Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Our transmitter in Willow Creek is off air. We're working with the manufacturer on a solution. We apologize for the inconvenience.

U.S.-Russia Relations Are Frosty But They're Toasty On The Arctic Council


Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Denmark today and Greenland tomorrow, tending to what is known as Arctic business. In the Arctic Circle, warming temperatures and melting ice are raising the stakes over valuable resources. The U.S. currently chairs the Arctic Council, which is made up of the world's eight northernmost - nations. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, the U.S. took over the chair at a time when relations with Russia were rock bottom.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The chairmanship of the Arctic Council rotates every two years, and the U.S. assumed that role in April 2015. Admiral Robert Papp, the U.S. special representative for the Arctic, recalls the atmosphere surrounding his inauspicious start.

ROBERT PAPP: We have just placed sanctions, rightly so, on Russia for their aggression in the Ukraine. So we don't have a normal situation, and there is tension.

NORTHAM: Papp, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, says what made it more challenging was the Arctic Council works by consensus. The eight member countries, all Arctic nations, need to agree on any decision. Papp needed Russia to sign off on the program, what areas the U.S. was planning to focus on during its chairmanship, so he went to Moscow to meet with Russian Arctic specialists.

PAPP: I have met some very reasoned, sober, professional individuals that work the Arctic issues within Russia. Their senior Arctic official gave us the most thorough critique of our chairmanship program of any of the other countries, gave us a lot of suggestions for improvement.

NORTHAM: The Arctic Council is now one of the few arenas where the U.S. and Russia cooperate, says Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, CEO of the American Security Project. That's because countries involved want the council to focus on science and research, think such as fisheries and climate change, and not military issues.

STEPHEN CHENEY: The scientists and the engineers and the researchers really have an aversion to militarizing or even talking about the military or security within the Arctic Council.

NORTHAM: Cheney, who's also a member of the State Department's International Security Advisory Board on the Arctic, says as a former Marine, it seemed reasonable to him that the Arctic Council should address issues such as territorial claims and Russia's military buildup in the region.

CHENEY: But I now have been convinced bringing the security aspect into it would not be a good thing. They fear if you brought into into their agenda, it would dilute not only their agenda but countries would leave and would not anticipate. So it has worked on the science and research side. And there's been a lot of cooperation.

NORTHAM: The U.S. created several priorities for its two-year tenure, such as addressing the impact of climate change. Malte Humpert, the strategic director of The Arctic Institute, says the U.S. won't be making any headlines during its tenure because the council earlier passed several big-ticket agreements.

MALTE HUMPERT: Under the U.S. chairmanship, we have not had any major agreements just because they put together the search and rescue agreement a few years ago. They put together the oil spill prevention and cleanup response agreement. So there's not a lot of headline-grabbing action left to do.

NORTHAM: But Papp says it's a fast-changing environment in the Arctic that's attracting people who want access to the resources, whether it be for mining, fishing or tourism.

PAPP: We are generally in what I would, as a sailor, call a stern chase, which means your constantly trying to overtake the entrepreneurs who are up there. Business people aren't going to wait for some of the things that we're doing within our Arctic Council business.

NORTHAM: Admiral Papp points to a cruise ship with 2,000 people on board due to traverse the Arctic in about a month. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.