US leadership in the Arctic Council: What choices does the USA have?

sipriOn 24–25 April 2015, the United States will assume the next two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council at the Council’s next ministerial meeting in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. These are difficult times for the Arctic region—and the Arctic Council in particular. After five years of dynamic development, cooperation in the Arctic region is at risk of stumbling on the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West.

In November 2014, the USA presented an ambitious programme for its chairmanship under the slogan One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges and Responsibilities. The US chairmanship aims to achieve three major goals: to continue strengthening the Arctic Council as an intergovernmental forum, to introduce new long-term priorities into the Artic Council and to raise awareness in the USA and around the world on issues related to both the Arctic and climate change.

A number of important events are planned for 2015–17, including conducting large-scale search and rescue exercises and possibly holding a summit of the heads of Arctic states (i.e. the eight member states of the Arctic Council: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA). The question, however, is what can the US chairmanship really achieve in the coming two years?

If the USA wants to accomplish all three of its goals, as well as convening the high-level meetings, it will require significant cooperative engagement from all Arctic Council participants, especially Russia. This will be difficult, though, due to the increasing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the USA that have emerged from the Ukrainian crisis and already spilled into the Arctic.

Indeed, over the course of 2014–15, relations among Arctic states have increasingly been affected by the conflict in Ukraine. In September 2014, the European Union and the USA introduced economic sanctions against Russia that prevented companies based in the EU and USA from working in Russia and limited Russia’s opportunities to seek financial support for its Arctic resource development. This directly hindered Russia’s ability to develop offshore hydrocarbon resources in the Arctic.

With the introduction of sanctions, Russia has lost its main incentive for cooperation in the region. Russian national security interests are coming to the forefront of its Arctic policy, resulting in a military build-up in the region. The USA’s introduction of new priorities and projects within the Arctic Council might prove to be difficult given that ever worsening bilateral relations between Russia and the USA could mean that any suggestion on the US side will be met with suspicion and caution on the Russian side.

Prior to 2014 many in the USA saw the chairmanship as a chance to rebuild already fractured relations with Russia in a non-controversial area. It is now difficult to see this transpiring given the extent to which each side’s respective anti-Russian and anti-US sentiments have escalated. Although Admiral Robert Papp, the US Special Representative to the Arctic, has stressed the importance and intention of maintaining Russia as a key Arctic Council member and ‘keeping the line of communication open’, it is getting more and more difficult to insulate the Arctic from global geopolitics—especially since maintaining Arctic cooperation is a relatively low priority for the USA compared to curtailing the ongoing conflict close to European borders.

However, if the situation in Ukraine is improved in the next two years, the Arctic region—and the Arctic Council in particular—could become a potential platform for rebuilding the relationship between Russia and the West, as there is very little tension in the region itself and most of it is resolved through diplomacy.

Otherwise, the USA might need to seek a more limited agenda during its chairmanship of the Arctic Council: focusing on consolidating the results achieved during previous chairmanships, improving and implementing existing programmes. In this case, one should not expect big ‘success stories’ from the US chairmanship since Arctic states have already tackled and largely agreed many questions, leaving only difficult issues for further work.

Cooperation within the Arctic Council continues despite the crisis in Ukraine, although on a smaller scale. While assuming its chairmanship, the USA needs to make a strategic choice: either it, along with other Arctic states, will pursue a policy around the intention to keep the Arctic a ‘zone of cooperation’ (which will require close collaboration and engagement with Russia), or it will seek to challenge Russia as part of the response to the Ukraine crisis and the Arctic cooperation will become a victim of the broader geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West.

About the author
Ekaterina Klimenko (Kyrgyz Republic) is a Researcher for the ‘Managing competition and promoting cooperation in the Arctic’ and ‘Conflict and Security in the Caucasus’ projects.


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)
SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public. SIPRI is regularly ranked among the most respected think tanks worldwide.