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A Story of an Image: The Arctic Council at 25 - Reflections

By Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s Senior Arctic Official 2008-2014, Ambassador to the Republic of Iceland 2014-2020

2.30 am 10 April 2013. Minus 30 degrees Celcius. All Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials on the North Pole. Left to right: Sigrid Anna Johnson of Canada, Klavs Holm of Denmark, Hannu Halinen of Finland, Jonas Allansson of Iceland, SAO Chair Gustaf Lind of Sweden, Else Berit Eikeland of Norway, Anton Vasiliev of Russia, Andreas von Uexkull of Sweden, Julia Gourley of the USA.

I conceived of this now famous photo well before our trip which was designed within the framework of an international Arctic conference, organized by the Security Council of the Russian Federation. However, reality exceeded my expectations. The trip turned into an unforgettable adventure. Initially we planned to sleep one night in Nagurskoe in the Franz Josef Land following a flight there from Salekhard, where the conference took place.

However, the weather on the North Pole was forecast to change abruptly from fine to stormy in 5-6 hours. Therefore, we decided not to sleep to catch the good weather, and instead changed into made-to-measure in St-Petersburg red-and-black down polar outfit (a showcase of Russian hospitality) and flew 2 hours on AN-26 from Nagurskoe to Barneo Ice Camp near the North Pole, and from there 15 minutes to the exact point of the North Pole on MI-8 helicopter. That was a clever choice. The night was still sunny and the photo session was very emotional. The excitement was fantastic. Standing on top of the world with all its troubles down under you. The closest point on Earth to God above. We even improvised a football match, finding a football in our helicopter. No one thought about sleeping. Unforgettable.

The photo was supposed to convey the true spirit of international Arctic cooperation, the spirit of camaraderie, friendship, trust, joy of working with each other. A unique group of people, a unique group of countries, a unique region of the world. The North Pole and the Arctic Ocean in the post-Cold-War era that unite, not divide, peoples and countries. The Arctic Council as the key intergovernmental body that assures effective governance of the Arctic: “we can do it”. Satisfaction with a major achievement. A success. And I think it conveys it all. You see genuine emotions, not staged.

The photo is a reminder of the success of the Arctic Council which turned 25 yesterday. I congratulate the international Arctic community on the occasion.

During its first quarter century the Arctic Council became one of the exemplary international multilateral bodies in the world. The explanation is evident: it is based on common genuine interests of the Arctic states, on the rule of consensus, on attention to experience and the needs of the Arctic inhabitants. Climate change and technological revolution brought the region to the limelight of history because of the opening riches of mineral resources and transportation routes. New opportunities and challenges became common opportunities and common challenges as there now are no major territorial disputes, and all overlapping claims can and will be regulated on the basis of the sufficient existing international law applicable to the Arctic, above all the UNCLOS. There are no problems among the regional states in the Arctic which, even theoretically, may require military solutions.

Even the crisis in Russian-Western relations due to the West’s refusal to accept the free choice of the people of Crimea to return back to Russia did not undermine international cooperation in the Arctic. Arctic is justifiably perceived as a relatively new area of international interaction that can and should be dealt with on its own merit. All major rules of the game in the Arctic are and should be established and safeguarded by the Arctic states themselves, who have demonstrated responsibility and have been reliable and creative managers.. Obviously, this does not exclude mutually interesting cooperation of the Arctic states with non-Arctic states and organizations, especially bearing in mind the global character of climate change and the economic potential of the region.

The Arctic Council has withstood pressures of the rapidly changing environment. It has demonstrated sufficient flexibility to react to new challenges.

The Arctic Council has withstood pressures of the rapidly changing environment. It has demonstrated sufficient flexibility to react to new challenges. Its nature is gradually evolving from a “forum” or a talking shop into a full-fledged international organization. The first legally binding regional agreements have been signed and a permanent secretariat has been established. In the planning of activities coordination has deepened and cooperation projects rely increasingly on joint financing. Each new chair of the Arctic Council proclaims the objective to further strengthen practices of this nature and therefor the Council itself.

The Arctic Council is also a result of collective endeavor of talented, highly professional and dedicated people. From my early days of engagement with Arctic affairs I remember, with gratitude, how much I learned from vivid personalities as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Ambassadors Vitaly Churkin and Alexander Ignatiev, polar explorer Arthur Chilingarov of Russia, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store and Ambassador Karsten Klepsvik of Norway, President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and Foreign Minister Össur Skarphé›insson of Iceland, Ambassador Thomas Winkler from Denmark, President of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency Patrick Borbey (with whom we agreed that Russia and Canada share so much in the Arctic), Assistant Undersecretary of State John Balton of the USA, just to name a few. Nina Buvang-Vaja of Norway was such a strong and helpful leader of the Council’s Secretariat since its inception. Not to mention again my fellow SAOs on the photo. When I look at it, I cannot escape the simple thought that building a relationship requires quite an effort, but you can disrupt the relationship without an effort at all. This may sound banal, but in case of the Arctic we must respect and protect professionalism and efforts of the father-founders of the Arctic Council and our predecessors, reject ignorance and arrogance, care about those who live and work in the North, and nurture the unique spirit of cooperation. We can make it. I’m sure we shall have more historic moments to celebrate. This is only the beginning.

20 September 2021

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of the Arctic Circle.

Anton Vasiliev

Russia's Senior Arctic Official 2008-2014; Ambassador to the Republic of Iceland 2014-2020