COPENHAGEN – Norway on Thursday took over the Arctic Council's rotating chairmanship from Russia amid questions about what role the eight-country intergovernmental body can play in protecting the polar region after the invasion of Ukraine prompted Western countries to suspend cooperation with Moscow.
The Arctic Council, which doesn't deal with security issues but makes binding agreements on environmental protection and gives a voice to the Indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, was one of the few settings where Western countries and Russia worked together closely.
But the United States, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden decided to pause their work with Russia in the council shortly after Moscow launched the full-scale war in February 2022.
As a result, research involving Russia on issues ranging from climate change to polar bears has been put on hold, and scientists have lost access to important facilities in the Russian Arctic.
Nonetheless, Norway vowed to keep the council's work moving forward as it assumed the rotating two-year chairmanship from Russia.
“Norway will continue to focus on the core issues the Council deals with, including the impacts of climate change, sustainable development and efforts to enhance the well-being of people living in the region,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said. "Together with the other member states, we will now explore how this can be achieved in practice.”
Experts say that's going to be complicated without cooperation with Russia, the biggest Arctic nation.
“It is a huge challenge for Norway. They have to isolate Russia and at the same time they have to make sure not to provoke Russia to dissolve the Council,” said Rasmus Gjedssø Bertelsen, of the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe.
He worried that Indigenous peoples might “lose an important forum and a prominent platform,” adding that many of the groups are cross-border organizations and don’t follow national borders.
Six organizations representing Arctic Indigenous peoples are permanent participants of the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996.
The council has been a key forum for Arctic stakeholders to address climate change and other environmental challenges in the region, where melting sea ice is opening up new areas to shipping and offshore oil and gas exploration.
Countries including France, Germany, China, Japan, India and Korea attend the meetings of the Arctic Council as observers.
Dwayne Ryan Menezes, founder and director of the London-based Polar Research and Policy Initiative, said that while it won't make the council's problems disappear, Norway taking over the chairmanship would "make it possible for the majority of member states to have a close working relationship with the chair once again, which will aid the forum’s work of promoting cooperation and coordination.”
The handover took place in an online ceremony, with member states’ Arctic ambassadors rather than foreign ministers attending. The council issued a statement “recognizing the historic and unique role of the Arctic Council" and acknowledging the commitment to safeguard and strengthen it.
Morten Høglund, a Norwegian diplomat who took over as chair of the council's senior officials' group, told reporters during an online briefing that “important work” would continue in the council even though government ministers wouldn't participate in the talks in the foreseeable future.
“That's one of the challenges we just have to try to overcome," he said.