Russia in line to take control of Arctic Council

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Russia is set to take control of the powerful Arctic Council, an eight-member body that wields tremendous influence over the icy region and could provide the Kremlin with a new platform to push its agenda amid rising tensions with the U.S.

Russia’s two-year term as chair of the council will begin Thursday at the conclusion of the Arctic Council’s biannual conference, held this year in Reykjavik, Iceland. The gathering of foreign ministers from the eight member states also served as the backdrop for a one-on-one discussion between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday evening, the highest-level meeting of American and Russian officials since President Biden took office in January.

That meeting came amid deteriorating relations between the old Cold War foes — relations that sank even lower following the recent cyberattack on America’s Colonial Pipeline which U.S. intelligence officials pinned on a gang of hackers with possible ties to Russia. Mr. Blinken was expected to raise that issue and a host of others during his closed-door conversation with Mr. Lavrov, which may serve as a precursor to a meeting between Mr. Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the coming weeks.

Competition in the Arctic is just one aspect of the tense U.S.-Russia relationship, but it’s an increasingly important one. The Arctic Council’s charter says it is to stay out of military matters, but Moscow is blurring the lines between military and economic issues with its active economic and security moves in the increasingly accessible region. U.S. officials accuse Russia of, among other things, routinely breaking international law by regulating the movement of ships through the Northern Sea Route and attempting to charge fees for ships passing through international waters.

Russia also is dramatically ramping up its military presence in the region, suggesting it intends to use its time as head of the council to strengthen its grip on the Arctic and set the agenda in the scramble to influence at the top of the world.

Republican lawmakers say the Biden administration needs to push back.

“With Russia assuming the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, U.S. engagement and leadership in the Arctic is more critical now than ever,” Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

“Russia and the Chinese Communist Party are increasing their malign influence in the region, testing the limits of the U.S. and our allies in the region. It is critical that this administration recognizes the strategic competition that is playing out in the Arctic, calls it what it is, and acts swiftly to counter it to ensure the Arctic remains a secure, environmentally sound, and stable region.”

Indeed, China has put in its own claim to a piece of the action in the Arctic, which is widely viewed as a key economic hub in the 21st century as sea ice melts and new shipping lanes open. China has so-called “observer status” in the Arctic Council, but Russia could use its new position to grant Beijing more power and access in the organization in an effort to diminish U.S. leverage. 

Both Russia and China see the Arctic as a potential boon to their economies. They are both also investing heavily in new icebreaker ships and other equipment needed to travel through Arctic waters.

Ahead of his meeting with Mr. Blinken, Mr. Lavrov made no secret of Russia’s position.

“This is our territory. This is our land,” the chief Russian diplomat said at a press conference earlier this week.

For his part, Mr. Blinken has struck an optimistic tone and said the Arctic provides fertile ground for the U.S. and Russia to work together.

“There’s been cooperation on a number of important areas over the years — on education, oil spill response, search and rescue, pollution issues — and it is our hope that that kind of cooperation will continue, and the Arctic remains an area of peaceful cooperation and peaceful collaboration,” he said at a press conference in Iceland earlier this week. 

“At the same time, we’ve seen Russia advance unlawful maritime claims … and that is something that we have and will respond to,” Mr. Blinken added. “We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic that increases the dangers or prospects of accidents, miscalculations, and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region.”

It’s unclear exactly how Russia will use its time as head of the Arctic Council. Russian officials previously have promised to address “national security” matters over the next two years, suggesting that the Kremlin may try to nudge the council in a new direction. The U.S. and other members — Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden — would likely oppose such a move.

The body’s 1996 charter declares that “the Arctic Council should not deal with matters related to military security.”

But there are growing military confrontations in the region, and those encounters may be increasingly difficult for both the U.S. and Russia to ignore. Russian fighter planes have repeatedly breached air defense zones off the Alaskan coast in recent years, while U.S. and British ships last year sailed through the Barents Sea off Russia’s Arctic coast for the first time since the 1980s to challenge Moscow’s claims to exclusive control.

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