Ukraine Overshadows American Arctic Council Takeover

The crisis in Ukraine is felt far north as America takes over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

American secretary of state John Kerry speaks at an Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, April 24
American secretary of state John Kerry speaks at an Arctic Council meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, April 24 (State Department)

On Friday, Canada handed over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the United States in its far northern city of Iqaluit. During its two-year tenure, the physical and geopolitical landscape of the Arctic has changed once again with much focus taken away from the region and put on the tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine.

Geopolitically, the Arctic remains important. For the United States, the key challenges are bringing the Arctic Council to the fore of international politics and balancing economic ambition and environmental sustainability.

Specifically, America needs to address its long-standing abstention from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If the relevant issues of sovereignty can finally be resolved, it would be a significant show of intent by the Americans in respect to not only the Arctic but maritime disputes in general. Failure to do so would see continued exasperation and disunity among the Arctic Council nations.

The United States are also behind in creating concrete policy for the Arctic. Canada used its chairmanship to create a regional oil pollution preparedness and response agreement. The American administrators may expand on this considering Alaska’s proximity to Arctic resources, hopefully sidestepping any environmental landmines along the way.

Finding a voice for the people of the Arctic in the face of development and economic growth will be another tall order if the Canadian effort is anything to go by. According to a recent poll conducted by Canada’s Gordon Foundation, a think tank, only 8 percent of Canadians in the south of the country are aware of the Arctic Council’s existence. This makes for dispiriting reading for the incoming Americans who did not score much better when pressed on the topic. In order for this to be improved, the United States must make a positive impact and bring the work of the body to prominence on the international stage.

The main sticking point is America’s relationship with its traditional geopolitical foe and Arctic neighbor, Russia.

The crisis in Ukraine has been felt far north. Several preparatory meetings for Friday’s summit in Iqaluit were delayed. Only one meeting of senior officials was suspended out of the dozens that do occur during a term. However, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who has otherwise attended every one of the Arctic Council’s ministerial-level meeting in the last decade, skipped the handover ceremony in Iqaluit.

Using Ukraine as a reason for not attending may show how Lavrov and the Russian government are treating the other member states of the Arctic Council at present and vice versa. Russia’s relations with Canada and the Nordic countries have frosted over the conflict. America’s opinion of Russian aggression in Ukraine has been firm but overtly passive. Ultimately, it may be in the administration’s best interest not to allow his breakdown in communications to disrupt cooperation with Russia in another part of the world.