Arctic fox.

The Prospects for US-Russia Climate Engagement Under Moscow’s Chairing of the Arctic Council

May 19, 2021
Katarina Kertysova

This week, the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum for Arctic affairs, will pass from Iceland to Russia for a two-year term. Russia will take the baton at a time when the organization grapples with multiple challenges and Russia-West relations have hit another historic low. COVID-19 has caused a major disruption to the Icelandic chairmanship agenda, while the preceding Finnish chairmanship (2017-2019) was negatively affected by the Trump administration’s policy departure on clean energy and climate change, which put the U.S. out of step with other Arctic governments and  jeopardized efforts to adopt a ministerial declaration in 2019. Military buildup in the Arctic, coupled with the emerging narrative of great power competition, further undermine the cooperative spirit that the Arctic Council represents.

Whether cooperation or great power rivalry will characterize Arctic relations in the years ahead ultimately comes down to the attitudes and actions that major Arctic players the U.S. and Russia will take. The Trump administration’s excessive focus on great power competition and the need to display hard power in the region to counter Russia and China was a harmful distraction from the looming environmental degradation faced by Arctic communities. The election of U.S. President Joe Biden, who has placed a renewed emphasis on climate action and multilateral engagement, such as through the Arctic Council, suggests greater cooperation and less confrontation in the region. During its chairmanship, Russia will have an opportunity to lead an ambitious Arctic Council program and constructively engage with the new U.S. administration on areas of mutual interest, most notably climate change adaptation and environmental protection. A successful track record of bilateral cooperation in the Arctic, Biden’s vow to work with Russia on carbon removal efforts and Moscow’s interest in international cooperation to address climate change, which lists among its chairmanship priorities, signal common ground for meaningful engagement on climate, despite worsening of U.S.-Russian relations on other fronts.

Russia’s Chairmanship Priorities

Russia has placed sustainable development of the Arctic at the top of its chairmanship agenda. Its four stated priorities are the human dimension (the peoples who inhabit the Arctic, including indigenous peoples); environmental protection and climate change; socio-economic development; and further strengthening of the council itself. It is important to remember that these priorities are no more than a declaration. The substantive work of the Arctic Council takes place in its six working groups, through the projects they execute, and which must be agreed on unanimously by all eight members—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the U.S. Contrary to the false assumption in the general public that the country that chairs the council decides on the agenda and “tells” other nations what will be done, in reality, the chairmanship agenda and cascading efforts have to be agreed upon by consensus among all members.

Russia already submitted several project proposals to the Arctic Council Working Group on Sustainable Development (SDWG) pertaining to biosecurity, sustainable navigation, finance, clean energy and other areas designed to advance sustainable development of the region. As part of the already approved Arctic Hydrogen Energy Applications and Demonstrations (AHEAD) project, for example, the Snowflake international research station will be built in the Yamal-Nenets region of Siberia. The station will be fully powered by renewable energy and hydrogen and will focus on the development and testing of a wide range of technologies for the benefit of local communities.

In view of the troublesome demographic trends faced by all members of the Arctic Council, Russia’s chairmanship agenda will also have a strong socio-economic component. Russia is home to about two-thirds of all people who reside above the Arctic Circle (2.5 million). Due to large-scale outmigration and a stagnating fertility rate, the country’s Arctic population has shrunk by around 15 percent since 2000. If the labor force continues to decline, Russia’s ambitious industrialization projects will be difficult to realize. To enhance the quality of life of Arctic residents, Moscow intends to focus on improving access to healthcare and quality education, enhancing public safety, improving regional infrastructure, as well as preserving indigenous peoples’ rights, cultural heritage and way of life. Two projects proposed by Russia have already been approved by the council for joint implementation. The first will examine demographic and migration trends in the Arctic; the second will seek to digitize indigenous cultural and linguistic heritage.

While some observers assume Arctic economic development will be at odds with environmental protection, for Russia, these two objectives are not mutually exclusive. The melting of permafrost, which occupies nearly 65 percent of Russian territory, is highly damaging to physical infrastructure in the Russian Arctic. Last year’s oil spill in Norilsk, which contaminated an area of approximately 350 square kilometers, is believed to have been linked to a permafrost thaw. As permafrost melting accelerates, such accidents will become more common. In addition, warming oceans make Arctic weather increasingly unpredictable, which heightens risks for ships and crews transiting the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Russian public opinion on environmental and climate issues has been shifting, too.

Although Russia acknowledges that global warming presents a serious problem, its approach to climate change is based on a careful calculation of costs and benefits. The focus is on adaptation to the physical impacts of climate change, through projects that seek to remedy the consequences of climate change, rather than mitigation strategies that address the causes. During the Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasized Russia’s participation in international climate efforts and the country’s ratification of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol as well as the Paris Agreement (in 2019, four years after it was agreed). Putin added that compared to 1990 emissions levels, which are used as a benchmark against which emissions reductions are assessed, Russia has halved its emissions and is set to “substantially limit” net emissions by 2050. While impressive, in practice, these targets lack ambition and are easy for Russia to meet. The country’s emissions are considerably lower than levels registered in 1990, which enables Moscow to expand fossil fuel production while at the same time meeting its international climate commitments.

As the Arctic Council chair, Russia is expected to continue some of the environmental projects initiated under the Icelandic Chairmanship, such as improved waste management and reduction of black carbon and methane emissions. Examples of new projects that are being discussed include a database on Arctic shipping, a compilation of maps of forest fires and an assessment of the use of organic pollutants and mercury in the Murmansk region. Russia is also preparing to hold a forum on building resilience to climate change. Despite this ambitious adaptation agenda, Russia will likely continue to drag its feet on carbon emissions reductions, given its ambitious Arctic development plans and high dependence on fossil fuel production and export.

Other areas to watch closely concern Russia’s response to new countries seeking Arctic Council observer status, as well as to non-Arctic states (including China) seeking a louder voice in Arctic affairs; how the Polar Silk Road will develop under Moscow’s chairing; and how Russia will use its chair position to develop its specific Arctic interests and enhance its regional identity.

Limited powers of the rotating chairmanship

What impact will these policies have on the U.S. and its allies? As stated above, there is a disconnect between how Russia’s chairmanship is perceived versus what Russia can realistically do in its new position. The Arctic Council is often misunderstood as an institution with a broad authority and focus, while in fact its powers are quite limited. Structurally, the Council is a high-level forum for discussion, a generator of information and data for governments and other agencies, and a facilitator and coordinator of international research efforts enabled under a set of working groups. Established by a declaration rather than by a treaty, the Council has no legal personality or lawmaking powers. It cannot impose binding regulations on its members nor enforce compliance with existing ones. Because decisions on Arctic matters are made by consensus, there are limits to what the Arctic Council and the rotating chairmanship can do.

The forum is also not mandated to address issues of regional security, except in the most peripheral fashion. Since the Arctic Council was formally established in 1996, there has been an explicit understanding that external (non-Arctic) geopolitical challenges and military issues should not be brought to the fore. Given the difficulties faced by previous chairs discussed above, Russia is very unlikely to “rock the boat” in any way as a chair or to review the Arctic Council’s mandate. Statements by Russian officials support that Moscow is likely to strive for a quieter, clockwork chair process, maintaining a high degree of continuity of the Arctic Council’s work. In the words of Moscow’s Senior Arctic Official Anton Vasiliev, “the game plan conceived by Russia has many ideas but no surprises.”

Additionally, Russia likes the Arctic Council as a venue where regional issues can be discussed free of external politics, and has elevated its role in its updated Arctic strategy, explicitly stating that the council should coordinate activities in the region. It is also one of the very few international venues where Russia feels empowered by virtue of being a major regional actor. At a time where there are very few venues left to communicate with Western powers, the chairmanship presents an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate it can be a constructive partner. Constructive international cooperation in the Arctic is the priority set by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which is responsible for the chairmanship.

To prevent the spillover of military security issues into the Arctic Council agenda, and to keep the discussion of traditional and non-traditional security challenges separate, Russia’s proposal is to resume annual meetings between Arctic chiefs of defense, which were suspended in 2014. Russian Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Nikolai Korchunov also proposed a dialogue between military experts from the Arctic states during Russia’s chairmanship. Both options could help reduce the risk of a misunderstanding and unintended escalation in the Arctic at a time when the region is increasingly viewed through a military lens and discussions are often based on zero-sum thinking

Currently, there are few indications that Washington’s position on military-to-military dialogue with Moscow will shift. All bilateral military cooperation with Russia was legally prohibited in 2014 by the U.S. Congress. This prohibition can only be rescinded by a waiver from the secretary of defense or when the substantive conditions have been met. Norway, in contrast, keeps military communications channels with Russia open in a few selected areas, with the aim of improving transparency and reducing the risk of inadvertent escalation. It remains to be seen how the West will respond to the Russian proposals concerning meetings between Arctic defense chiefs or military experts.

U.S.-Russia climate engagement under Biden

The final key question is how the U.S. will engage the council once the chairmanship is handed over to Russia. The outlook for cooperation is promising. First, there is a successful track record of bilateral cooperation in the Arctic. Despite serious friction over Syria, Ukraine and Russian interference in 2016 U.S. presidential elections, among many other issues, the two countries have negotiated and signed five binding agreements concerning the Arctic region since 2011. These cover search and rescue, oil spill preparedness and response, scientific cooperation, improved shipping regulation, and a fishing moratorium in the Central Arctic Ocean. Earlier this year, the U.S. and Russia signed a Joint Contingency plan for pollution response in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Second, the arrival of the Biden administration, which has placed a renewed emphasis on climate action and multilateral engagement, such as with the Arctic Council, bodes well in this regard. Russia welcomed U.S. multilateral re-engagement on climate issues, including in the Arctic, and stressed the need to maintain constructive dialogue in the Arctic Council free of friction, despite differing views on certain issues.

In February this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in the Arctic Council, and to establish contacts in preparation for the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference. A month later, Kerry spoke with Putin’s climate adviser, Ruslan Edelgeriev. Additionally, Putin was among forty leaders who received an invitation to attend Biden’s virtual Leaders’ Summit on Climate in April. In remarks calling for a U.S.-Russia summit meeting this summer, Biden flagged climate change as one of the challenges that require the two countries to work together. While Putin accepted the invitation and addressed the virtual climate summit, he is yet to respond to a separate invitation to a bilateral conversation this summer. Potentially setting the stage for Biden-Putin summer meeting, Russian and U.S. foreign ministers will meet on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial in Reykjavik this week to discuss “key issues of bilateral relations and the international agenda.”

Given the significance of climate issues on the Arctic Council’s agenda, and Biden’s pledge to make climate change a priority, there is important scope for meaningful engagement on climate at the Arctic Council, G20 and COP26 this year. Climate change, by definition, is a global challenge that requires a global solution. Engaging the fourth largest carbon emitter in multilateral efforts to fight climate change is not only possible, but also imperative to meet the Paris goal to achieve global net zero emissions by 2050. In doing so, however, diplomats will need to recognize the significant differences that still exist between Moscow and Washington on emissions targets, renewables and the general need for de-carbonization

The military buildup in the region and zero-sum thinking will continue to put regional cooperation on areas of mutual interest under strain. It remains to be seen whether U.S. concerns about Russian militarization of the Arctic will be spelled out or sidelined in the name of rebuilding regional multilateralism. In the words of Andreas Raspotnik and Andreas Østhagen, the new U.S. administration needs to understand the Arctic status quo, where “cooperation with Russia is a geographic necessity, and the one with China a future imperative; be it on matters of regional security, fisheries management or environmental protection.” Biden should prioritize cooperation on areas of mutual interest over bellicose rhetoric and military-strategic competition with Russia and China, which dominated Arctic relations under the previous U.S. administration. To address the region’s growing militarization, it would be advisable for the Biden administration to find new ways to engage Arctic and non-Arctic actors in defense-related and military security dialogue outside the Arctic Council. This would help reduce the risk of military escalation stemming from miscalculation and misinterpretation of intentions.


Katarina Kertysova

Katarina Kertysova is a Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network (ELN) and a Global Fellow at the Kennan and Polar Institutes of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. 

Photo by Jonatan Pie, shared in the public domain. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.