Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s remarks and answers to media questions at the opening of the ministerial session of the 5th International Arctic Forum The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue, St. Petersburg, April 9, 2019
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am glad to welcome you to the ministerial session of The Arctic: Territory of Dialogue Forum. Symbolically, this meeting is being held in Russia’s “northern capital,” St Petersburg, which has amassed much experience needed for a comprehensive study of the Arctic region.
Today, the Arctic is witnessing rapid change. There are a number of factors – I would even say, catalysts – that predetermine the need for intensifying interstate cooperation in the region. Most importantly, I am referring to climate change that, on the one hand, remains a serious common challenge, while, on the other, offers new opportunities, such as a chance to expand the use of the Northern Sea Route for shipping. Some additional prospects for stepping up economic activities are related to the continued development of technologies. Moreover, the growing global demand for hydrocarbons and sea products is helping to modernise infrastructure and encourage investment.
Russia, which has the vastest Arctic area, invariably regards the Arctic as a territory of peace, constructive interaction and good-neighbourliness. We consistently promote a positive, unifying Arctic agenda for the sake of finding an effective solution to problems confronting our region that has a unique but extremely vulnerable ecological system. Its sustainable development is only feasible if we practice a responsible and sparing approach involving an unconditional rejection of the archaic geopolitical “zero sum” games.
We are confident that there is no potential for conflict in the Arctic and that problems that arise can and must be solved politically at the negotiating table. None of these issues calls for a military solution.
We are in favour of resuming a full-scale military and political dialogue between the Arctic states as a way to promote confidence and mutual understanding and prevent any type of escalation. Annual meetings of chiefs of general staffs from the Arctic Council countries were an effective mechanism for maintaining regional stability. Regrettably, they have been frozen since 2014. In order to resume joint work, we, as a first step, suggest establishing contacts at the level of military experts from the Arctic states.
The Arctic Council remains the key venue for a politics-free interaction aimed at reaching concrete practical results. We assess positively the results of Finland’s two years as Arctic Council chairman. Our Finnish neighbours’ agenda was really pragmatic and directed at dealing with the issues that are common to all states in the region.
A month from now, a new captain, Iceland, will control the bridge of the “Arctic ship.” I am confident that our Icelandic partners will be able to cope successfully with this responsible mission.
We support the Icelandic chairmanship programme which has a justifiable emphasis on marine problems. Russia has a 40,000-kilometre coastline, over a half of which is in the Arctic, and is responsible for the Northern Sea Route under its sovereignty. Given the above, the Icelandic chairmanship plans in such areas as green shipping, marine litter control, including micro plastics, as well as ocean acidification control are most appealing to us.
In the context of growing marine activities in the Arctic, such as shipping, including cruises, greater potential for a prompt response to possible emergencies is of special importance.
We underscore the importance of the Paris climate agreement, which is in line with the efforts to adapt the Arctic area and enhance its resistance to global climatic change.
We are sure that the similarity between the priorities of Iceland and Russia will help ensure the continuity of the Arctic agenda when the Arctic Council chairmanship passes over to our country in 2021.
The Arctic is, above all, people, including the smaller indigenous peoples of the North. During the Russian chairmanship, we will promote their interests to a maximum degree while drawing up development programmes for our common region in three dimensions: economic, social and environmental.
Less than a month remains before the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland. We expect that on the eve of such an important event our countries’ senior officials will constructively agree on the Strategic Plan, the first ever advanced planning document in our organisation, and a Ministerial Declaration, which are to identify the framework of our joint activities for the near- and medium-term, including the period of Russian chairmanship.
Nothing can build up trust between states better than their cooperation in solving common problems. We are for good neighbourliness and mutually beneficial partnership remaining an unconditional priority in the Arctic Council’s activity.
Russia is ready to step up joint efforts with the partners in this organisation on the basis of international law, and the respect for and consideration of each other’s interests in a variety of areas – from scientific research and environmental projects to the use of the Northern Sea Route. We expect that this forum will also contribute to our common cause.
Question: According to UN regulations, the Arctic countries have a right to own coastal Arctic areas, but they can also claim their rights for the Arctic shelf, and they can claim their rights all the way to the North Pole if they want to. But there are many countries and only one North Pole, and the submissions overlap. How can we prevent countries from arguing over the North Pole?
Sergey Lavrov: I would like to clarify the definition. There are only five Arctic states: Russia, Denmark, Canada, Norway and the United States. From the very outset, these five countries have had the right to own 200 nautical miles of the Arctic Ocean shelf under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Special methods and procedures are required for expanding the shelf beyond the 200 miles. The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf is continuing its work. Russia was among the first countries to file an application with this commission, in 2001, and the bid received a positive reply. Work on this has continued since then, and we have responded to the commission’s inquiries. Today, we received positive recommendations concerning the Okhotsk, Barents and Bering seas. We hope that our application’s most complicated section on the Arctic Ocean will also receive a positive response. There are overlapping submissions for this part of the world’s oceans. For example, Russia and Denmark have submitted applications that compete in terms of some geographical parameters. Canada has not yet submitted a bid, but it is possible that it will overlap with certain territories claimed by the Russian and Danish sides.
Russia and Denmark keep in contact at the expert level and between the foreign ministries, as stipulated by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. All possible “overlaps” will be resolved through negotiation. We expect the commission to issue recommendations.
The North Pole itself is a symbolic point. I am convinced that we need to search for a solution that will promote cooperation, rather than conflict, in this region.
Question: Will the Arctic countries jointly develop new routes and deposits within Russian borders, or would Russia prefer to independently deal with its Arctic projects?
Sergey Lavrov: Our position on the Arctic presupposes the closest possible cooperation with our foreign partners, and such examples already exist. Our partners from China and Europe are involved in our Arctic territories. I would like to note once again that, on the whole, we want to develop the Arctic through cooperation. This also concerns the use of the Northern Sea Route for which we are responsible; but we want to develop and use it collectively.
Question: But why should we divide the profits?
Sergey Lavrov: There are certain positive implications. We are not acting like a dog in a manger, and we are not trying to hoard everything for ourselves. We want to conduct truly business-like cooperation that presupposes the use of modern technologies. I assure you that when business managers from several countries meet and agree on something, each of them sees certain benefits. Russia has always aspired to mutually beneficial cooperation.
Question: I think that for now the Arctic Council is a paragon of diplomacy from a fairy tale. Members are willing to make deals, listen to each other, and discuss things. Possibly, this is so because there is as yet nothing to share out. Will this “oasis of diplomacy” remain what it is now when billions of cubic metres of gas and new trading routes are at stake?
Sergey Lavrov: The Arctic Council has a very rich and attractive culture of diplomatic dialogue and a culture of addressing problems through a search for mutually acceptable solutions. In my opening remarks, I said that we saw no conflict potential in our common region. The Arctic Council’s record confirms that any problems can be solved via consensus-based political and diplomatic dialogue. I have no doubt that all other members of the Arctic Eight take the very same approach to our relations.
Question: You have mentioned the Northern Sea Route lying off Russia’s Arctic coast. The United States is insisting that it should be internationalised so that ships could pass without restrictions, permissions, and the like. Russia believes that it should control the NSR because it runs through its territorial waters. The same dispute can arise in relation to Canada’s North Western Route. The existing rules of the game can be interpreted in very different ways. Is it necessary to develop solutions that are common for everyone?
Sergey Lavrov: I am not the one to characterise US actions. In fact, the United States really believes that it is uniquely entitled to “call the tune” and create rules of its own. This is a separate topic, but it does exist – regrettably. We have to keep it in mind while discussing some or other issues.
The Northern Sea Route is Russia’s national transport artery. This is an obvious thing. The Northern Sea Route includes water areas with a different status. There is a landing sea, there are territorial waters, and there are exclusive economic zones of the Russian Federation. International law gives littoral states substantial rights to regulate shipping in these water areas. In particular, special rights are envisaged for ice-covered spaces within the exclusive economic zone. Relevant navigation rules approved by the Ministry of Transport and the Government of the Russian Federation are also in force in the NSR area. For many years, all states using the Northern Sea Route (ships from more than 20 states used it last year) have obeyed these rules. The rules are the same for Russian and foreign ships. There is no distinction. They provide for pilotage and ice escort services. The most important thing is that we undertake the responsibility for ensuring security and maximum respect for the region’s highly fragile ecosystem. I must say without false modesty that Russia has unique experience in providing for the right kind of work and activities in the high latitudes, and we are ready to extend support to all ships navigating the Northern Sea Route. We are developing port infrastructure, navigational and hydrographic capabilities on this transport artery, as well as our search and rescue potential.
In essence, the NSR navigation rules are the same as road traffic regulations. You come to a country, use these rules, and must obey them – not because someone wants to impose something on you but because otherwise it would be unsafe to sail by this route that many countries see as increasingly popular.
I hope we will continue to interact in using the Northern Sea Route and ensure an optimal combination of economic feasibility and environmental safety. The current regulation has proved its efficacy. I have not heard anyone complain about how these rules are implemented in practice.
Question: Russia may be fairly tough on some issues. But as for Arctic diplomacy, it has been a model of working for consensus and being friendly to its partners. Nevertheless, our US colleagues are always expressing their concern over Russia’s military activities in the region. Thus, US Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer said the US fleet will be building up its presence in the Arctic. How is it possible to alleviate tensions under the circumstances?
Sergey Lavrov: We are doing nothing but taking the necessary measures to ensure our national security. All we are doing in the Arctic and any other region of the Russian Federation is aimed precisely and exclusively at this goal. We do not threaten anyone; we are ensuring the required defence capability with due account of the military-political situation that is taking shape around our borders. Rest assured that we will always be ready to protect our security, interests and territorial integrity.
As for statements about our militarisation of the Arctic, we occupy a diametrically opposite position. As I have said, we don’t see a single issue here that would require a military solution, not a single topic that demands NATO’s attention. Meanwhile, we hear these kinds of ideas from time to time. I don’t think they are good for the cause. As you have said, the Arctic Council unites a group of countries that have developed a compromise culture that is very important and rare in today’s conditions. We will promote this culture. I have not heard members of the Arctic Council express ideas that would violate this. I hope we will continue behaving with this attitude in the future as well.
Question: Today, Russia is developing the Arctic very energetically, spending more funds on it than the other Arctic Council members. Climate change will prompt the others to do more in this process. Will Russia have enough resources to remain the leader in this region or is it not interested in this?
Sergey Lavrov: Indeed, we do have the largest Arctic zone. We have drastically stepped up development recently, including our efforts to ensure the security and interests of the indigenous minorities of the north. I don’t think we should feel embarrassed by cooperating with other countries. I have already emphasised that we want to develop the north together with due respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and interests of each other. We have much more in common than what divides us.
Responding to the previous question, we talked about the efforts to militarise the Arctic and we are concerned about this. I am hoping the spirit of the Arctic Council will prevail in the attitude of the Arctic countries to our relations rather than war games like the recent Trident Juncture 2018, which were aggressively anti-Russia.
Of course, we feel that some NATO countries would like to dispel this spirit and replace it with a militaristic attitude. I am convinced that our northern neighbours understand that such approaches are dangerous and counterproductive and will not allow them to prevail.
I would like to thank all those who took the invitation to attend this roundtable discussion. I think this was a very useful exchange of views.
We reaffirmed that the Arctic is primarily a territory of peace and dialogue. There can be many areas of cooperation, first and foremost, between the coastal countries. As we confirmed today – and my colleagues from Norway and Denmark said the same – this territory is open to cooperation based on the principles of international law and respect for the national legislation of the littoral states. I see great potential in this respect.
Next month, we will be preparing for a regular Arctic Council ministerial meeting in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi. Very important documents are being drafted, including the Arctic Strategy 2025. I hope it will reflect everything we are discussing today. Approval is an uphill road. For example, our American colleagues don’t even want to mention the Paris Climate Agreement or the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2015-2030. Everyone else is convinced that without them the strategy will certainly be less effective. So, we are in for some serious work. I hope that the spirit of teamwork will prevail