Arctic nations' foreign ministers will meet on Thursday in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Moscow is set to take a rotating chairmanship in the Arctic Council.
The multilateral forum brings together NATO members with the alliance's main opponent, Russia.
The meeting comes as Russia’s extensive development of an airbase at Nagurskoye is causing concern in the West.
“We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday after arriving in Iceland. “That increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region.”
Moscow says it is a legitimate and necessary expansion of a strategic facility in line with its goals for the region.
The Arctic is believed to hold up to one-fourth of the Earth's undiscovered oil and gas. With the impact of climate change, melting ice offers new opportunities for resources and shipping routes.
The region has thus become an area of intense competition over natural resources for Russia on the one hand, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway on the other. China too has shown increasing interest in the Arctic.
But leaders gathering in Iceland also share common interests in the Arctic Circle, which has historically been an area of cooperation over environment and sustainability.
How will competition and cooperation play out at Thursday's Arctic Council meeting? Can the High North slide into conflict amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West?
Euronews looks into the stakes of this Arctic Council meeting and the positions and interests of the major players in the region.
Why has the Arctic become so strategic?
"The Arctic in many ways is the newest emerging market in the world," said Rockford Weitz, a professor of practice and director of the Maritime Studies program at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.
"Previously because of the harsh conditions and the ice, no humans really spent much time in the Arctic. And that started changing about 15 years ago as the Arctic sea ice started to melt. And so all of a sudden there's more accessibility for oil, natural gas minerals," Weitz told Euronews.
"All the countries are interested in resource extraction. I would just say it's a difference of degree."
"So the Russians have a little bit more interest in the extraction of natural gas and minerals and crude oil than the other countries do but those countries still do have that interest."
"Canadians and the Nordic countries and the U.S. under the Biden administration are really focused on climate change and environmental protection and sustainability," the Weitz said.
Even non-Arctic countries are showing a growing interest in the region.
China's interest is mainly to diversify its energy supply, Weitz said, "going through the Bering strait and be able to extract both Norwegian and Russian natural gas and import it through the Arctic and the North Pacific to avoid the Suez Canal and the Malacca straits."
"The near-Arctic nations are usually interested in the economic opportunities, though some of the European countries including France and the UK are interested in the military piece of it as well."
The Arctic's strategic importance is inversely proportional to its population.
"It's a very large space and there aren't many people. Only 4.2 million people live north of the Arctic circle," Weitz said.
What is the Arctic Council and how does it work?
The Arctic Council is an international organisation founded in 1996 for the eight Arctic nations, namely Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US.
"It is an international forum to discuss areas of collaboration. It explicitly says it can't talk about military and security issues," said Weitz.
"[But] when you're looking at things like fisheries enforcement or coast guard cooperation, the blur between security issues and environmental issues becomes very close."
While the eight Arctic nations are the primary actors in the council, they are not the only ones.
"The Arctic Council is one of the most inclusive international organisations for other parties," Weitz said.
"They've had standing permanent representation from Arctic indigenous peoples, the Saami Council, the Inuits circumpolar council. All around the Arctic, all the different indigenous populations have permanent observer status," he said.
"They have let in a lot of other countries. Many European Union countries have representation in the Arctic Council as observers."
"Japan, China, South Korea, even Singapore and India are observers. And that's mostly, I think, to see what's happening in the Arctic conversations," he said
The Arctic Council has a rotating chair, which changes every two years.
"It's still a collaborative effort among all the Arctic countries, but the chair has some influence on what is the focus of that two-year period," Weitz said.
"So this week, Iceland will pass the chair of the Arctic council to Russia. Iceland has been focusing on environmental issues related to the ocean, plastics, pollution, etc. And the Russians have said they want to focus on sustainable development."
What can we expect from Thursday's meeting?
"I think that it will be a productive, cooperative meeting. In part because the Arctic Council tends to be a forum for cooperation. And so even though there is competition in the Arctic with remilitarisation by many parties, Russia and NATO countries, that's not usually discussed in the Arctic council, " Weitz said.
"The Arctic council is usually talking about sustainable development, pollution prevention, how do we create a sustainable economy for indigenous peoples in the Arctic? How are we going to roll out vaccines in the Arctic? I think those will be the conversations."
The Arctic Council this week will also offer an opportunity for direct talks between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Blinken on the sidelines of the meeting. The encounter is intended to lay the groundwork for Putin's meeting with US President Joe Biden planned for next month.
"They'll talk probably quite directly behind closed doors, about some of the major issues between Russia and the United States, including cyber warfare, including Ukraine, including the Arctic, but the signals that I'm reading from the Biden administration, as well as Russia, is, they're looking to lower the temperature and collaborate more than lead to conflict," he said.
How much has competition taken over cooperation in the Arctic?
"Looking at the last 20 years, the Arctic has gone from a zone of mostly cooperation to more competition and we're seeing a more active diplomatic and military effort to show at least a presence there, " Weitz said.
Recent years have seen a remilitarisation of the Arctic, even more so after spiralling tensions between Moscow and the West following Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
“The United States, but also other NATO allies see the Russian expanding military presence in the Arctic in the context of the broader Russian increasingly aggressive behaviour on the international stage, " said Katarzyna Zysk, a professor of International Relations and Contemporary History at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
As a result, Washington sent B-1 bombers to Norway this year. The Russian Foreign Ministry criticised last week "Oslo's course for the militarisation of the Arctic.”
“Increased Russian presence, more Russian bases in the High North, has also triggered the need for more NATO presence, and we have increased our presence there with more naval capabilities, presence in the air, and not least, the importance of protecting transatlantic undersea cables transmitting a lot of data,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
Yet according to Weitz, cooperation still remains the dominant paradigm in the region even if it is losing ground.
One example is US-Russia cooperation on coast guard issues.
"It is an underappreciated fact that the US and Russia have continued cooperation on coast guard issues in the Arctic and the North Pacific through the Arctic coast guard forum and the North Pacific coast guard forum," he told Euronews.
"I think we're probably between cooperation and competition, and we're pretty far from conflict."
Can the region slide into conflict?
In the future, however, different scenarios could potentially lead the region to conflict.
"You could see in the future, as the Arctic becomes even more accessible due to climate change and the ice further recedes, some kind of a conflict that would spill over probably almost by accident due to resource competition," Weitz told Euronews.
Fisheries, maritime boundaries, or the seabed rights of the Arctic could all become matters for disputes.
"Those could lead initially probably skirmishes between coast guards, but you could see some Navy competition. And I think the most likely scenario would be between the Russian coast guards, Russian Navy and some combination of NATO countries. And so you could see that kind of spin into conflict," the expert said.
"That being said, I think that the good news between Russia and NATO is that there are protocols, there are communication channels -- it's one of the unintended benefits of the Cold War."
Another possible scenario is a conflict starting somewhere else and spilling up into the Arctic.
"It could start in the Black Sea, some kind of naval conflict between Russia, NATO and Ukraine. And then you see it spill up into the Arctic. That's another scenario where you could see the Arctic becoming a zone of conflict as part of a more global conflict."
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