Nordic Plus: International Cooperation in the Arctic enters a New Era

By Prof Stefan Kirchner
Image: 11th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting. © Arctic Council/Flickr.

Prof Dr Stefan Kirchner MJI
Research Professor of Arctic Law; Head – Arctic Governance Research Group
Arctic Centre, University of Lapland

Russia at War

Russia is waging an illegal war of aggression against Ukraine. Since 24 February 2022, this armed conflict, which has been ongoing since 2014, has been escalated dramatically. Russian forces attack civilians across Ukraine and there have been reports of war crimes and even acts that, depending on the circumstances and the intent of the perpetrator, can be considered acts of genocide by Russia, including the murder of children, systematic rapes, denial of medical services to the civilian population in occupied areas, and, with 1.3 million Ukrainians fleeing, also the possibility of ethnic cleansing. Russia has attacked several nuclear power plants and created threats to all of Europe.

This has led to a swift response, not only by the International Criminal Court which has opened an investigation, but by the international community, at least on paper. After the failure of the United Nations Security Council to condemn the actions by one of its permanent members that holds veto power, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s aggression with 141 against 5 votes, with key countries, such as China and India, abstaining. The aggression unleashed by Vladimir Putin has consequences for international cooperation in the Arctic. In the following paragraphs, it will be shown that Arctic cooperation will continue, but that it is already changing. International Arctic governance is not dead, but some of the institutions that have been crucial for it in the past three decades, such as the Arctic Council, are at the very least dormant, if not moribund.

I do not claim to be neutral. A native of West Germany, I grew up just a few kilometres west of the Iron Curtain. For almost a decade, I have worked in different academic functions in Finland, a country that gained independence from Russia a bit more than a century ago and that shares a long border with the world’s largest country. As a European patriot, the fall of the Iron Curtain that enabled the unification of Europe will always remain a pivotal moment in my life. 24 February 2022 will mark the end of an era, not only with regard to the governance of the Arctic, but also personally. 

For several years, I have been a visiting professor at V. N. Karazin University in Kharkiv, teaching in a university building at Freedom Square in the heart of the city. A few years earlier, I had the pleasure to teach a short intensive course on the European Convention on Human Rights at the International Relations Institute of Taras Shevchenko University, located around the corner from Babin Yar and the TV tower in Kyiv. As I am writing these lines, which only reflect my private opinion, geographically far from Ukraine on the sunny morning of Saturday, 5 March 2022, my colleagues, friends, and their loved ones are defending their country, hiding in basements or are attempting to flee, or are already far away from home, fearing that they will never see their parents, relatives, and hometowns again. I do not know how many of my former students are alive. The story of the war in Ukraine is theirs to tell. This text is about the impact of the war on a region that has been envisaged by one of Mr Putin’s predecessors, Mikhail Gorbachev, as “a zone of peace”, the Arctic. The phrase dates back to a speech Mr Gorbachev gave in Murmansk on 1 October 1987. Today, it seems likely that 1 October 1987 and 24 February 2022 will mark the beginning and the end of an era in the international governance of the Arctic.

Birth, Life and Coma of the Arctic Council

But international Arctic governance did not begin with the Arctic Council. Also due to the particular challenges that life in the North brings across the Arctic, cross-border cooperation has long been the norm in the Arctic. This can be seen for example in the 1973 Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears or in the recuse of whales that were trapped in the ice off the coast of Alaska by Soviet icebreakers in 1988, just over a year after Gorbachev’s speech. Environmental concerns were at the starting point for international cooperation in the Arctic, leading to the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) that was created in 1989 in Rovaniemi and which provided the starting point for the Rovaniemi Process which eventually led to the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996. Through six working groups, the Arctic Council uses scientific research and cooperation to address key concerns for the entire Arctic, in particular in relation to the natural environment, but also regarding preparation for and responses to disasters, and the sustainable development of the Arctic regions.

The Arctic States are not alone in these efforts that are meant to provide practical benefits to the people of the Arctic. The Arctic Council is particularly noteworthy for the inclusion of indigenous representative organizations as permanent participants, effectively eye-to-eye with the member States. In recent years, outside actors, sought observer status with the Arctic Council. While not including a formal role in decisions, the coveted observer status was seen as an indicator that the interests of outside actors, such as the People’s Republic of China, were seen as relevant also by those who speak for the people who live in the Arctic. Arctic strategies have become common policy tools and have been used to outline visions for the Arctic. Just last year, the European Union did so when it published its latest such policy document. While not an observer de jure, the EU has long been one of the actors that have expressed a keen concern for the Arctic and its people, although not always without challenges. For the last three decades, the Arctic has been a place where debates were possible, where it was possible to move forward together, despite, at times very serious, differences on issues not related to the Arctic. The huge amount of knowledge that has been created thanks to the Arctic Council and the three international treaties that have been agreed upon by the eight Arctic States, the A8, are the lasting legacy of the Arctic Council. On 24 February 2022, this era has come to an end, at least for the time being. 

The other seven member states of the Arctic Council are clearly opposing Russia, albeit without taking action to honour their responsibility to protect (R2P), for example through humanitarian intervention. These concepts have been discussed by international lawyers at length, but there seems no intention by the other states to invoke them against a nuclear power. If a genocide were to be committed against the people of Ukraine while the other Arctic States, all of which are members of the EU or NATO, stand by and let it happen, the conclusion that would be drawn is that a military power can get away with anything, as long as it has nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine that this is the message the other Arctic States want to send.

For the time being, in addition to sanctions and some aid to Ukraine, the A7, the Arctic States minus Russia, have reacted by declaring that they will not participate in meetings of the Arctic Council or any of its sub-organizations under the Russian Chairmanship. This declaration on 3 March was followed a day later by the announcement by the Arctic Council that it would pause all of its meetings. The Arctic Council is effectively dormant. Whether it will remain in an indefinite hiatus, will cease to function as a relevant forum or can be reactivated depends entirely on Mr Putin. At this moment, as the government of the largest Arctic nation commits war crimes against the civilian population of a neighbouring country, there is no basis for cooperation. The cooperation in the Arctic Council, and the same is true for other fora in the Arctic, especially in the Barents region, became possible at the end of the Cold War because trust was being built between the new partners. This trust has not merely been eroded but destroyed overnight. This includes not only the member states, but also observers. China and India, important observer states in the Arctic Council, failed to condemn the Russian aggression in the aforementioned vote in a special session of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Among these partners are not only the member states of the Arctic Council but also indigenous representative organizations, the permanent participants. Their reaction to the war has been mixed, too. On 1 March 2022, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) pledged its support for the decisions of V. V. Putin with regard to the war, although the short summary on its website is obviously meant to be less specific. The Saami Council’s Russian section published a statement focusing only on the needs of the population of the Russian Federation, without as much as mentioning Ukraine. As of 5 March 2022, the website of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC), which also speaks for Inuit in Chukotka, Russia, listed as its most recent news item the information dated 1 March 2022 that the ICC was accepted as the first Indigenous Peoples Organization that has been invited to formally participate as an Observer at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). There is no statement on the war, nor on its impact on the Arctic Council. While the websites of the Aleut International Association is currently in the process of being redesigned and that of the Arctic Athabascan Council appears to have not yet been updated recently, the Gwich’in Council International (GCI) responded by welcoming the pause in the work of the Arctic Council. GCI expressed its concerns and desire for peace in Ukraine and included a demand that Russia withdraws its forces from Ukraine immediately.

These different approaches may be inspired also by concern for indigenous communities and individuals who live inside the borders of the Russian Federation, in particular in light of the crackdown on civil rights that is currently underway. It can be seen that the war tears through the Arctic Council and the pause of its activities appears inevitable, given that the Arctic Council is based on the idea of consensus-based decision-making. At the moment, there is no sufficient trust between the different members and permanent participants. Consensus-based decisions appear illusory at the moment. The Arctic Council has stopped functioning. That the current situation is described as a “pausing” seems to be based on the hope that it can be reactivated eventually. It is unclear if and when this will be the case. At this time, it is impossible to imagine this being the case as long as Russia is not a free and democratic country that is as much as peace with its neighbors as is the case for the seven other Arctic States.

The reaction of Arctic states and Arctic Council observers to the war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts that, in light of Putin’s history regarding Grozny and Aleppo, increasingly point towards genocide (a claim that is not made lightly by international lawyers out of a fear that the concept is overused and the strength of legal persuasion is weakened in the context of the worst of international crimes), has been unequivocal. The A7 countries, along with partners in Europe and around the world, are imposing severe sanctions against the Russian Federation. Sweden and Finland also face direct threats from Russia as the governments of both countries consider closer ties to NATO and even entertain the idea of membership. On 2 March 2022, Russian aircraft violated Swedish air space near Gotland while the Swedish and Finnish defense ministers were meeting on the Swedish island in the Baltic Sea during exercises.

What is more difficult to explain is the attitude exhibited by some observers in the Arctic Council, for example Germany, that continue to buy gas from Russia, or the People’s Republic of China which continues to be Russia’s most important ally. As of Friday, 4 March 2022, the European Union imports gas worth 250,000 EUR from the Russian Federation – every minute. The price for the cavalier attitude towards Russia at this time is paid by the people of Ukraine. Within the Arctic Council, however, the position of the seven Western countries, the A7, is unanimous. It remains to be seen how the war will affect cross-border cooperation in other fields, but it seems likely that the cuts will be similarly severe (although the support for the regime in Moscow in Europe is not zero, also due to the false information provided by the Russian Federation). For the time being, contacts are being cut.

Accordingly, with the escalation since 24 February 2022, such cooperation in the Arctic has come to a halt, and with every crime committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, a return to the past becomes less likely anytime soon. The evolution of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to a new normality, one where masks and testing are a matter of self-preservation and politeness towards others, even when not legally required, and 2022 is not a smooth return to the reality of 2019. Something similar is happening with regard to Arctic governance right now. There is a new reality, which is different from the old reality. It is a reality that allows for cooperation between Arctic States, but in a manner that is different from the times before.

This new reality has emerged quickly: as mentioned, the other seven member states of the Arctic Council announced that they would no longer participate in meetings of the Arctic Council that would be held in Russia on Thursday, 3 March 2022. With Russia holding the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council until 2023, this indicated a pause until next year. Only one day later, the Arctic Council announced that it is pausing all of its activities. It is not clear for how long this pause will last. As Russia appears to descend into the darkness of dictatorship, it appears possible that the fate of the Arctic Council is similar to that of the League of Nations – only that the process that led to the Arctic Council’s end was significantly faster. The enforced hiatus is a reminder that any organization, be it a formal intergovernmental organization or a forum like the Arctic Council, is only as strong as its members allow it to be.

In the case of the Arctic Council, it was enough for one member state to deviate from the foundational idea that international relations are based on rules. By renouncing the faith in the rules-based nature of the international order, the Russian Federation has destroyed the fundament of trust that is necessary for the cooperation on which everybody in the Arctic has come to rely to some degree or another. While the other Arctic states were willing to look away when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, when Grozny was destroyed in 1999, and when Russian agents committed murders in Britain and Germany, it was now impossible to do so. The crimes committed in Ukraine on behalf of the Russian Federation are too great and too numerous to ignore, and the decision by Western countries to cut the ties to Russia was bound to affect cooperation in the Arctic Council as well, although the speed and severity with which the Arctic Council practically imploded will have surprised many.

A New Era: Nordic Plus Cooperation

What, then, can cooperation in the Arctic look like, without Russia? In a paper drafted on 25 February 2022, I envisaged a Nordic Plus form of cooperation, based on values that are shared between Europe and North America. What was a thought exercise a few days ago, has now become a necessity for the Arctic. The cooperation in the Arctic requires a higher degree of resilience than the Arctic Council has had until now. This requires a solid fundament on the basis of shared values. Such a fundament already exists among the A7.

The Nordic countries in particular have a long history of cooperation across borders. It is feasible to extend this cooperation to include Canada and the United States and to make use of other existing mechanisms. With regard to the geographical center of the Arctic, existing structures dealing with the international law of the sea will remain relevant, and Russia will continue to have a place in them. Apart from that, regional cooperation will likely be more value-based – in particular, grounded in the commitment to international law, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This situation also allows the increased inclusion of issues that until now have received little attention in the Arctic context, for example international trade. Here, Europe and Canada can build on the experience of the existing trade agreement, and a trans-Atlantic super-region is easy to imagine.

Such a Nordic Plus cooperation would, however, not be limited to the Arctic-Atlantic region but would also have a Pacific component. An emphasis on the aforementioned shared values would also allow a role for non-Arctic States with a strong connection to the Arctic, for example through research, such as Japan. A future independent Greenland would easily be integrated into such a framework. Nordic Plus could benefit from experiences made in the past, be it among the Nordic countries, the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or other fora. The potential is unlimited, while the threshold for participation is low, as long as core values are clearly respected. By emphasizing cooperation that is already happening between the A7 countries anyway, such a Nordic Plus cooperation is easy to start and could be conceptualized loosely, allowing for a wide range of activities.

The cooperation under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers could relatively easily be expanded to include Canada and the United States, thus benefiting Arctic residents in North America as well, but Nordic Plus could also be simply a concept, similar to the AEPS and the Rovaniemi Process, an overarching idea to inspire the continuation and intensification of cross-border cooperation in the Arctic. The availability of new technologies could allow Nordic Plus to emphasize practical benefits for Arctic residents – for example, by supporting the establishment of networks of practical value, such as the proposed network for electric aircraft connections using renewable energy in the European High North – in addition to the issues that were already covered by the Arctic Council. Should the Arctic Council be reactivated eventually, it would be possible to integrate future Nordic Plus achievements into the work of the Arctic Council. Were the Arctic Council to have met its end already, Nordic Plus would provide a fundament on which future cooperation with a free and democratic Russia would become possible again.

One of the questions that will have to be answered is what place would there be for indigenous representative organizations. In the current situation, these organizations have become more dependent on nation states, but given the positive experience with the Arctic Council, it is possible to envisage a similarly active role of the indigenous organizations within such a Nordic Plus framework. At the end of the day, it will be up to the people of the Arctic to decide what the cooperation will look like. International Arctic cooperation will continue – but for the time being, it will continue without Russia. Now it is time to support the people of Ukraine. Preventing genocide is a global obligation.

Ending the cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Council and reimagining cross-border cooperation in the Arctic is a small price to pay and merely one small aspect of the resistance against the injustices that are being perpetrated in Ukraine by Russia today. Ending the cooperation with Russia was necessary to make this point, but it is not sufficient. The prevention of genocide is everybody’s duty. The need to transition to a new era of international Arctic governance should be seen in this context: not only as the loss that the inactivity of the Arctic Council certainly is, but also as an evolutionary step, towards an Arctic order based on shared values and international law.

Prof. Dr. Stefan Kirchner, MJI is Research Professor of Arctic Law and the head of the Arctic Governance Research Group at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. He has been a practising lawyer in Germany, specializing in international human rights litigation, and has taught international law at universities in Germany, Lithuania, Ukraine, Finland, Italy, and Greenland. His work is focused on the intersection of human rights and the protection of the natural environment. This text only reflects his private opinion.
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