THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello everyone. Good afternoon. Welcome to our virtual briefing today on Arctic regional issues. My name is Jake Goshert. I’m the moderator for this briefing. As a reminder, the briefing is on the record, and we will post a transcript on our website, which is fpc.state.gov, after the end of the briefing. For any journalists joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself in the Zoom chat with your name, outlet, and country so that we know who is joining us today. Our distinguished briefer today is Counselor of the State Department Derek Chollet. The Counselor will start with some opening remarks and then I will open the floor for questions. But we’ll start with Counselor Chollet, so I will hand it over to the counselor.
MR CHOLLET: Great, and can you guys hear me okay? Hello. Can you hear me?
QUESTION: Yes. Absolutely.
MR CHOLLET: Okay. Sorry, just – hey, look, everybody, thank you very much for getting on the call this afternoon. We just wanted to give a quick readout of some important meetings we had towards the end of last week in Reykjavik, Iceland around the Arctic Circle Assembly. I led a large interagency delegation of U.S. officials at the Arctic assembly, which was convened by our colleagues in Iceland, and it had several hundred if not well over a thousand participants. And it was an opportunity for us, first and foremost, to speak in more detail with our colleagues about the new National Strategy for the Arctic Region that was released the week before last, but then also have important bilateral conversations with not just our Icelandic hosts but representatives of many other governments and nongovernmental organizations that were at this Arctic assembly.
So just some real top line comments from me before I take your questions. First, obviously, the Arctic, which is the home to more than 4 million people, with extensive natural resources and unique ecosystems, is undergoing a dramatic transformation. And that’s driven by climate change, first and foremost, but also the changing geopolitical environment. The United States is of course an Arctic nation, and we believe that we have responsibility for the stewardship and the protection of this region, particularly at a moment of such profound change. And in recognition of that commitment to the Arctic region, the Biden administration thought it was important to release a new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which is an update on the strategy released last in 2013, so nearly a decade ago. And that’s reflecting the changing strategic environment as well as our administration’s priorities.
As a top line matter, the U.S. seeks an Arctic region that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and cooperative. And I think in that, you’ll see a lot of continuity between the strategy that was released in 2013 and the strategy that was released just the other week. That said, there have been some fundamental changes – of course, the climate crisis first and foremost, and the new strategy addresses that with greater urgency, and it also outlines new investments in the sustainable development to improve the livelihoods of Arctic residents while of course conserving the environment.
Secondly and also, this new strategy also acknowledges the increasing strategic competition in the Arctic region since 2013, which is exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine, but also takes into account the changing role that the People’s Republic of China is playing in the region as well.
The strategy talks about how we’re going to be advancing U.S. interest across four mutually reinforcing pillars that span both domestic and international issues: the first being security, first and foremost; second, climate change and environmental protection; third, sustainable economic development; and fourth, international cooperation and governance. And the strategy serves as a framework to guide our government’s approach to tackling emerging challenges and the opportunities in the Arctic.
And that approach is going to be guided by five principles, and that includes consultation and coordination and comanagement with Alaska native tribes and communities. And I should say that the development of the strategy was made in close consultation with state and local governments, but particularly those in Alaska and Maine, who are most keenly focused on the Arctic region. The strategy is – well, the principle that will guide the strategy is – will include planning for long lead time of investments; for the development of cross-sectoral coalitions and innovative ideas, and to of course a commitment to a whole-of-government, evidence-based approach. And I should say that representing the United States at this Arctic Circle Assembly was not just the State Department but also the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, and other agencies.
And the final point, and then I’ll close here, is that the undergirding principle – and so the fifth principle of the way we’re approaching this – is by deepening the relationships with our allies and partners. The foundation of our approach to the Arctic, as it is everywhere, is working in lockstep with allies and partners, deepening relationships where they already exist, and creating new ones where they don’t already exist. And that’s – in the Arctic region, of course that starts with our work in the Arctic Council which is – the strategy underscores our – the importance we place on the Arctic Council and our commitment to leadership in the Arctic Council.
It has been a challenging year and a half for the Arctic Council, given that Russia took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council in May of 2021. And then it was just seven or eight months later that Russia began it’s unprovoked and unjust war in Ukraine, which meant that the Arctic Council ceased to do much of its work for several months after that war. And since then, it has been advancing projects that do not involve Russia. There is a transition coming up next spring to Norway, which will – is in line to be the next leader of the Arctic Council, and I look forward to working with Norway in the work of the Arctic Council moving forward.
But I can say that on the ground in Iceland, talking with our friends and partners about our new strategy and our commitment to the Arctic region, we got a lot of positive feedback. The United States is intent on raising its game in the Arctic. And one of the ways we will be doing that in the coming months is by appointing and having the Senate confirm a new Arctic ambassador, so Ambassador-at-Large for Arctic Affairs, which will be based here at the State Department, which will reflect our ongoing and enduring commitment to having senior level engagement in the Arctic. But in the meantime, officials like myself and my colleagues will remain deeply involved in these issues as we’re working to implement the strategy, work with our Arctic Council partners and others to ensure that we can have, as best we can, a peaceful, a stable, and a prosperous Arctic region.
So with those brief opening remarks, happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you, Counselor. We’re going to turn to questions now. If you have questions, please raise your hand in the Zoom screen. We’re going to turn to Dylan Robertson from the Canadian Press.
QUESTION: Hi there, Counselor Chollet. Thanks so much for taking our questions. I was wondering if the U.S. wants Russia out of the Arctic Council or what Russia needs to do in order for the other parties to shift away from the A7 model?
MR CHOLLET: Well, thanks for that question. As I said, the Arctic Council is something that we believe deeply in. We think it’s been a successful organization to cooperate and forge common projects in the Arctic. And we are committed to having it be as strong as it possibly can be in the future. The reality, of course, is that it’s – Russia is an increasingly difficult partner across the board.
We are not contemplating changes to the Arctic Council, but the reality is that for the last year and a half or the last – better part of this year, I should say, since February 24th, there Arctic Council has had a shift in some of the work that it’s been doing, and right now it is only pursuing projects that do not involve Russia. And it’s notable that anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of the Arctic Council’s projects, and this includes areas like education, fisheries, things of that nature, can occur without Russia being involved.
But it’s something that we talked in depth about with our partners on the ground in Iceland about the Arctic Council’s future and how we have high hopes for what it can do together. But we also have to be realistic, given Russia’s behavior in Ukraine and around the world that it’s – we’re going to see limited possibility for cooperation with Russia in the Arctic Council.
QUESTION: I did have two more questions, but I’m not sure if we’re taking follow-ups, although I have my second question. I just wanted to understand the U.S. policy on NATO in the Arctic. Canada is increasingly linking NORAD with NATO, but it doesn’t seem to want an active NATO presence in North America. I’m just wondering if our countries are diverging on that point.
MR CHOLLET: Well, it’s a great question. And of course, one of the key shifts that will occur in the not-too-distant future – hopefully the very near future – will be the inclusion of Finland and Sweden into NATO. I was in Helsinki just prior to going to Iceland and talked to our Finnish colleagues about the progress they’re making towards accession into the Alliance. And when that happens, of course, we will have seven of eight Arctic Council members will be in NATO.
As you probably know, NATO at the current moment does not have an Arctic strategy, although the Arctic was referenced in the Strategic Concept that NATO leaders agreed to at the Madrid Summit most recently. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been very focused on the challenges in the High North, and as you know – you probably covered this – he visited the Canadian Arctic alongside Prime Minister Trudeau just recently, which highlighted the threats posed by Russia and the PRC in the Arctic.
Our Arctic allies are taking concrete actions to improve defense and deterrence in the High North, and it’s something we work very closely on with our Norwegian partners as well as with the Finns and the Danes. So it’s something that I think we look forward to NATO taking up these issues in greater detail. I think it presents an opportunity for the Alliance. It’s also a reflection, having Finland and Sweden coming in, having – it’s a reflection of the strategic importance of the Arctic region for NATO. Just to state the obvious, once you have Finland and Sweden in, you will have a significant amount of territory, many, many, many square kilometers, that will now be covered in the Arctic region under NATO’s Article 5, the mutual self-defense clause. So it will be a fundamental shift in the thinking for the Alliance, and it’s something we look forward to engaging in when Finland and Sweden join the Alliance.
MODERATOR: And then we’re going to move on to another questioner. We’re to go to Steffen from Danish Broadcasting. Steffen?
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you very much for taking our questions. As I understood it, you said that for the U.S., security is priority number one when it comes to the Arctic regions. I would like to know if the U.S. has any plans for expanding the Thule base in Greenland in any – in any ways, both as goes for the infrastructure or the military capability. And in general, does the U.S. have any plans for expanding military capabilities in general in Greenland? Thank you.
MR CHOLLET: Thanks for that. And I – your question went out when you – you were talking about Thule. Right?
MR CHOLLET: Yeah, okay. Well, we place high priority on Thule and our presence there. It’s, in our view, critical for early warning. Space Force, our Space Force, has critical needs that are met there as well. We think that it provides benefits of domain awareness not just for the United States but also for Greenland, for Denmark in the Arctic – in the Arctic and beyond. Just this week, then they’ll be in Maine; there’ll be a meeting of the Joint Committee between Greenland, Denmark, and colleagues from the State Department here to talk about a lot of the details of our work together in Thule. We do think it is a benefit for Greenlanders and also a benefit for ourselves and for our Danish partners.
In terms of any plans we have for Thule in terms of expansion or otherwise, I just have to refer to my Department of Defense colleagues on that issue. I don’t have anything to add for that today.
MODERATOR: I think we have time for one last question, so we’ll turn to Sebastian from tonline in Germany. Sebastian.
QUESTION: Hey, good morning. Thank you for taking our questions. Can you hear me?
MR CHOLLET: Sure.
QUESTION: Great, thank you. I don’t know if you can go into much detail, but can you maybe describe a little bit what kind of scenarios you’re – the U.S. is following, like what Russia is doing or could do and in what – yeah, and also about China. What kind of scenarios are you dealing with?
MR CHOLLET: Well, I don’t want to speak too much to hypotheticals. I can just tell you what Russia has been doing, and this is a point that I made very clearly to the colleagues in Reykjavik at the Arctic assembly. But Russia’s recent actions has put new pressures on a region long characterized by cooperation. Just in the last several years, Russia has been investing billions of dollars in militarizing the Arctic. It’s been building and modernizing bases. It’s been expanding its icebreaker fleet, testing dangerous novel weapon systems in the region. And it’s also been imposing unlawful demands and rules along its Arctic coastline, and this is the sort of thing that undermines the principle of freedom of navigation in the region.
Now, at the same time, the PRC has shown its eagerness to gain a toehold in the Arctic. It’s been investing heavily in presence options, including icebreakers. It’s been working to develop national – natural resources, including critical minerals and fish, and it’s also been expanding its network of potentially dual-use scientific installations. And it’s also been attempting to influence Arctic governance.
So China has been an observer at the Arctic Council and is active in the Arctic reason – region. We do expect them to follow the rules in terms of their engagements. We’ve seen Russia and China working together a bit more in the Arctic; just last month the PRC conducted joint naval formations with Russia off the coast of Alaska, which got a lot of attention here.
So that’s why we thought it was important to release this new strategy to take into account these new geostrategic realities, to raise some concerns that not just the United States shares but are widely shared among our allies and partners about this kind of behavior in the Arctic, and to chart a way forward on how we can work together to try to address these challenges, but then also at the same time realize the opportunities we see in working together to try to make the Arctic region more prosperous and secure.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And I think that’s all the time we have for the questions today. Counselor Chollet, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add before we end the briefing?
MR CHOLLET: No. I’m fine. Thank you very much, everyone for taking the time. Thanks for your interest. As I said, this is an area where oftentimes in the news, as you know better than I, the urgent pushes out the important, and we see what’s happening in the Arctic as extremely important and something that matters so much for the United States’ national security interests but also global security generally, which is why we wanted to release this strategy and why we had such a robust delegation in Reykjavik last week, and why we are committed to doing whatever can in the coming weeks and months to show our leadership and cooperation with our allies and partners to make the Arctic region more prosperous and secure.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and that concludes our briefing for today. Thank you, everyone for coming.