When the ice melts, people think of the Arctic regions and are deeply concerned – unlike in politics: the fact that the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva revived the frozen diplomatic relations is probably the clearest success of the bilateral talks. On Wednesday, the American and Russian presidents met for the first time, on neutral ground in Switzerland, with the expectation of thawing relations between the two countries, which have grown increasingly frosty in recent years. In addition to agreeing to talks on arms control and the return of ambassadors, the two heads of state also discussed their respective approaches to the Arctic, which is becoming increasingly accessible for shipping.
Although Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov had tempered expectations ahead of Biden and Putin’s meeting, both presidents described the talks as constructive, possibly marking an end to the ice age after years of mounting tensions. In any case, the meeting was an important step toward cooperation in the Arctic that could put Russia on notice to live up to its chairmanship of the Arctic Council (since May of this year), especially since Putin signaled a willingness to cooperate and emphasized the role of the Arctic Council itself:
“If we all together, all interested countries, and perhaps first of all the countries of the Northern Council (sic) will work together to resolve these questions – and here are issues that need additional review – then I have no doubt that we will find decisions and solutions.”
In doing so, Putin is probably also alluding to the reassessment of the competencies of the Arctic Council, which is avowedly concerned with issues of environmental protection such as climate change, environmental degradation and threats to habitats in the Arctic region and probably sees political competencies implied in the future.
The Russian head of government strongly emphasized his readiness to negotiate to resolve volatile issues surrounding the protection and security of the Arctic with regard to securing the Northern Sea Route, which connects the North Atlantic and Barents Seas with the Pacific, and underlined the need for guarantees to preserve peace in the Arctic: “I told our colleagues that I see no reason for concern. On the contrary, I am deeply convinced that we can cooperate and must cooperate in this direction,” the President said. “I do not see any problem [in der Region] that we cannot solve,” he stressed.
However, Putin was clearly unable to allay US concerns about Russian actions to strengthen military positioning in the Arctic, and Joe Biden underlined in his summary of the talks that the US government would be very vigilant in monitoring Russia’s activities in this regard, although Putin rejected all accusations in this regard as unfounded, but set accents: “A coastal state is committed to provide peaceful passage, including for military vessels,” Putin said, acknowledging the international right to peaceful use of the Northern Sea Route.
The Arctic apparently took a key role in the Geneva meeting, as President Joe Biden also emphasized in a press briefing before leaving Geneva, focusing on “how we (US and Russia) can ensure the Arctic remains a region of cooperation rather than conflict.”
Biden also mentioned “the need for us to be able to have some kind of modus operandi where we dealt with making sure the Arctic was, in fact, a free zone.” The views of both sides are obviously far apart on this issue.
However, both sides failed to touch directly on issues of climate change and environmental protection. This first meeting between the heads of state of the two most powerful Arctic states has brought movement into relations that have been completely deadlocked since Trump’s time in office – but it remains to be seen whether the constructive talks, as both sides have stressed, will be followed by effective steps. Time is running out for the Arctic.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
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