The Arctic: A test of US-Russian ties ahead of possible summit

·4 min read

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Sunday for a trip focused on the future of the Arctic, a source of growing tension with China and a test of the strained US relationship with Russia ahead of an expected Biden-Putin summit meeting.

Blinken was traveling first to Copenhagen, where he will meet Monday with Danish leaders before going on to Iceland for a ministerial meeting of the eight-country Arctic Council on Wednesday and Thursday.

In Reykjavik, all eyes will be on a meeting between Blinken and Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov -- the first high-level meeting between the two quarreling powers since Joe Biden took office in January.

The Arctic, a vast area of extreme and inhospitable conditions, has in recent years become the site of geopolitical competition between the countries that form the Arctic Council (the United States, Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland).

As global warming makes the region more accessible and less forbidding, interest in the Arctic's natural resources, its navigation routes and its strategic position has grown.

To Washington's chagrin, the Arctic is also coveted by China -- which only has "observer" status on the Council, but which has positioned itself as a "quasi-Arctic" power.

During the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States pushed back against what it considered Russian and Chinese "aggressivity" in the region. Now, the Biden administration appears intent on continuing to assert its stake in the territory.

"We're not saying no to all Chinese activities or to Chinese investment, but we are insisting on adherence to international rules and adherence to high standards," said James DeHart, US coordinator for the Arctic region, in a recent briefing with reporters.

Some Chinese activities, he added, were of "concern" to the United States.

- Greenland not for sale -

Perhaps Blinken's most important mission is to turn the page on two controversies inherited from the Trump administration.

The Republican president had advanced the idea that the US might buy Greenland, with its immense Arctic territory, from Denmark -- drawing an angry retort from Copenhagen that the idea was "absurd" and the territory was "not for sale."

The US secretary of state will have to steer well clear of such provocations as he meets first with officials in Copenhagen and later makes a brief stop in the autonomous territory.

More seriously, Blinken's predecessor, Mike Pompeo, shook up the last meeting of the Arctic Council when he took the unprecedented step of blocking the group's final communique because it mentioned climate change.

Pompeo seemed even to see opportunity in the warming climate, saying the gradual shrinking of pack ice was opening new navigation routes and creating commercial opportunities.

The American message changed radically with Biden's arrival in the White House, as the new president made the fight against global warming one of his priorities.

- Opening carries risks -

The Council will issue a final communique this time -- already approved by the eight ministries -- as well as a common "strategic plan" for the next 10 years, said Marcia Bernicat, a senior State Department official dealing with environmental issues.

"The opening up of the ocean, if you will, is not an unqualified good thing. It also represents a tremendous risk," she told journalists in a briefing Friday.

She said recent studies show that the Arctic is warming "not at twice the rate, but three times the rate of the rest of the world."

The Biden administration wants to use climate issues to explore possibilities for cooperation with Moscow, which will hold the rotating presidency of the Arctic Council for the next two years.

Blinken and Lavrov will review "the totality of the bilateral relationship -- the good, the bad and the in-between," said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

"The bad" is likely to occupy a fair amount of the discussion, given sharp US-Russian disputes over the Kremlin's interference in US elections as well as allegations of spying and cyberattacks.

Biden, determined to break clearly with what many saw as Trump's deferential relationship with Putin, has gone so far as to label the Russian leader as a "killer." The rival powers imposed tit-for-tat sanctions not long after Biden's election.

But the new US administration insists its foreign policy is highly pragmatic and open to finding common ground even with its worst foes when it is in the American interest -- as on climate change or disarmament.

That is the prime US objective at the Reykjavik conference, which is expected to lead to the confirmation of a first Biden-Putin summit in Europe in June.

The US side wants to "test and try to see if we can achieve a relationship with Moscow that is more stable and more predictable," Price said.

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