The eight countries bordering the Arctic are meeting in Iceland on Thursday to discuss peaceful cooperation in the region amid rising temperatures and tensions, particularly between Russia and the United States.
Accelerated global warming, untapped resources and new sea routes opened up by the retreat of sea ice, as well as the future of local populations are high on the agenda of foreign ministers meeting in Reykjavik.
Canada, Denmark (via its autonomous territory of Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States meet every two years in the Arctic Council.
With the departure of Donald Trump, who sparked unrest by offering to buy Greenland in 2019 and repeated opposition to Russian and Chinese ambitions in the region, all eyes will now be on the line adopted by the administration. by President Joe Biden.
Russia is expected to succeed Iceland as the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council – a body that aims to foster dialogue – at a time when military maneuvers are increasing in the region.
On the eve of the Council meeting, the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the first time, in anticipation of a possible summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the near future.
“If the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively … the world can be a safer and more secure place,” Blinken said, warning, however, that Washington would “respond” to any act of Russian aggression.
“We are ready to discuss all matters without exception if we understand that the discussions will be honest and based on mutual trust,” Lavrov replied.
– “The United States is back” –
Mikaa Mered, professor at the French University of Sciences Po and specialist in the Arctic, told AFP that the Biden and Trump administrations “share a common perspective: in claiming that the United States is back in the Arctic and are a leader in Arctic cooperation ”.
The two administrations, however, have different motivations for their interest in the region.
“The Trump administration has done this primarily on energy and security issues, the Biden administration will focus on other topics, like climate change. But in both cases, the dynamic is the same: the United States is back, ”Mered told AFP.
At the previous council meeting in 2019 in Finland, the Trump administration blocked the signing of a joint statement for the first time since the council was created 25 years ago because it refused to include climate change in the final declaration.
Designed to focus on cooperation between countries and to avoid contentious issues, the Council has generally been a forum for consensus, and adoption of a joint declaration is almost assured this time around.
In addition to the countries bordering the Arctic, the Council also includes six organizations representing the indigenous peoples of the region and 13 observer countries, including China.
Its mandate explicitly excludes military security, and the body has no formal legal power.
But in the run-up to this year’s meeting, tensions nonetheless mounted.
Lavrov on Monday issued a stern warning against Western ambitions in the Arctic, insisting that “this is our land, this is our land”.
Blinken in turn voiced US concerns about increased military activity in the region.
Russia has steadily increased its military presence in the Arctic in recent years, reopening and modernizing several bases and airfields abandoned since the end of the Soviet era.
But Lavrov also called for the resumption of regular meetings between the chiefs of staff of member countries of the Council, which have been suspended since 2014.
As a sign of Washington’s interest in the region, Blinken was due to visit Greenland on Thursday, concluding his four-day visit to Denmark and Iceland.
© 2021 AFP