In the past two decades, the Arctic has lost a third of its winter sea ice

Oslo (AFP) - The Arctic Council, a model for cooperation between former Cold War foes, on Thursday saw a delicate handover of chairmanship, with the sidelining of Russia, its largest member.

After two years of Russia at the helm, Norway took over the reins of the intergovernmental forum, which was considered exemplary until the invasion of Ukraine led seven of the eight members – the United States, Canada and the five Nordic countries – to suspend their meetings with Moscow.

For the actual handover, the Western foreign ministers declined an invitation from their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to visit Siberia.

In contrast to earlier transfers, the formal handover took place online at a senior official level on Thursday.

“It is vital that the Arctic Council maintains its role as the most important multilateral forum for addressing issues relating to the Arctic,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt said in a statement.

In a joint declaration issued by the Council’s members, the Scandinavian country offered to host a meeting of the group in 2025. The format of the gathering was not specified, in particular regarding Russia’s participation.

Members of the Arctic Council

On Wednesday, Huitfeldt told AFP in an email that maintaining the regional forum would be the “main objective” of the Norwegian chairmanship.

She acknowledged however that Oslo had “no illusions that this would be easy”, given current international tensions.

Experts believe sidelining Russia weakens the body, where the nations have been able to address issues of common interest – from environmental protection to sustainable development and indigenous populations in the Arctic region, which is warming four times faster than the planet as a whole.

Since its creation in 1996, the Council has become the main forum for cooperation in the region.

The Arctic’s importance has increased with the accelerated retreat of the ice sheet. This opens up maritime routes and economic opportunities in oil, gas, minerals and fishing, but it threatens the fragile ecosystem, vulnerable indigenous populations and the Earth’s climate.

Apart from some tensions during Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House, relations within the forum have generally been smooth, in part because thorny issues such as security are not in its remit.

As a result, the Council has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in the past.

- Two Arctics? -

After suspending cooperation with Moscow in early March 2022, the seven other member nations (the A7) agreed to continue work that does not involve Russia’s participation.

However, this only represents about a third of the Council’s 130-odd projects, according to Dwayne Ryan Menezes of the think tank Polar Research and Policy Initiative.

“Can regional governance be truly meaningful and effective at a circumpolar level if an Arctic state as large as Russia were not at the table?” Menezes said.

“Or will the Arctic split into rival spheres of influence, potentially also with competing forums for regional cooperation and governance –- one involving the A7 and the other led by Russia and involving non-Arctic actors such as China?” he continued.

Isolated from the West, Moscow is increasingly focusing on ties to other powers – primarily China but also emerging nations such as Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa.

In April, Moscow and Beijing signed a memorandum of cooperation for their coastguards in the Arctic.

Rasmus Gjedsso Bertelsen, a professor of Nordic studies at the Norwegian University of Tromso, said he was “critical of this Western policy of boycotting, which does not change anything on the battlefield in Ukraine but reduces our insight into the way Russians think”.

An Arctic Council cut in half “is of course much less valuable”, the Danish academic told AFP.

“It is very easy for the West to work together because we have a lot of common interests. But we should not neglect the Russian half, which is the most interesting and important with the Northeast Sea Passage and all its natural resources,” he argued.