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Even before this week’s events in Syria, it was unlikely the Arctic was going to appear in any significant way on the agenda of the April 12 meeting between Rex Tillerson (above right), the American secretary of state, and Sergey Lavrov (at left), the Russian foreign minister.
In addition to the six-year civil war that has seen the two countries backing different sides, Washington and Moscow, according to experts, have a laundry list of volatile issues to discuss, including Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Afghanistan, North Korea and the Middle East.
Although America does not blame Russia for what is suspected to be a Syrian chemical-weapons attack against civilians (Washington, in fact, is said to have alerted Moscow that it was launching cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in retaliation) it does feel the Kremlin’s support for Bashar el-Assad, Syria’s president, made the attack possible.
Such sentiment will do little to change Moscow’s opinion that relations with Washington are “at zero”, a description both Mr Lavrov and his boss, Vladimir Putin, have used. Mr Putin, however, indicated during last week’s Territory of Dialogue, an international conference about the region, that it was not the situation he preferred.
With no Arctic issues likely to come up, the exercise for those with an interest in the Arctic, then, will be to divine whether the situation Mr Putin today described a “significant blow” to relations with the US will have an effect on the region.
So far, the mantra has been that, politically speaking, what happens outside the Arctic stays outside the Arctic. The more critical would say this is not always the case.
Mr Lavrov, for example, stayed home from the Arctic Council’s biennial meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, in 2015. Officially, the reason was a busy schedule, though pundits reckoned it was more likely due to the on-going row with the West over Moscow’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. The Canadian hosts had been particularly vocal in their criticism.
Not showing up, some feared, would be a sign that Moscow was turning its back on co-operation in the region. During the meeting, Mr Lavrov’s absence was indeed noted by the foreign ministers representing the other Arctic states, as well as the leaders of indigenous groups, though they mostly underscored the value they put on his long-standing contributions to Arctic relations, and expressed regret that he did not come.
With the next biennial meeting scheduled to be held in Fairbanks on May 11, the risk is that another out of area issue will have his colleagues again praising him in his absence.