EDMONTON – Russia’s actions in Ukraine could cause problems for international cooperation in the Arctic, says Iceland’s prime minister.
Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson said Russia’s strongarm tactics in its former satellite could make it harder for the eight nations on the Arctic Council to reach agreements at a time when the region faces a series of critical issues.
“This has a ripple effect, even though the actual events are far from the Arctic,” said Gunnlaugsson, in Edmonton on a trade mission.
“Clearly, it has made many players in the Arctic quite worried about developments and whether they might be a sign of what is to come.”
In fact, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton echoed his sentiments earlier this week while delivering a speech in Calgary.
Clinton said it is in the best interests of Russia, Canada, the United States and the five other Arctic Council members to find ways to reach agreements on how to handle resource development in the Arctic.
The insistence of many Ukrainians on turning their country toward the West has angered Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian soldiers have moved into Ukrainian territory in the Crimea and the crucial Black Sea port of Sevastopol. Russian and Ukrainian troops have faced off several times over control of military facilities in the Crimean region.
Meanwhile, northern nations are involved in discussions over which country will control which parts of the Arctic. Safe shipping and oil exploration rules for the North are being negotiated, as is an agreement to delay commercial Arctic fishing until more is known about the resource.
Gunnlaugsson, whose country sits on the Arctic Council, said Russia’s actions are going to make agreement on those and other environmental and economic issues in the Arctic even harder.
“I don’t think it will have an immediate effect,” he said.
“It makes other governments more worried about what might happen in the future, so it creates a sense of insecurity and maybe lack of trust. If what we see in Ukraine turns out to be an exception and Russia goes back to friendly relations with its neighbours, then it shouldn’t have an effect.
“But if it is a sign of what it to come, it is quite worrying.”
Gunnlaugsson’s country is banking a good part of its economic future on Arctic development.
It is planning to build a major seaport in northeast Iceland to service growing traffic through gradually opening Arctic sea lanes. It has signed offshore oil exploration deals with CNOOC, the Chinese company that also owns Canadian energy company Nexen.
The country has also been active diplomatically. It raised eyebrows when it formed the Arctic Circle, an international forum that included non-Arctic countries such as China before they were granted observer status at the Arctic Council.
But Iceland sometimes feels snubbed by some other Arctic countries, such as when Canada, the U.S., Russia, Norway and Denmark recently concluded an interim agreement on fisheries.
“We felt it was almost peculiar that the Arctic Five have decided to negotiate regarding the fish and leave Iceland out of it,” Gunnlaugsson said. “Iceland has a lot to offer when it comes to fisheries policy.”
Canada has a lot to gain from working with Iceland on opening the Arctic, said Gunnlaugsson. Canadian companies could use the country as a bridgehead to burgeoning resource plays in Greenland, for example.
“With the location of Iceland and the infrastructure we already have in place and additional know-how from Canadian companies, I think we could do a lot of good in Greenland.”
Gunnlaugsson said his government has already opened discussions with provincial governments in Manitoba and Alberta on increasing business ties. He was in Edmonton to help inaugurate expanded air service between Edmonton and the Icelandic capital of Reyjavik.
The highlight of his trip, however, may have to do with another type of ice entirely.
Gunnlaugsson and his delegation attended a hockey game during his visit between the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders. Hockey legend and former Oiler Wayne Gretzky was in the crowd and invited the visiting leader to his box.
“It was pretty great, an unexpected pleasure,” said Gunnlaugsson, 38.
“He chatted and was really friendly. We took pictures of us together and it was a great experience.
“He is the first thing I knew about Edmonton. Everybody knows Wayne Gretzky.”