- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Arctic Council was designed as a forum for its eight member nations to discuss development and environmental protections and find common ground in the icy region.

But the multilateral body instead appears on track to become another venue for Washington and Moscow to battle it out on the world stage.

Top Russian officials say they intend to use the country’s turn as chairman of the council, which begins next spring, to promote the Kremlin’s national security interests and to push back on what they view as a growing U.S. effort to contest the Arctic and elbow out rivals. Analysts warn that the Arctic Council is the wrong outlet for those kinds of military and security debates and note that the council’s charter expressly forbids them.

There is also a fear that Moscow’s aggressive approach could leave council members such as Iceland, Canada and Finland on the sidelines, spectators to a heavyweight geopolitical prize fight while pressing issues such as climate change, ocean debris, sustainable fishing and investments in indigenous communities fade into the background.

Adding to the intrigue is the accelerating rush for riches, sea lanes and military influence at the top of the world. The race has drawn in not just the countries that border on the Arctic but also ambitious onlookers such as China.

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, now deputy head of the Russian Security Council, vowed this month to deal with “direct threats to our national security” in the Arctic and suggested that he will turn to the Arctic Council to air grievances with Washington. The Russian Security Council recently established its own “Arctic Commission,” underscoring just how important the region is to Moscow’s 21st-century defense, energy and economic strategies.

Arctic specialists say the U.S. and Russia desperately need to address growing tensions in the Arctic, which is widely viewed as a key battleground in the broader competition between the nations. The U.S. national strategic blueprint, overhauled by the Trump administration in 2018, calls for the Pentagon to shift its focus from fighting terrorism to traditional “great power” challengers, notably Russia and China.

But the Arctic Council doesn’t have the structures in place to handle such debates, said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I have certainly been advocating that we need a mechanism to discuss hard security issues in the Arctic for quite some time, but it has been a struggle to find [or] create such a forum,” she told The Washington Times. “Other Arctic states may shy away from such a hard security discussion, fearing that the discussion itself could increase Arctic militarization and tensions. I would encourage Washington to take Moscow up on its interest in having discussions, but the Arctic Council isn’t the right place to do it.”

Indeed, the Arctic Council’s 1996 charter, known as the Ottawa Declaration, lays out the specific roles the body will play. The document talks about the special role of “Indigenous people and their communities” and stresses that all eight members will commit to “economic and social development, improved health conditions and cultural well-being.”

It explicitly states that “the Arctic Council should not deal with matters related to military security.”

Great-power rivalries

It’s getting much more difficult, however, to separate those issues.

“Since the Cold War, there has been no formal structure or venue to address security issues in the Arctic,” researchers with Carnegie Europe wrote in a November 2019 study. “Since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, old-fashioned geopolitics have begun to creep into discussions of the Arctic. The great powers increasingly see themselves as locked in a competition, not only in the security realm, but also in the areas of economics, politics and trade. As a result, the cooperative logic that has so far dominated in the Arctic risks being undermined.”

It’s clear Russia sees military security and development of the Arctic as deeply intertwined.

Moscow is eyeing rich energy reserves in the region and is planning a massive shipping channel to move goods through the frigid waters to customers around the world.

On a parallel track, Russia is dramatically expanding its military presence in the Arctic and sees the U.S. as its chief rival to effective control of the area.

“This region is of special strategic importance for us. Here, the state is handling its most important tasks — the protection of economic interests and national security,” Mr. Medvedev told The Independent Barents Observer this month. “Despite attempts from certain countries to destabilize the situation in the Arctic, we will successively protect our positions in the region.

“Russia must in the most serious manner address its work in the organization,” he said of Russia’s upcoming chairmanship of the council.

The council’s chair rotates every two years and is currently held by Iceland. Russia last held the post from 2004 to 2006.

Russia argues that the Trump administration already has shattered the norms of the Arctic Council and dragged military matters onto its agenda. Officials point to a speech last year in which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bashed Russia and took shots at China, which considers itself a “near-Arctic” state and has increasingly been making its own claims in the region.

Moscow already illegally demands that other nations request permission to pass, requires Russian maritime pilots to be aboard foreign ships and threatens to use military force to sink any that fail to comply,” Mr. Pompeo said in his May 2019 address to the council. “These provocative actions are part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behavior in the Arctic. Russia is already leaving snow prints in the form of army boots.”

In the months since, the two countries have had multiple close military encounters in the region. Russian planes routinely come dangerously close to the Alaskan coast, Pentagon officials say, and U.S. and British ships this year sailed through the strategically vital Barents Sea for the first time since the 1980s.

Russian vessels shadowed the American and British ships during that mission.

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