Barry Scott Zellen is a visiting scholar in the department of geography at the University of Connecticut, and has written or edited a dozen books on Arctic, Indigenous and strategic issues.
In early March, seven of the eight Arctic Council (AC) member states announced an historic “pause” of their participation in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, after more than 25 years of nearly continuous operations and remarkable regional stability since its inaugural meeting in Ottawa on Sept. 19, 1996.
This is not the first time there’s been strategic dissension at the top of the world; with five of the eight AC members also part of the NATO alliance, there can hardly be a day without strategic dissension in the Arctic even in the best of times.
And indeed, it’s not even the first time tensions over Russian aggression in Ukraine have strained the AC’s impressive track record for circumpolar unity: In 2014, after Russia’s first assault upon Ukraine, the United States and Canada jointly boycotted a meeting of the AC’s Task Force for Action on Black Carbon and Methane, held in Moscow. Soon thereafter, though, they rejoined their fellow AC members in the spirit of Arctic co-operation.
What makes the latest decision by the seven AC members different is its unanimity and seeming endurance, as part of a global realignment against Russia.
The AC is a unique organization, with legitimacy that extends across the entirety of the circumpolar world. It represents a diverse mosaic of states and Indigenous peoples united in their efforts to protect their fragile ecosystems and environments undergoing an historic, and alarming, climatic transition. It brings together the eight founding Arctic states, which includes states as small as Iceland and as big as Russia, whose portion of the Arctic represents fully half the circumpolar world. It also includes within its innovative governance structure the six Indigenous permanent participants, as well as a diverse range of state and non-state observers.
This allows countries as distant from the Arctic and as consequential to the world economy as China an opportunity to participate, regardless of their domestic governing structures or ideologies or oppressive track records.
But the issues facing the Arctic – of which climate change is perhaps the most pressing for all stakeholders, small and large – are too high-stakes to be paused. And Russia, the largest of the Arctic states, with the largest Arctic population, most robust Arctic economy, and most diverse mosaic of cultures living there, needs to be at the table.
There are no half-way solutions to the future of the Arctic, whether it’s peacetime or wartime, and so while Russia’s actions in Ukraine are reprehensible, the seven states’ decision threatens the co-operative post-Cold War order in the Arctic. Pausing the Arctic Council’s operations now because Russia holds its rotating chair seems as illogical as it would be to shutter the UN General Assembly, or to put meetings of the Security Council on hiatus.
Arctic Council members would do well to remember that there was a time not so long ago when the AC confronted a deep division in its ranks that threatened the very consensus that serves as the foundation of its successful first quarter-century. That time, the offending member was the United States, not Russia.
In 2019, issues around a joint declaration regarding climate change reportedly drove a wedge between the U.S. and its fellow Arctic Council members, but despite this temporary collapse in consensus, the AC survived. The organization proved as resilient as the diverse collective of Arctic peoples, states, cultures and organizations it represents, reaffirming the value of intergovernmental bodies as the one space in world politics where rivals and opponents can meet face to face – which is important, even in times of war.
If the AC can survive that fracas, there is no reason why it can’t do the same again now – and indeed, it must. As bad as things are, and as bad as they might become in the war in Ukraine, now is not the time to suspend AC meetings.
Instead, its members should redouble its efforts to nurture Arctic co-operation between its diverse community of stakeholders, and demonstrate to all the world a viable path for Russia’s return to responsible statecraft.
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