Russia Says Ukraine Crisis Must Not Reach Arctic, NATO Says It Already Has

Russia's Arctic envoy has told Newsweek that international tensions over the war in Ukraine should not spill into the northern region that also borders the United States. But recent diplomatic and military moves by Washington and its allies show the usually serene frontier has already become a frontline in the crisis.

The conflict that Russian President Vladimir Putin has deemed a "special military operation" reached the five-week mark on Thursday, as cautious signs of diplomatic progress between Moscow and Kyiv were matched with ongoing clashes between the two rivals and a campaign by the U.S. and other supporters of Ukraine to isolate Russia politically and economically.

One such move adopted earlier this month was an unprecedented suspension of the Arctic Council, an eight-nation group of countries currently chaired by Russia that also includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.

Nikolay Korchunov, who serves as Russia's ambassador-at-large to the Arctic Council, told Newsweek that Moscow found this decision "regrettable," arguing that it ran contrary to the apolitical nature of the intergovernmental forum founded more than 25 years ago.

"The Council's mandate explicitly excludes matters related to military security," Korchunov said. "It is enshrined in all its founding and strategic documents that the Arctic should remain as the territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation. Therefore, this unique format should not be subject to the spillover effect of any extra-regional events."

He argued that this temporary suspension, "initiated by the Western states, could lead to the accumulation of the risks and challenges to soft security in the region which the Council has been addressing effectively."

"Under the current circumstances, it is of utmost importance to safeguard the project activities of the Arctic Council in order to be able to pick up where we paused and step up cooperation like we unanimously and timely did in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic," Korchunov added.

He said that Russia would take advantage of the pause "to refocus the elaborate mechanism of the Chairmanship towards addressing domestic needs in the region." And with the exception of the suspended meetings of the Arctic Council itself and its subsidiaries, he added that "all events under the programme of the Russian Chairmanship in the Arctic Council will be organized as planned."

In light of eroding mechanisms of diplomacy, he argued that a direct confrontation in this part of the world must never be allowed.

"Russia firmly believes that there is no potential for conflict in the Arctic," Korchunov said.

Norway, US, Marines, Cold, Response, 22, exercise
A Norwegian soldier with Armoured Battalion, Brigade Nord, Norwegian Army, posts security outside a landing zone for a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 366, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, during Exercise Cold Response 22 in Setermoen, Norway, March 15. The biennial exercise featured some 30,000 personnel from 27 nations. Sergeant William Chockey/U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Europe and Africa

When it comes to existing feuds, Korchunov argued that "international law clearly stipulates the rights of coastal and other states and provides a firm foundation for cooperation in addressing various issues, including such sensitive ones as the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean and the prevention of unregulated high seas fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean."

And he highlighted that the "strong commitment of all Arctic coastal states to the principle of 'orderly settlement' of any possible disputes and overlapping claims led to adopting the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008 and this commitment was reiterated on its 10th anniversary, and consequently led to signing a respective fishery agreement in 2018 by all five Arctic coastal states, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the EU."

And yet the Arctic has witnessed an uptick in military activities in recent years, a trend that has only intensified in the leadup and the eventual outbreak of Russia's conflict with neighboring Ukraine late last month.

In late January, as tensions mounted over Washington's warnings and Moscow's denials over an impending Russian attack on Ukraine that eventually came to fruition about a month later, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a series of exercises encompassing all commands of his naval forces, including the Northern Fleet, which trained to secure crucial shipping routes in the Barents Sea.

For Russia, the country with the longest Arctic coastline, the region is important both strategically and economically.

"The Russian Arctic does not only produce more than 11% of our national GDP and over 20% of exports," Korchunov said, "but it is home to more than 2.5 million people, including Indigenous Peoples of the North."

"For Russia, there is no alternative other than to maintain sustainable development of its Arctic territories," Korchunov added. "It accounts for approximately a third of the Arctic region, more than half of the Arctic population, almost half of the whole Arctic coastline and nearly 70% of all economic activities in high latitudes."

He outlined Moscow's plans for its Arctic chairmanship as being "aimed at improving the well-being and quality of life for people in the Arctic, including Indigenous Peoples, adapting the region to global climate change, preserving Arctic biodiversity, ensuring sustainable and safe maritime activities and socio-economic development, exploring solutions to ensure global energy security, promoting scientific cooperation in the Arctic, [and] strengthening the Arctic Council."

The Arctic is also crucial for the other seven nations that border it, five of which are members of NATO and the other two, Finland and Sweden, close partners of the U.S.-led military alliance.

Two weeks ago, NATO launched one of its largest Arctic exercises ever, Cold Response 2022, in Norway. While the drills were planned far in advance of Russia's hostilities against Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg linked the two events as he visited the maneuvers last week.

"Russia's war against Ukraine is a watershed moment," Stoltenberg said in comments referred to Newsweek by a NATO official. "It is a new normal for European security and also for Arctic security."

He referred to NATO as an "Arctic alliance," and described the region as one of "strategic importance for the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area, and critical for the communication links between North America and Europe."

"It is also a region of growing strategic competition," Stoltenberg said. "In the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in Russian military activity here. Russia has re-established Soviet-era Arctic bases. This is a testbed for many of Russia's novel weapon systems. It is the home of Russia's strategic submarine fleet."

"Russia's military build-up is the most serious challenge to stability and allied security in the High North," he added.

Shortly after the exercises began, Russia issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) indicating there would be live-fire exercises taking place in the Norwegian Sea just west of the NATO drills.

The U.S. has also held a number of Arctic-oriented drills in its northernmost territory of Alaska, the western boundary of which sits just 55 miles from Russia's far eastern boundary. Examples of activities from the past week alone include the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center 22-02 and Polar Force 22-4. Others that took place earlier this month were the joint U.S.-Canada Arctic Edge 2022 and Operation Noble Defender as well as the U.S. Navy's ICEX.

In announcing the suspension of Arctic Council cooperation, the U.S. and other members of the group issued a joint statement that said they "remain convinced of the enduring value of the Arctic Council for circumpolar cooperation and reiterate our support for this institution and its work," and "hold a responsibility to the people of the Arctic, including the indigenous peoples, who contribute to and benefit from the important work undertaken in the Council."

However, the statement added that the "core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, based on international law, have long underpinned the work of the Arctic Council, a forum which Russia currently chairs," principles of which the seven nations said Russia was in "flagrant violation" due to its "unprovoked invasion of Ukraine."

Reached for comment by Newsweek, the joint U.S.-Canada North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) referred to the State Department, where a spokesperson echoed the earlier joint statement.

"Our goal of maintaining a peaceful and prosperous Arctic region has not changed," the State Department spokesperson told Newsweek. "Russia's increased military activity in the Arctic is a concern that pre-dates its renewed invasion of Ukraine and is one we address together with our Allies at NATO and through NORAD."

"While we have temporarily paused our work in the Arctic Council," the spokesperson added, "we remain convinced of its enduring value as the region's premier forum and a mechanism for circumpolar cooperation; we fully support the Council and its work."

US, Army, paratroopers, Alaska, March, 2022
U.S. Army paratroopers assigned to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, jump from a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III over Malemute Drop Zone during airborne operations at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, on March 24. Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens/Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs/U.S. Air Force

As for Russia, Korchunov argued that "the strategic importance of the Arctic has markedly increased" as a result of emerging risks and opportunities.

"The attention of many stakeholders is now focused on the Arctic as a global 'climate kitchen,' a unique, yet fragile ecosystem, a treasure trove for Indigenous cultural heritage and, of course, a region with tremendous economic opportunities," he said.

"While the challenges the Arctic faces are numerous, it is important not only to focus on the Arctic's vulnerability but also to be mindful of the region's resilience and opportunities for sustainable development," Korchunov added.

At a time when President Joe Biden is looking to pursue a global climate change-friendly agenda from Washington, Korchunov said Moscow believed that "the Arctic has a huge potential to benefit from and produce sustainable and low-emission energy in terms of exploration of critical rare-earth metals and minerals, as well as innovative solutions that may accelerate [the] sustainable energy transition globally."

But with cooperation at a standstill due to the deadly war raging in Ukraine, the future of multilateral efforts remains deeply uncertain.

Korchunov said his country "reiterates its commitment to close and constructive engagement with all Arctic Council member-states, permanent participants, observers and other interested non-regional partners."

"We are open for long-term partnerships in the region with any nation," he said, "be it the Arctic Council member state or any other country, in the interest of its sustainable development and well-being of its inhabitants, including Indigenous Peoples."

"Russia is convinced that 'the spirit of cooperation' inherent in the Arctic Council will help to strengthen trust and mutual understanding," he added, "and the Council should remain a solid framework for peaceful mutually beneficial collaboration despite geopolitical tensions elsewhere in the interest of a sustainable and prosperous future of the entire Arctic region."

Russia, soldier, Alexandra, Land, Franz, Josef, Archipelago
A Russian serviceman stands guard by a military truck on the island of Alexandra Land, which is part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, on May 17, 2021. Russia has expanded its Arctic military presence in recent years, raising concerns among the United States and NATO allies. MAXIME POPOV/AFP/Getty Images

This article has been updated to include a comment from the U.S. State Department.