The Arctic Council: in From the Cold?

Arctic Council

On February 28, 2024, Morten Høglund, Chair of the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials announced that the eight Arctic States, in consultation with the Indigenous Permanent Participant organizations, reached consensus to gradually resume official Working Group meetings in a virtual format. The ability to meet virtually extends to all project-level teams and Expert Groups to ensure project-level work advancement. Observers and external experts are invited to reengage in these meetings as relevant. The resumption of official Working Group meetings will take place gradually over the next three to four months.

Prior to this move, Working Groups advanced project work and decision-making only via written procedures after consensus on partial resumption of their work was reached in August 2023.

It should be noted that official Arctic Council meetings were put on pause by the seven Western Arctic States in March 2022, following the start of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. The 13th (virtual) Meeting of the Arctic Council took place in May 2023, where the two-year Russian Chairmanship was concluded and the Norwegian one started.

Changes are welcomed positively

The gradual resumption of virtual Working Group meetings will be the first working-level meetings to take place since March 2022. Diplomatic-level meetings on the Senior Arctic Official-level will remain on pause until such time as consensus is reached by the Arctic States, in consultation with Permanent Participants, on their resumption.

“As I’ve emphasized in the past, without functioning Working Groups, we don’t have an Arctic Council,” underlined Morten Høglund. “Allowing Working Groups to virtually meet and advance their work is critical in meeting that commitment and the responsibility the Council has to play a leading role in addressing issues of emerging concern as it relates to environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic”.

The above decision got a very warm shoulder from the world academic community. “There simply is no replacing the connections and creativity that are generated in real-time interactions with subject matter experts. Engaging with our counterparts in real time is key to the short and long-term success of the Arctic Council,” said Patrick Huber, Chair of the Arctic Contaminants Action Program Working Group (one of the six Council’s working groups). “Trust, understanding and respect are the cornerstones on which we build our Arctic cooperation, and we need to strengthen those elements to ensure the viability of our work. As projects approach key milestones and approval of final products are prepared, Arctic Council Working Groups will need to act with certainty and confidence, and they will want to ensure that the communities of Arctic are informed and engaged in a timely manner”.

The Permanent Participants, who represent Indigenous Peoples of the North in the Council, are also very positive about this initiative. “The Arctic Council is critical for Arctic cooperation and the permanent participation of Indigenous Peoples is what makes this body unique. The ability of the Arctic Council Working Groups to continue to effectively respond to the environmental, climatic and social development is of great importance to the Peoples of the Arctic,” said Sara Olsvig, International Chair of Inuit Circumpolar Council (one of the six Permanent Participants). “Resuming virtual meetings of the Arctic Council Working Groups is a key step in maintaining and advancing the strong partnerships built over decades, as well as the full and effective participation of Arctic Indigenous Peoples in the work of the Arctic Council”.

Important questions are still open

Of course, the resumption of the activities of the Arctic Council working groups in a virtual format and at the level of specific projects is a positive signal in terms of resumption of Arctic cooperation. But so far this initiative does not give grounds for excessive optimism. In fact, this is only a very modest step towards restoring full-scale Arctic cooperation.

Firstly, it is unclear what specific projects we are talking about - with or without Russia’s participation?

Secondly, again, it is unclear whether we are talking only about virtual discussions on projects or restoring full-fledged data exchange between their participants and working together on the implementation of practical projects, developing recommendations, writing reports, etc., as it was before?

Thirdly, it is unclear whether Russia will reverse its recent decision, taken on February 14, 2024, to stop funding the Arctic Council or leave it in force? Without the Russian contribution, the work of the executive bodies of the Council and, moreover, the implementation of projects through it will be very problematic, if not impossible. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry made it clear that the resumption of practical work within the framework of the Council implies the implementation by all member states of joint projects that address issues of preserving the ecosystem of the Arctic, conducting special polar research, developing humanitarian ties, as well as improving the quality of life and well-being of the population of the Far North.

It is noteworthy that the decision of the Western Arctic states to gradually "unfreeze" the work of the Arctic Council was soon followed by unequivocal hints from Russian officials about the possibility of Moscow's withdrawal from the Council and the decision to suspend payments to its budget.

I would also like to note that for the present moment we are talking only about a partial resumption of the Arctic Council’s work at its lowest level. Without the full-scale activation of both the working groups and the Senior Arctic Officials and ministerial meetings, a real resumption of the Council's activities is impossible and will not bring much benefit.

Alexander Sergunin

Professor of International Relations

St. Petersburg State University