperation under the current circumstances.

Norwegian Presidency: A New Hope

On May 11, 2023, Norway became the chair of the Arctic Council. The structure has resumed work, but the issue of cooperation with Russia remains a subject of discussion and one of the primary challenges for the chairing country.

The Norwegian government presented the priorities for the future chairmanship of the council for 2023-2025, which highlights four thematic sections: “marine environment” (protection of species and ecosystems that depend on ice; development of monitoring systems for the Arctic; taking measures to combat marine debris, etc. .), “climate and environment” (improving the efficiency of using scientific data and improving access to them; strengthening cooperation on the conservation of biodiversity in the Arctic; special attention to black carbon and methane, etc.), “sustainable economic development” (preservation of nature and traditional land use during the green transition; promoting greener shipping in the Arctic; studying the impact of climate change on food systems in the region, etc.) and “the people of the Arctic” (focusing on youth; working to achieve gender equality and inclusion in the Arctic; expanding cooperation in the field of health in the region, etc.).

Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfelt said in this regard that the most important task is to save the council itself, but there are no guarantees that this task will be successful.

Commenting on the transition of the chairmanship, which took place in the format of a digital meeting, she said: “It is imperative that the Arctic Council maintains its role as the most important multilateral forum for resolving issues related to the Arctic. Our goal is that the Arctic Council resume its important work under our leadership. Together with other Member States, we will now clarify how this can be done in practice.”

Sigurd Enge, senior Arctic adviser at Bellona, believes that the Arctic region is currently experiencing the worst period in terms of environmental conditions since the council’s foundation in 1996.

“The Arctic is under threat from both rising air and sea temperatures. Today, however, the fundamental causes of the problems of the region and the Arctic Council lie outside the Arctic. Climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved in the Arctic alone,” Enge says.

“Thus, one of the important tasks of the council is to convey to all other countries and international bodies how important it is to maintain the pace of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Government of Norway must be guided by the need to step up efforts to combat the devastation that is taking place before our very eyes today,” he says.

Two days before Norway assumed the chairmanship of the council, the Clean Arctic Alliance, made up of twenty non-profit organizations, including Bellona, sent its recommendations to the Norwegian government in an open letter. The Alliance is campaigning to convince Arctic governments to take action to protect the Arctic, its wildlife and its people.

“Business as usual is out of the question”

In the current circumstances, it is impossible to continue cooperation with the Russian Federation within the framework of the Arctic Council. Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states is one of the key principles on which the Council’s activities are based, and Russia has violated it.

pevek The Port of Pevik at the far eastern edge of the Northern Sea Route in Chukotka. Credit: Consfone

At the same time, Russia owns 53% of the coast of the Arctic Ocean, and the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation occupies a quarter of the total area of the Arctic. Representatives of other Arctic countries are well aware of this — just as they are aware of the fact that the solution of environmental problems in the Arctic is urgent.

“Russia has not been expelled from the Arctic Council. It hasn’t exited it. There are no plans to exclude Russia from the council. However, doing business as usual at the political level is now out of the question,” Norwegian Secretary of State Eivind Vad Petersson said during a debate in Bodø, Norway this April.

Thomas Winkler, the Danish ambassador to the Arctic, agrees: “We keep the door ajar because Russia is still a member of the council. Even if we can’t cooperate with it. So, everything depends on Russia. When Russia changes its behavior, the first place where we will resume cooperation is the Arctic.”

However, it is not yet clear that Russia is going to “change its behavior.”

Thus, on May 11, Sergei Lavrov stated that “the full-scale activity of the council was temporarily frozen by Western countries – members [of the council] under the absolutely far-fetched pretext of the situation in Ukraine, which they themselves provoked.”

“We consider such a step politicized,” he added.

In the absence of cooperation among the members of the council, Russia is strengthening interaction in the Arctic with non-regional states, primarily China and India. On March 20, Vladimir Putin, following negotiations with Xi Jinping, announced that in the near future a joint working body would be created on the Northern Sea Route project, designed to form plans for the development of the route by both Russia and China.

At the same time, within the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation approved on March 31, both China and India, are called a “key partner” of the Russian Federation, and all states pursuing a “constructive policy towards the Russian Federation” are invited to participate in NSR development.

However, the entry of Indian and Chinese capital into resource recovery and transport projects in the Russian Arctic has been observed before. For example, since 2016, Indian companies have owned 49% of JSC Vankorneft, the operator of the Vankor field in the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and a 20% share in Yamal LNG, the largest producer of liquefied natural gas in the Russian Arctic, belong to the Chinese CNPC (with another 20% owned by French Total, and the remaining 60% by Russian Novatek).

With a quarter of the Arctic region owned by a country ruled by an authoritarian regime that violates international treaties and puts exploitation of resources ahead of the environment, the rest of the Arctic Council members will have to redouble their efforts to protect the Arctic environment to prevent the destruction of its fragile ecosystems and to stave off irreversible climate change.