Longview: Can the Arctic Council Summit improve the strained relationship between Biden and Putin?

On the 19th and 20th of May, foreign ministers from the eight Arctic nations, Russia, the United States, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Finland, and Sweden met in Reykjavik to debate various aspects of future Arctic policy such as the effects of climate change, the rights of the Arctic indigenous people and fishing quotas.

While undoubtedly crucial for the future of the Arctic region, these issues ultimately took a backseat to the overlying problem of Arctic military security and the strained relationship between the United States and Russia. While the Arctic Council explicitly forbids discussions over security issues, aggressive rhetoric and behavior over security in the Arctic have been rampant in the weeks and months leading up to the summit. The United States has recently begun expanding its military assets in the region, stationing four B-1 strategic bombers at the Norwegian Ørland Air Station and ramping up nuclear submarine operations in the Barents Sea. Furthermore, the NATO military alliance is set to introduce a new strategic plan for the year 2030 that would include the Arctic region as an area of strategic interest for the first time in the history of the alliance. Russia has been quick to respond to the American and NATO military build-up with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov condemning the US “aggression” and emphasizing that the Arctic was to remain “Russian territory”. Russia has also lately taken a more aggressive stance on security in the Arctic, expanding the runways of the Nagurskoye Airbase on the remote Arctic island of Alexandra Land to support nuclear-capable strategic bombers and conducting large-scale military drills in the North Pole.

The recent aggressive rhetoric over the Arctic, combined with the hard-line approach taken by the United States regarding Russia and Putin ever since the inauguration of President Biden, therefore set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov during the first official meeting between top-level diplomats from the Biden administration and Russia. While both ministers described their 1 hour and 45-minute backroom meeting as “constructive” and “positive” respectively, no decisive breakthroughs were made over the greater issues posed by the remilitarisation of the Arctic, although this was expected given the ongoing disagreements between the two nations.

However, the outcome of the summit in Reykjavik could prove to be crucial for reasons beyond that of Arctic policy, as the constructive meeting between Blinken and Lavrov could provide a potential avenue for a more general process of reconciliation between the United States and Russia. While Russia and the United States initially enjoyed a warming relationship under the leadership of former President Donald Trump, Russia’s relationship with the United States ultimately soured due to increasing sanctions from the Democrat Party-dominated Congress. The current relationship between the US and Russia has since then been described to be at its lowest point since the Cold War. Putin will therefore be eager to engage in a more friendly dialogue with the Biden administration for several reasons. Bilateral talks and warmer relations with the United States could provide Russia with the crucial easing of harsh US sanctions and give Russia the recognition as a significant international power that Putin has been longing for. From the US perspective, a more stable relationship with Russia would, amongst others, provide greater assurance of security for its NATO allies in Eastern Europe and Ukraine.

Indeed, these renewed attempts at reconciliation already seem to be taking effect. Last month, Russia withdrew some 100.000 troops stationed along the border of Ukraine amidst tensions with NATO, and shortly before the Arctic Council summit in Reykjavik was set to begin, the Biden administration elected to waive sanctions against the Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline currently under construction in Germany, signaling a large change in American policy towards Russia. During the summit, Foreign Minister Lavrov further floated the idea that security discussions and military transparency should have a larger role in the Arctic Council, signalling a willingness from Russia to ease tensions and discourage military misunderstandings in the Arctic. However, the most important outcome of the Arctic Summit is the assurance from Foreign Minister Lavrov that Russia is open to “all discussions” with the United States and that diplomats from both countries were working to arrange a summit between President Putin and President Biden in June. While the details of the summit are still being worked on, the otherwise positive results of the Arctic summit and the potential for a meeting between Putin and Biden would go a long way to bringing further optimism for the future normalization of relations and the easing of the current high tensions between the United States and Russia.

The Editor: Christian Haulund

Christian Haulund is a second-year undergraduate student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research interests mainly lie within the realm of security in the Nordic and Baltic regions, but also extend to radical militant groups in Africa and the Middle East.

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