Congenial Arctic Council Displeased By Russia's Move Into Crimea

The situation in Ukraine has lead to speculation about how and whether the conflict might trickle into other parts of Eastern Europe. What could global tensions mean for diplomacy in the far North?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ukraine faces so much tension because it's a kind of frontier state, the frontier between Russia and the West. We report next on another frontier between Russia and the West, the Arctic, the place at the top of the globe where East and West meet. Sidsel Overgaard reports on a place where diplomatic cooperation may be cooling off.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: The Arctic Council has been described as the only successful model of cooperation between major powers since the end of the Cold War. That may be a stretch. But it's true that the eight Arctic countries have been remarkably good at keeping international brawls off the ice. But it's starting to look like the gloves are coming off.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

INGVILD NAESS STUB: We are here at the High North Center to discuss the main developments taking place in the Arctic.

OVERGAARD: Take this scene from a Norwegian conference on the Arctic held just after Russia annexed Crimea. Norwegian Foreign Affairs official Ingvild Naess Stub took to the podium to run through the standard topics - climate change, oil exploration, polar shipping.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STUB: But before I get onto that, I would like to turn your attention away from this region of cooperation to a situation which is of great concern to us all. As you know, the situation in Ukraine remains tense. Russia's actions are totally unacceptable.

OVERGAARD: That scolding did not sit well with Russian student Olga Sorvanova who declared from her position in the audience that this was not the time or place.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLGA SORVANOVA: And I would really appreciate that, you know, this will be taken into consideration instead of, you know, condemning Russia's actions in the auditorium literally full of Russian representatives.

OVERGAARD: But the condemnation hasn't stopped. Just days after this conference, Norway suspended joint military exercises with its neighbor in the North. In April, Canada took a principled stand by skipping a meeting of the Arctic Council in Moscow. And a meeting of Northern military officials scheduled for June, seems to have become the latest casualty. Meanwhile, almost all these countries have been beefing up security in the Arctic to deal with an increase in traffic. Andreas Osthagen, with the Arctic Institute, says those upgrades are not usually meant as aggressive. But without open lines of communication, it's a situation that could prove explosive.

ANDREAS OSTHAGEN: That might be one of the unintended consequences of the Ukraine crisis. Naturally, if you stop talking to Russia on many levels, maybe signals like putting more troops in the Arctic might be misinterpreted by the Arctic states.

OVERGAARD: Still Osthhagen says an Arctic arms race is unlikely. That's also the view of Jon Clemmensen, with the Danish Institute for International Studies, who says economic factors usually overcome political grandstanding.

JON CLEMMENSEN: Basically, the states all have a really strong interest in keeping relations civil.

OVERGAARD: That applies particularly to Russia, where Arctic oil means big money.

CLEMMENSEN: So actually it kind of wants to downplay any conflict that could be in the Arctic because it really wants to be able to extract those resources.

OVERGAARD: But Clemmensen says as climate change melts the ice, there will be plenty of other prickly issues to deal with, like the question of who will control the Northern Sea Route, a path above Russia that could cut days off the trip between China and Europe. Clemmensen says part of the reason Arctic cooperation has been so successful until now is that states haven't really tried to tackle the tough stuff.

CLEMMENSEN: It's kind of like when you have, like, a family dinner. And there's this dark thing that everyone knows, but you keep quiet about it just in order to keep - to have, like, a nice meal and enjoy some time together.

OVERGAARD: If that's true, then this would appear to be a family with a conflict in its future, whether it's Ukraine that proves to be the dark thing or something else entirely. For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Denmark.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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