Reykjavik, Iceland: The eight countries bordering the Arctic meet Thursday in Iceland to discuss peaceful cooperation in the region amid rising temperatures and tensions, in particular between Russia and the US.
Accelerated global warming, untapped resources, and new maritime routes opened up by retreating sea ice, as well as the future of local populations, top the agenda for the foreign ministers gathered in Reykjavik.
Canada, Denmark (through its autonomous territory Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the US meet every two years in the Arctic Council.
With the departure of Donald Trump, who sparked agitation by proposing to buy Greenland in 2019 and repeated opposition to Russian and Chinese ambitions in the region, all eyes will now be on the line adopted by President Joe Biden’s administration.
Russia is meanwhile set to succeed Iceland as the rotating chair of the Arctic Council — a body that aims to foster dialogue — at a time of increased military maneuvers in the region.
On the eve of the Council’s meeting, the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time, ahead of a possible summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the near future.
— AFP News Agency (@AFP) May 20, 2021
“If the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively… the world can be a safer and more secure place,” Blinken said, warning however that Washington would “respond” to any Russian acts of aggression.
“We are ready to discuss all issues without exception if we understand that discussions will be honest and based on mutual trust,” Lavrov responded.
‘The US is back’
Mikaa Mered, a professor at French university Sciences Po and a specialist on the Arctic, told AFP the Biden and Trump administrations “share a common perspective: in saying that the United States is back in the Arctic and is a leader in Arctic cooperation.”
The two administrations however have different motivations for their interest in the region.
“The Trump administration did it mainly for issues related to energy and security, the Biden administration will focus on other subjects, such as climate change. But in both cases the dynamic is the same: the United States is back,” Mered told AFP.
At the previous Council meeting in 2019 in Finland, the Trump administration blocked the signing of a joint declaration for the first time since the Council’s creation 25 years ago, as it refused to include climate change in the final statement.
Designed to focus on cooperation between countries and to avoid contentious issues, the Council has generally been a forum for consensus, and the adoption of a joint statement is all but assured this time.
In addition to the countries bordering the Arctic, the Council also includes six organizations representing the indigenous peoples of the region and 13 observer countries, including China.
Its mandate explicitly excludes military security and the body has no formal legal powers.
But in the lead-up to this year’s meeting, tensions mounted nonetheless.
Lavrov on Monday issued a stern warning against Western ambitions in the Arctic, insisting “this is our territory, this is our land.”
Great meeting today with Swedish Foreign Minister @AnnLinde while in Reykjavik for the @ArcticCouncil Ministerial. We discussed the importance of the Arctic Council in addressing regional challenges and fostering cooperation among Arctic States. pic.twitter.com/RRDuzhLXRq
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 20, 2021
Blinken in turn expressed US concerns about increased military activities in the region.
Russia has steadily beefed up its military presence in the Arctic in recent years, reopening and modernizing several bases and airfields abandoned since the end of the Soviet era.
But Lavrov has also called for a resumption of regular meetings between the chiefs of staff of the Council’s member countries, which have been suspended since 2014.
In a sign of Washington’s interest in the region, Blinken was to visit Greenland on Thursday, wrapping up his four-day visit to Denmark and Iceland.