On May 11, 2023, in a much-anticipated ceremony, leaders from eight Arctic states and six Indigenous organizations assembled behind closed doors to witness a transfer of power. At first blush, it was routine Arctic Council business: this forum promoting northern cooperation rotates chairmanship every two years. But this had been no ordinary year, with no ordinary chair. The council—suspended since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year—resurrected only to witness Russia hand the chairmanship to its Norwegian successor. And a peaceful transfer was far from a foregone conclusion.
“It was an extremely straightforward meeting, which we see as a success,” said Morten Hoglund, senior Arctic official for Norway, in a virtual press briefing from Tromso directly following the meeting. “If someone had an interest in it not going as planned, they could have easily derailed it.”
That “someone,” of course, would have been Russia. Since the Arctic Council’s unilateral refusal to cooperate with its largest geographical member last March, Russia has shown no sign of de-escalating its aggression against Ukraine. And the council’s 130-odd circumpolar projects—tackling issues from science, to shipping, to Indigenous youth suicide—have paid the price. For more than a year, this symbol of High North peace has fractured along territorial lines, awaiting a return to a status quo that seems increasingly impossible.
Today, with a NATO state back at its helm, the Arctic Council will presumably experience less tension. But it’s still unwilling to include Russia, raising practical questions about what this forum can actually achieve without its largest geographical stakeholder. Russia makes up 45 percent of the geographical Arctic; shipping routes depend on its waters, and climate research depends on its data. Norway is now facing hard questions about the relevance of a “circumpolar” forum that ignores half of the High North.
“Technically speaking, there’s no ‘Arctic Council’ without Russia,” said Svein Vigeland Rottem, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen Institute and author of the 2020 book The Arctic Council: Between Environmental Protection and Geopolitics. “So one could ask: What, exactly, is this group now?”
The Arctic Council, founded in 1996 in a post-Cold War vision of High North peace, has no real global equivalent. Along with representatives from eight foreign ministries, it’s the only international group that includes Indigenous leaders as equal stakeholders. (The council’s 13 observer states, made up of interested non-Arctic nations, attend but do not participate in meetings.) And, because its work is voluntary and not treaty-based, these leaders have flexibility to independently approve or invest in its projects.
“It’s a completely unique group formed around a specific set of challenges,” said Lars-Otto Reiersen, who served as executive secretary of the council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) for 25 years. “Most leaders of Arctic states don’t reside there. And most problems in the north can’t be solved there, either.”
Pollution was the first such problem to raise global attention. In 1991, Finland launched AMAP, then a postwar project to monitor contamination throughout the far north. The findings were startling: The blood of Arctic species and peoples contained the planet’s highest concentration of persistent organic chemicals—the vast majority of which came from industry farther south. The cold Northern regions acted as a “sink” for these global pollutants, they found, and toxic chemicals were building up, or bioaccumulating, in the blood of polar species foundational to Indigenous diets. AMAP recognized a twofold challenge: to both establish a dialogue on the ground with Arctic communities, and at the highest levels to influence international law. Over the next decade, its data, coupled with policy recommendations, helped build the legally binding 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
“It was a success story of combining data you can’t question with real actions for policymakers to take,” Reiersen said. “And it was an early model of close collaboration between scientists and Indigenous people.”
In 1996, the Arctic Council formed in the spirit of this work: to protect the environment and peoples of the north. Since, its six expert-led working groups—including monitoring, clean-up, conservation, oceans, peoples, search and rescue, and sustainable development—have worked in the background to influence international law. Data published in its 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment directly informed the International Maritime Organization’s regulatory Polar Code. An AMAP report on mercury contamination fueled the 2013 Minamata Convention regulating mercury. Since 2005, AMAP—now a network of more than 700 experts—has also contributed the entire Arctic section of the annual Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
In March 2022, however, this vast network of science, policy, and diplomacy came to a screeching halt. For some projects, the pause was brief: By June, some projects without direct Russian involvement quietly resumed their work. The Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat, which supports the six Indigenous organizations independently of the council, also continued to operate. But for climate science and environmental monitoring projects—which rely on consistent data collection across borders—it was a massive blow.
“There’s a huge amount of data we aren’t getting anymore,” Reiersen said. “Plus Russian data we know isn’t being collected, because these projects were funded by Western states.”
But since its research-rooted origins, the Arctic Council has taken on a new role: a diplomatic stage in an increasingly competitive global arena. In the past decade, the Arctic’s melts have newly opened the region for shipping, resource extraction, and other economic opportunities. Ever since, Reiersen said, interest in the council and its activities has soared. In 2013, in recognition of growing interests in the north, the council added six new observer states: China, Japan, India, Italy, Singapore, and South Korea. In 2013, the council established an independent secretariat in Tromso to archive knowledge and facilitate its work. In 2018 and 2022, the council was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“There was a time when a lot of people were raising this one organization up as the primary body for Arctic cooperation,” said Andreas Osthagen, senior fellow at the Arctic Institute. “But it gets tricky the moment that all falls apart.”
Osthagen is critical of what he sees as an outsized symbolic weight placed on the Arctic Council. In truth, he says, this forum is only one piece of a vast picture of High North governance. Legally binding agreements, most notably the 1994 Law of the Sea Convention, he notes, do much more to guide and regulate Arctic activity. And several other treaties and forums—like the Polar Code governing shipping, the Arctic Fisheries Agreement, the Arctic Coast Guard Forum, and countless bilateral agreements—still provide issue-specific opportunities for cooperation. Similarly, Osthagen said, the “real value” of the council was not as a diplomatic stage, but in the practical achievements of its working groups and their projects.
Soon, even those projects without Russian participation are headed for a roadblock. The Arctic Council is a consensus-based forum, and its projects require full-member approval. But project funding typically only spans a few years at most. Unless the council changes its decision-making requirements, or decides to include Russia, the runway for this work is limited.
Russia may not wait around to be invited back to the table. In February, Russia amended its Arctic policy, removing all mention of the Arctic Council. For the past year, Russia has strengthened its Arctic cooperation with China, including a proposed new research station on Svalbard with BRICS nations. And, with Sweden likely soon to follow Finland’s recent NATO inclusion, the newly termed “Arctic 7” seem all the more distanced from their estranged eighth.
Still, by cooperating in the May 11 meeting, Russia signaled at least some investment in the council’s survival. And it took what Hoglund called a “powerful step forward”: After the meeting, the council released a joint declaration signed by all members, including Russian senior Arctic official Nikolay Korchunov.
“We wanted to give the message that the Arctic Council is not dead, it’s still here, and we want to make it relevant again,” Hoglund said.
A declaration of life seems all the council can currently muster. Volker Rachold, director of the German Arctic Office, called this year’s joint declaration “highly unusual.” Typically, after the standard affirmation of the council’s purpose, the declaration outlines goals and new projects for the next two years. This year, he said, the statement was notably sparse.
“After the usual opening remarks, it just seemed to stop,” Rachold said. “I thought I was missing pages.”
Rottem believes that, for now, Norway has a lot to gain from staying vague. Any fanfare or strong statement, he said, threatens a more formal fracture. Starting new projects would force hard questions about how to treat the consensus vote. But the small Nordic nation, which shares a land border with Russia, is well-practiced in walking a fine diplomatic line with its neighbor. For now, by moving slowly and staying light on details, it may just keep the past 30 years of work afloat.
In June, Arctic Council leaders will meet again—this time without Russia—to discuss a potential path forward. Hoglund said that he hopes to have a sense of next steps by the end of the summer, but it’s no hard deadline. Generally, he said, those eager to see the work of the Arctic Council resume at full strength will be disappointed.
“We’re not here ringing a bell to say we’re back; we’re focused on taking it step by step,” Hoglund said. “If cooperation breaks down completely, it will be so much harder to rebuild it from scratch.”
This report was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists and the Heinrich Boell Stiftung Transatlantic Media Fellowship.
Correction, June 2, 2023: The original version of this piece incorrectly stated the year the Arctic Council’s independent archival secretariat was established. It was established in 2013.