Seven countries that ring the North Pole have pulled back from the international body that seeks to build co-operation on the development of the Arctic in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Canada, the United States, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland announced Thursday that they won’t participate in the work of the council or attend any of its meetings until further notice. The only other member state is Russia, which currently leads the council.
“Our representatives will not travel to Russia for meetings of the Arctic Council,” said a joint statement from the seven countries. “Additionally, our states are temporarily pausing participation in all meetings of the council and its subsidiary bodies.”
The Arctic Council has been the main group fostering international co-operation in the Arctic since its founding in Ottawa in 1996. Although it doesn’t have treaty-making powers, its work has led to important agreements on search and rescue, oil spill preparedness and scientific co-operation.
“It has led to some amazing elements of both understanding what we need to do in the Arctic and actually achieving it,” said Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary.
“It provides us a model of how you can come together.”
It’s also an important international forum for northern Indigenous people, who are permanent participants at council meetings and take part in its debates.
But there’s no way the council could proceed in the face of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, said Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia international law professor.
“Some crises are so large that a pause is warranted,” he said.
Byers suggested some of the council’s scientific efforts — it has six working groups on the Arctic environment, people and sustainable development — could continue.
A spokeswoman for the council’s secretariat in Tromso, Norway, said the council remains in operation but it’s too early to know what the withdrawal means for the body.
“This is what the working groups have to work with, is to see how this pause will affect them,” said Kristina Bar.
Whitney Lackenbauer, a historian and Arctic expert at the University of Waterloo, suggested the move was signalled after RAIPON, a Russian Indigenous group and council participant, wrote on March 1 to Russian President Vladimir Putin in support of Russia’s moves in Ukraine.
“This is clearly Kremlin-penned, which to me is a militarization of the Arctic Council,” said Lackenbauer. “It’s hard not to see (Russia) using RAIPON as a proxy.”
Byers pointed out no country has withdrawn from the council. Nor has Russia been booted.
The statement from the seven countries says the withdrawal is temporary, “pending consideration of the necessary modalities that can allow us to continue the Council’s important work in view of the current circumstances.”
But it will be tough to resume the council’s work and spirit of co-operation, said Huebert.
“If the war proceeds as their wars have proceeded in Georgia and Chechnya — long, bloody, extended affairs — I don’t know how you do that.”
Huebert notes that both Finland and Sweden are talking about joining NATO, which would leave Russia as the council’s only non-NATO member.
A circumpolar body that doesn’t include Russia would be hard to imagine. More than half the Arctic coast is Russian. But there’s only one way for the Arctic Council to resume, Lackenbauer said.
“Russia has to end its brutal invasion. Full stop.”
It’s a sad irony for a body that was partly founded with Canadian leadership to help bring a post-Soviet Russia into the international community, said Byers.
“Mary Simon, now Governor General, and Lloyd Axworthy as foreign minister saw the Arctic Council as a way to bring Russia into a higher level of co-operation with western countries.”
That’s gone, he said.
“The seven western countries are attempting to put the Arctic Council on ice until the war in Ukraine is over.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2022.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press