U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken voiced alarm at Russia’s military build up in the Arctic region, on the sidelines of a summit of the Arctic Council in Iceland late Thursday.
Blinken told delegates gathered in Reykjavik that the United States is “...committed to advancing a peaceful Arctic region where cooperation prevails on climate, the environment, science and safety and where sustainable economic development benefits the people of the region.”
Under longstanding Arctic Council conventions, military matters were not discussed directly at the summit itself. However, tensions over the military escalation in the region were laid bare in bilateral meetings and press conferences outside the forum.
Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, questioned NATO's motives in deploying bombers and submarines to the area. “Problems linked to the escalation of military-political tension remain, because of foreign troops in Norway and in the Baltic region,” Lavrov said at a press conference after the summit.
Russia is also pushing for Arctic states to resume high-level military meetings amid growing tension in the region, a move opposed by Washington.
“It is important to extend the positive relations that we have within the Arctic Council to encompass the military sphere as well,” Lavrov said.
Annual meetings between armed forces chiefs from Arctic states were halted in 2014 following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Russia assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Iceland Thursday. The organization, founded in 1996, aims to facilitate dialogue over issues of common interest and has eight members with sovereignty over lands within the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The council’s mandate explicitly excludes military matters.
Russia has significantly expanded its military bases in the Arctic region in recent years. The Nagurskoye base in Franz Josef Land, Moscow’s northernmost military base, lying just 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole, can handle nuclear-capable strategic bombers.
NATO has also increased its military activity in the Arctic. U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers have been training with Norwegian Air Force F-35A jets in recent months, and the U.S. is building facilities at three Norwegian airfields and a naval base.
The military activity in the Arctic poses an increasing risk, says analyst Katarina Kertysova, a policy fellow at the London-based European Leadership Network.
“In the absence of military-to-military dialogue or an appropriate forum where such concerns could be discussed, the likelihood of miscalculation or misreading of intentions and accidental escalation is growing,” said Kertysova.
And the warming climate has opened new shipping routes through the Arctic, alongside new fishing, drilling and mining opportunities. Secretary Blinken urged other council members to oppose Moscow’s plans set maritime rules in the Northern Sea Route, which runs from Norway to Alaska.
Russia says it aims to use its two-year chairmanship to focus on sustainable development, protecting the indigenous communities in the Arctic, and on climate change.
Scientists say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as other regions, with dramatic effects. Fires ripped across Siberia amid a summer heatwave in 2020. Melting permafrost was blamed for a huge oil leak in the Russian Arctic. Some 20,000 tons of diesel leaked into lakes and rivers near the northern city of Norilsk in May last year, when a fuel reservoir collapsed at a power plant.
“Russia acknowledges that there is a problem,” said Kertysova. “But it really focuses its efforts on the adaptation side, you know, adapting to the physical impacts of climate change rather than mitigating strategies that would address their causes.”
On the sidelines of the summit Wednesday, Secretary Blinken held a bilateral meeting with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov. He said the United States seeks a predictable, stable relationship with Russia.
“It's also no secret that we have our differences. And when it comes to those differences, as President Biden has also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, our allies, we will respond. And President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed, not for purposes of escalation, not to seek conflict, but to defend our interests,” said Blinken.
“But having said that, there are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap and we believe that we can work together and indeed build on those interests, whether it is dealing with COVID-19 and the pandemic, combating climate change, dealing with the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, Afghanistan,” he added.
Lavrov said Russia was ready to build relations with Washington.
“We have serious differences in the assessment of the international situation, we have serious differences in the approaches to the tasks which have to be solved for its normalization. Our position is very simple: We are ready to discuss all the issues without exception, but under perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect,” Lavrov told reporters.
‘We need to cooperate in the areas where our interests match and where we can achieve positive results on either conflict situations or most important on the issues of strategic stability,” he added.
A summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, first proposed by Washington, could take place in coming weeks. There has yet to be an official confirmation.