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Diplomatic nimbleness of Arctic Council prevails over the Crimea conflict

The Carlsberg Foundation’s Distinguished Postdoc Fellowships | 21/06/2019

In 2014 the fallout of the Crimea conflict between Russia and Ukraine seeped into Arctic cooperation and threatened the foundation of diplomacy within the Arctic Council. This project explored the role of daily practices and the forum’s club format in order to explain how the Arctic Council maintains its unity and status.

By Postdoc Danita Catherine Burke, Department of Political Science and Public Management, SDU

In 2014 the Crimea conflict happened as a result of Russia claiming sovereignty over the Crimea region against Ukraine’s wishes, thereby setting off a series of events that rocked Western-Russian relations. The impact of the conflict spilled into the Arctic region, despite the Ukraine not being an Arctic state. While Russia did not directly broach the subject of Crimea in the context of Arctic dialogue and cooperation, Canada did.

How Crimea Became an Arctic Problem

The Arctic Council is the Arctic’s pre-eminent regional forum and it uses a consensus based model amongst the eight Arctic states (Canada, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and the United States) for all decision-making and has a rotating chairmanship between the eight states every two years. Canada was the chair during the Crimea conflict.

Canada made the Crimea conflict a major issue within Arctic cooperation. Canada was the chair of the region’s main forum, the Arctic Council, and it kept raising the issue of the Crimea conflict within the forum’s work. There are theories as to why Canada handled the Crimea issue this way, but the primary reason is believed to be domestic.

At the time, Canada’s governing political party tried to use the Crimea issue to generate domestic political support going into a federal political election. Within Canada, Russia’s growing military power and willingness to use it was used to frame Russia’s actions as a threat to Canadian Arctic sovereignty; a popular, nationalistic topic within Canadian politics.

The Arctic Council’s mandate explicitly excludes military issues from the work of the forum.

The other Arctic states and their representatives understood what was happening and did not support Canada’s efforts to insert military matters into the regional forum’s dialogue. Regional cooperation became very difficult as a result. And yet, after Canada’s chairmanship ended and the Crimea conflict became less prominent, cooperation and the Arctic Council persevered and has arguably become stronger.

Value-Added by the Project

Originally, the project sought to investigate the impact of the Crimea conflict on Arctic cooperation within the Arctic Council. In the process of doing so, it became apparent that our understanding of the cooperation dynamics is lacking. The Arctic Council stands as leading example of international effort to create a space for dialogue on matters related to sustainable development and environment protection.

Often existing scholarship is quick to generalise and criticise cooperation dynamics without getting much in-depth input for those that undertake the regional work to hear what they believe are the challenges in making cooperation successful. For the project, I spent months travelling to the different Arctic states and spoke to the civil servants, diplomats, and Indigenous representatives, among others, to paint a broad portrait of the daily challenges to regional cooperation, how they are being approach, and why in these ways. 

Contributing to Society and Awareness about the Arctic

The project contributes to society by clarifying misconceptions about the Arctic Council and regional cooperation. It helps to focus attention on efforts to make regional cooperation stronger by grounding it in foundational understanding of existing cooperation norms and structures and their purposes and challenges.

Efforts to disseminate findings from this research include academic and non-academic publications and outreach. Academic outputs have focused on the completion of a book, Diplomacy and the Arctic Council which is forthcoming with McGill-Queens University Press and peer-reviewed articles with journals and publishers such as Global Governance, Asian Survey, Politologisk Årbog, Polar Journal, and Polar Record.

Furthermore, public engagement is vital to contribute to a greater awareness about the Arctic region and spark discussion about regional diplomacy and cooperation efforts. Efforts to do so have concentrated on engagement through pieces for news outlets. Outlets that have (re)published my articles include the National Post, Arctic Today, Singapore Reporter, Asia Times, China News, The Scotman, and Arctic Deeply.


Burke, D.C. Diplomacy and the Arctic Council. Forthcoming, McGill-Queens University Press. Expected publication date: Autumn 2019. https://www.mqup.ca/diplomacy-and-the-arctic-council-products-9780773559196.php.

Burke, D.C. and Phelps Bondaroff, Teale N. (2019) “Becoming an Arctic Council NGO Observer.” Polar Record 54(5-6): 349-359. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0032247419000044.

Burke, D.C. and Rahbek-Clemmensen, J. (2017) “What does the Arctic mean to you? Comparing Arctic identities in Canada and Norway during the Ukraine Crisis.” The Polar Journal 7(2), pp. 391-409. https://doi.org/10.1080/2154896X.2017.1376449.

English, John. (2013) Ice and Water: Politics Peoples and the Arctic Council. Allen Lane. https://www.amazon.com/Ice-Water-Politics-Peoples-Council/dp/0670065382.

Nord, Douglas. (2016) The Arctic Council: Governance within the Far North. Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/The-Arctic-Council-Governance-within-the-Far-North-1st-Edition/Nord/p/book/9781138799202.

Exner-Pirot, Heather (2016) “Canada’s Arctic Council Chairmanship (2013–2015): A Post-Mortem.” Canadian Foreign Policy Journal 22(1), 84–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/11926422.2015.1115772.