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US Secretary of State slams "aggressive" Russia in Arctic Council speech

Mike Pompeo’s speech in Rovaniemi criticised America’s biggest rivals in the Arctic, but made no mention of the Arctic Council’s top priority: climate change. 

Video: Sergei Lavrov ja Mike Pompeo.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo interviewed by Yle journalist Pirkko Pönttinen in Rovaniemi, Finland as Pompeo attended the Arctic Council meeting on Monday 6 May 2019. Video: Yle

In a speech declaring “a new age of strategic engagement” in the Arctic, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised Russian and Chinese activity in the region.

The US Secretary of State called on both countries to “play by the rules,” saying that although “the Arctic is a place of wilderness, that does not mean it should become a place of lawlessness.”

His speech, made before Tuesday’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi, did not mention US participation in any international effort to combat climate change in the fast-warming polar region.

Speaking shortly before a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Rovaniemi, Sergei Lavrov, Pompeo said the United States was especially concerned about Russian military activity in the Arctic, saying that “Russia is already leaving snowprints in the form of army boots,” and calling Russian behaviour toward foreign ships in Arctic waters “aggressive” and “provocative.”

Recalling Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the US Secretary of State said that special oversight of military buildup was justified in Russia’s case, “because we know Russian territorial ambitions can turn violent.”

“There are good neighbours here in the Arctic region, and if Russia becomes one of them we would welcome that,” Pompeo told Yle.

America’s top diplomat also levelled strong criticism at China, an official observer state at the Arctic Council since 2013.

Pompeo cited a warning from the Pentagon that China could use its civilian research presence in the Arctic as a pretext to increase its military presence in the region, saying: “China’s pattern of aggressive behaviour elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic.”

In his speech, Pompeo said that while he welcomed Chinese investment in the Arctic, it should “reflect economic interests, not national security ambitions.”

Pompeo emphasised region's resources

In a move that angered environmentalists, Pompeo’s speech focused on the potential economic benefits of the Arctic’s natural resources, saying the United States was committed to “environmentally responsible” exploitation of what he called the region’s “opportunity and abundance.”

“I feel like I got a slap in the face,” CEO of WWF Finland - an official observer organisation at the Arctic Council - Liisa Rohweder told Yle News after listening to Pompeo call the Arctic Council’s focus on scientific, cultural and environmental issues a “luxury” it can no longer afford.

Greenpeace Nordic’s Polar Adviser Dr Laura Meller told Yle News: “It seems that paving the way for heavy extraction of natural resources is still a driving motive for many governments, despite talk about climate change and protecting nature becoming more pronounced.”

But according to Meller, the US is not alone in looking to take advantage of the region’s natural resources: “The Norwegian government wants to open new oil fields in Arctic waters, and the Finnish government has tried to push an Arctic railway connection forward.”

“Oil exploration and logging of northern forests are not compatible with the goal of preventing dangerous climate change, and governments must decide which is their priority,” she said.

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