“Cooperation and scientific diplomacy are fundamental values of the Arctic Council”. | Polarjournal

Serafima Andreeva is a socio-political researcher at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. This research organization works on environmental issues, law and resource management policy. The center is located in Lysaker, near Oslo, on the former estate of explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Serafima Andreeva specializes in the workings of the Arctic Council and Russian climate policy. Her latest article, published on April 21 in the scientific review The Polar Journal in collaboration with Svein Vigeland Rottem, sheds light on why the Arctic Council has survived to the present day. Last week, the Arctic Council also published its progress report for 2023, the half-way point in Norway’s term of office, after one year as chair of the Council. This mandate has been weakened by the breakdown of discussions between the Western states and Russia. The report highlights the importance of working groups and the resumption of scientific and personal collaborations, as well as the emergence of “depoliticized” projects around fires and youth in the Arctic. In an interview with PolarJournal, Serafima Andreeva discusses Norway’s priorities for this mandate.

What difficulties is the Arctic Council currently facing?

The Western states in the Arctic Council (AC) declared a temporary pause in their participation in March 2022. Even if the future remains uncertain, the Arctic Council has restarted some activities and cooperative dialogue after its pause. Since cooperation with Russia was put on hold and scientific exchanges were abruptly cut off in 2022, the Arctic Council has concentrated on ensuring the forum’s survival. After the transition of chairship from Russia to Norway, the goal is to make the dialogue address how the Arctic Council will function, and not only ‘survive’.

At the beginning, the question was how to ensure that the working groups remained intact, to identify the projects that could remain active and to understand how to ensure that the working groups continued to function to a certain extent. Although Russia is a key player in the list of working group projects, there is still room for working-level cooperation in projects where Russia does not play an as active role. The goal is toslowly return to normal. Not everything is linked to Russia, but it is important toresume pan-Arctic dialogue.

Has an alternative forum emerged in the Arctic?

he discussions outside of the Council have occasionally proposed BRICS as an organisation that might take a larger role in Russian Arctic cooperation if the Arctic Council were to be significantly weakened. However, the survival and functioning of the Arctic Council is in the interest of all Arctic states, and hence BRICS is not really an alternative in that sense, and it is still far from something that could replace the Arctic Council or offer an alternative to Russia. For this country the most important thing is to check whether the forums for international cooperation serve its interests in the region, and whether it can express its priorities there.

Polar navigation is at the heart of Russian concerns. Image: Novatek

According to Morten Hoglund, the current two-year chair of the AC, discussions are progressing slowly, but there is no immediate and pressing initiative from Russia to leave the platform. Other types of bilateral cooperation could exist, but nothing equivalent to the AC, which is very unique both in terms of its influence and its longstanding scientific work. So I don’t see any challengers for this forum.

What are the priorities for Norway, which is chairing the Arctic Council for another year?

Initially, it was to make sure that the Arctic Council survived, then that slowly changed during the chairship, towards a discourse around its functioning. But Norway’s priorities are not in stark contrast to previous presidencies. They are also based on the Reykjavik Declaration in 2021, where it was possible to work by consensus. So this vision is still very important.

“Russia runs the risk of saying ‘you’re not interested in our objective, you’re not serving our interests, so goodbye’.”

The scientific aspect of the working groups has also remained at the heart of the concerns from the outset, as the Arctic Council was created (in 1996) on the basis on the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) , which is very strongly science-oriented. Cooperation and scientific diplomacy are therefore fundamental values of the Arctic Council.

How is AC trying to improve the situation?

The Norwegian chairmanship is focusing on bilateral conversations between the Arctic states, but the main way of ensuring that the Arctic Council continues to function remains cooperation on environmental issues. This means focusing on specific priorities, such as forest fires – which is an emerging issue in the Arctic.

Tundra fires in the Northwest Territories. Image: Peter Griffith / Nasa

So work more on science. De-politicising relations is a priority for this year, but with an ackgnowledgement for the need to maintain contact and constant dialogue with Russia through working groups and at Senior Arctic Officials level. If the Arctic Council loses this dialogue, Russia runs the risk of saying “you’re not interested in our objective, you’re not serving our interests, so goodbye”.

A few months ago, the guidelines for the working groups were updated and published on the Arctic Council website. These written procedures are a way of encouraging scientific cooperation, despite the difficulty of organising meetings with Russia. This is by no means back to normal, and I don’t know how it will be in the future, but there is a willingness to open up space to include all the Arctic states equally.

Interview by Camille Lin, Polar Journal AG

Link to study: Andreeva, S., Rottem, S.V., 2024. How and why the Arctic Council survived until now – an analysis of the transition in chairship between Russia and Norway. The Polar Journal 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/2154896X.2024.2342111.

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