Arctic Council in upheaval over Russia as climate change transforms region

Floating ice is seen during the expedition of the The Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship at the Arctic Ocean
Floating ice is seen during the expedition of the Greenpeace's Arctic Sunrise ship at the Arctic Ocean, September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Natalie Thomas/File Photo

LONDON/WASHINGTON, March 3 (Reuters) - Countries of the Arctic Council said on Thursday they would boycott future talks in Russia over its Ukraine invasion, throwing international cooperation in the region into upheaval at a time when climate change is opening it up to resource exploitation.

The Arctic Council brings together countries with Arctic territories to collaborate on matters that affect the region's residents. It does not deal with security issues.

Russia, which currently holds the council's rotating chairmanship, has posed "grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic," the council's other seven member countries said in a statement.

The countries – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the United States, Canada and Denmark – said they were suspending their work indefinitely, and would skip planned talks in May in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk due to Moscow's "flagrant violation" of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Arctic Council leadership did not reply to a request for comment.

The boycott raises uncertainty over development plans in the Arctic, which is warming three times as fast as the rest of the world due to climate change.

As sea ice vanishes, polar waters are opening to shipping and other industries eager to exploit the region's bounty of natural resources, including oil, gas, and metals such as gold, iron and rare earths used in everything from military equipment to renewable energy.

Last week, the U.S. State Department said on Twitter that "Russia's standing everywhere, including the Arctic, a region with strong rules and principles based on international law, is diminished by its further invasion of Ukraine."

When asked this week about the potential of Russian collaboration in the Arctic, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters that "we remain committed to the Arctic Council and its important work."

But it was unclear whether the United States and other council members see Russia as part of the group's work going forward. Russia accounts for 50% of Arctic landmass.

Unless challenged, Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a "special operation," would hold the Arctic Council chairmanship until 2023.

"The Arctic is facing its biggest crisis in 35 years," said Klaus Dodds, a geopolitician at Britain's Royal Holloway University who studies Arctic relations.


Established in 1996, the Arctic Council has been nominated several times for a Nobel Peace Prize – most recently last month.

"The Arctic has been a relatively peaceful region, and many of us who work there brag about this, (including) working with the Russian Federation" in the past, said Michael Sfraga, founding director of the Wilson Center's Polar Institute and chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

"For the last 25 years, Arctic leadership has been able to navigate the winds of change," he said, including Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. "There's been a bubble around the Arctic, keeping other tensions out."

That bubble burst last month when Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

"The spirit of Arctic exceptionalism and cooperation is in jeopardy," said Pavel Devyatkin, a Moscow-based researcher at the Arctic Institute think tank.

Russia also currently holds the chairmanship of the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, a group dedicated to ensuring safe, secure and environmentally responsible movement through Arctic waters.

The Russian Coast Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Arctic Council members said in their statement that they remained "convinced of the enduring value of the Arctic Council for circumpolar cooperation" and hold "a responsibility to the people of the Arctic."

In October 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former president of the Soviet Union, made an impassioned plea in Murmansk that the North should be "a pole of peace."

"What's so tragic is that Gorbachev had this extraordinary vision for the Arctic," Dodds said. "And (Russian President) Vladimir Putin has done his very best to destroy it."

Reporting by Gloria Dickie in London and Timothy Gardner in Washington; Additional reporting by Reuters in Moscow; Editing by Katy Daigle, Mark Heinrich and Rosalba O'Brien

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Gloria Dickie reports on climate and environmental issues for Reuters. She is based in London. Her interests include biodiversity loss, Arctic science, the cryosphere, international climate diplomacy, climate change and public health, and human-wildlife conflict. She previously worked as a freelance environmental journalist for 7 years, writing for publications such as the New York Times, the Guardian, Scientific American, and Wired magazine. Dickie was a 2022 finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists in the international reporting category for her climate reporting from Svalbard. She is also the author of Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future (W.W. Norton, 2023).