NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement and answers to media questions at a joint news conference with Foreign Minister of Iceland Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson following the 12th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting, Reykjavik, May 20, 2021
Ladies and gentlemen,
As outgoing Chairman of the Arctic Council Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson said, we held a productive and useful ministerial session. It was constructive and focused on analysing the outcome of Iceland’s Arctic Council Chairmanship and drafting plans for the next two-year period. I want to note Iceland’s huge input, primarily intellectual, over the previous two years. The result is obvious, that is, the first ever strategic planning document, the plan for the next ten years. The Arctic Council has never before approved a decision for a term this long. This is very important for stable planning. The credit for this largely goes to Iceland’s chairmanship. I want to thank our Iceland hosts for their hospitality and their efforts to hold the event at the highest level.
We discussed in detail a number of current issues related to the Arctic, including efforts to expand cooperation between the Arctic states and coordinate their activities in order to ensure the sustainable development of the region, protect the environment, preserve the culture, traditions and languages of the indigenous peoples of the north and build relations between people.
Along with the Arctic Council Strategic Plan, we approved a detailed declaration, in which we reaffirmed our commitment to peace, stability and cooperation in the high latitudes and outlined the guidelines for promoting further international cooperation in the Arctic.
We are very pleased by our Iceland partners’ efforts during their country’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Russia, the largest Arctic state, has taken the baton from Ireland for 2021-2023. In our speech, Russia’s highest priority was emphasised, which is assistance in the comprehensive development of the areas beyond the Arctic Circle in the social, economic and environmental aspects. The slogan of our programme, which was approved by the Russian Government and includes over 100 initiatives, is Responsible Management for a Sustainable Arctic. Primary attention will be given to creating favourable conditions for improving living standards, modernising the economy, ensuring the region’s attractiveness to investment while efficiently managing the region’s scientific and innovation potential and resources, and exercising a very considerate attitude towards the impact that human activity can have on the region’s environment.
We intend to facilitate the Arctic’s adaptation to global climate change and the minimisation of the anthropogenic impact on the environment partly by implementing the Paris Agreement and the UN 2030 agenda. Relying on ecofriendly technology, we will focus on such areas as the transition to a circular economy, the use of climate-neutral fuel in the transport and energy sectors and the development of renewable energy sources.
We believe the Arctic must remain a territory of peace, stability and constructive cooperation. We do not see any potential for conflict here, nor the need to launch programmes by military-political blocs. We are pleased that the majority of our partners share these positions. We are convinced that we can only ensure the region’s prosperity through cooperation. To promote peace and stability, we reaffirmed our readiness for a constructive dialogue with our colleagues in the Council in various formats and at different levels, including the highest level.
In conclusion, I would like to once again emphasise: Russia wants to develop its relations with all member countries, the permanent participants, the observers and other interested extra-regional partners. The number of observer countries and organisations is five times higher than that of the Arctic Council members. We agreed to determine the best ways of using the sincere desire of the extra-regional countries and various structures to ensure the interests of the Arctic nations. We will do all we can to strengthen the spirit of cooperation and promote trust and mutual understanding, which have always distinguished the activity of the Arctic Council.
Question: You emphasised in your remarks that the Arctic Council remains a venue for depoliticised dialogue. Do you have apprehensions that the current confrontation between Russia and the Western countries in other areas could spread to this venue? How can this be avoided?
Sergey Lavrov: We believe the Arctic Council (AC) has its own policy documents, including those that determine not only the content of the agenda but also the applicable procedures. This is the consensus that must apply to all issues discussed in the Arctic Council. I think it is one of the unique organisations where a consensus is always reached owing to a sincere striving to consider the position of a partner rather than through arm twisting and ultimatums. This is an important distinctive feature of the AC. Iceland has brilliantly preserved this tradition. I hope we will ensure continuity.
Question: You have suggested resuming the discussion of issues by the Arctic countries at the military level. Have you received a response to this from your partners, based on the meetings here?
Sergey Lavrov: At the informal dinner, I raised the issues in connection with an interest that is not so much displayed by NATO as it is encouraged by its individual members as regards the launching of NATO programmes and actions in the Arctic. I quoted examples: a permanent rotation-based presence, including US troops, is being established near our borders; moreover, our neighbours have even changed their legislation to move to the more active deployment of foreign troops and arms on their territory. A “seminar on security in the Arctic Region” was held recently with a very interesting lineup of participants: the AC minus Russia, plus four NATO countries (France, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands). Our colleagues did not know about it. Apparently, it has not yet received much attention. Nevertheless, I asked our AC partners to look more attentively at this and to prevent a situation where security issues will be withdrawn from our common agreement to the effect that eight countries are responsible for everything in the Arctic latitudes.
There was an important mechanism for regular meetings between the chiefs of general staffs of the Arctic countries’ armed forces until 2014. They discussed issues of safe navigation, measures to counter oil spills and other manmade or natural disasters, and also search-and-rescue issues. For obvious reasons, in 2014, the West began to throw out many instruments of partnership between us. It suspended this mechanism as well. We believe that we can agree on the resumption of this. We suggested starting with meetings of military experts from the general staffs of the eight countries if some partners feel uncomfortable about going so high. We have not heard a negative response, but there has been no positive reaction yet either. We left this proposal with our partners. I hope that during the next two years we will continue creating conditions for the return of this mechanism of collective security to the Arctic Council activities.
Question (addressed to Sergey Lavrov): Minister Lavrov, Russia has expressed concern about the reinforced military cooperation between the NATO country Norway and the United States. What does Russia think of the US military engagement in Greenland, an island that is of great strategic importance? And is Russia willing to invest in Greenland at a time when the Chinese are wanting to invest as well as the Americans? So, is Russia also willing to invest in Greenland?
Sergey Lavrov: We have commented more than once on the problems related to the buildup of a military presence near our borders. We’ve discussed this and I will raise this issue today during our talks with Norway’s Foreign Minister.
Our Norwegian neighbours, who have never had the principle of the permanent presence of foreign military personnel enshrined in their laws, are now amending their legislation. In fact, things are moving towards what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken once called “presence on a persistent rotational basis.” We see this presence in other parts of Europe as well.
Mainly, we are worried about what is happening near our borders. Norway is our close neighbour with which we enjoy good relations. But the problems associated with the escalation of military and political tensions due to deployment of foreign troops in Norway and the Baltic states remain. In addition to our legitimate concerns about ensuring our security, there are also commitments that we assumed as part of the Russia-NATO Council in 1997 to the effect that NATO contingents and weapons would not be permanently deployed on the territories of new NATO members. Now, using this play of words, there should be no significant fighting forces on a permanent basis. We are being told that there may be “presence on a persistent rotational basis,” in particular, plans are being discussed openly in Washington (I specifically asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about this yesterday) to deploy additional, substantial forces in Poland, which would constitute a direct violation of the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation. I hope that the countries of the alliance understand that this is not an internal issue and that it directly affects the bloc's multilateral obligations to the Russian Federation.
As I told Secretary of State Blinken yesterday, we are interested not only in conducting a dialogue on strategic stability, but also in discussing the overall situation in arms control, disarmament, and non-proliferation. I hope that acting within the OSCE, which has a Forum for Security Co-operation, the West will show a responsible approach and stop constantly declaring its unilateral actions and exercises on the borders of the Russian Federation, in which tens of thousands of foreign troops and materiel, which have been brought here specifically for that purpose from the United States and Canada, are participating.
We want to establish a dialogue, something that was initially discussed within the OSCE. Back in the 1990s, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe, the Istanbul OSCE Summit Declaration clearly stated that security issues must be discussed with the participation of regional organisations in the sphere of military-political cooperation that were created within the OSCE space. NATO and the CSTO were directly mentioned. One time there was a half-hearted attempt, under Greece’s chairmanship, to hold a ministerial meeting and invite the secretaries general from NATO, the CSTO, the CIS, as well as officials from the European External Action Service. Since then, nothing like that has been effectively organised.
Unfortunately, everything comes down to the fact that NATO does not consider itself equal to everyone else and presumably operates on the premise that it cannot stoop to the level of a dialogue with the CSTO, for example. This is not the only example of arrogance that our Western partners have been actively and with great enthusiasm demonstrating in the international arena in recent years. We have learned our lesson. We will take the necessary actions to ensure our security in a reliable manner, no matter what. But dialogue remains our priority and the preferred approach. This came up in yesterday’s conversation with Secretary of State Blinken.
As far as Greenland is concerned, it is not exactly close to our borders. This is the decision, as I understand it, of the Danish government as to what forms it should use to fulfill its allied obligations to the United States, taking into account, among other things, the internal state structure of Denmark and Copenhagen's relations with Greenland.
We have economic ties. I have just spoken with representatives of Greenland and the Faroe Islands who, as members of the Danish delegation, participated in this session of the Arctic Council Foreign Ministers. We are not making impressive investments like the PRC, which you mentioned, but there are economic and trade projects and there is an interest in expanding them. In particular, I suggested that representatives of Greenland and the Faroe Islands consider the possibility of attending the economic forums held in Russia, including the SPIEF.
Question (addressed to both ministers): I would like to follow up on two questions that have already been asked, and also give the outgoing chairmanship the chance to comment on security and the fact that many people in the high north feel unease at being in the centre of an increasing strategic competition and the military buildup in the Arctic. So I want to ask both of you, how do you address these worries and maybe you can elaborate on ideas of how to ease these worries among the people living up in the north? Thank you.
Sergey Lavrov: Like you said, these questions have already been asked, and we have answered them. I can reaffirm that we do not see any problems in this region that would require a military solution. The Arctic Council does not deal with “hard security” issues, but it used to have a useful mechanism at the general staff level, which reviewed matters of maritime security, providing relief to natural disasters and industrial accidents, and search and rescue operations. We are in favour of restoring this practice.
Question (addressed to Sergey Lavrov): You mentioned that you would like to see the heads of the armed forces convene to discuss military-related matters in the Arctic. What could be the desired outcome of such a meeting? Secondly, have you set up a date and location for the summit meeting between President Putin and President Biden?
Sergey Lavrov: This is the third time you have asked a question that I have answered four times already.
Regarding the proposal to consider military-related matters in the Arctic Council, I noted that there was such a practice. We are not offering anything new except to reinstate it. Chiefs of general staffs or staff members would be engaged not in military activities, but use instead the armed forces’ capabilities to tackle day-to-day matters which determine the quality of life, including dealing with the aftermath of various disasters, ensuring comfortable environment for maritime activities, and search and rescue operations in situations where people need help.
As for my meeting with Secretary of State Blinken yesterday, both he and I shared with the media everything we had to share. You can find these materials on social media and online.