EU’s point man for the Arctic shrugs off Russia, China tension

'I would like to sort of play down the idea of tension building up,' the EU's Ambassador-at-Large for the Arctic Michael Mann says.

EU’s point man for the Arctic shrugs off Russia, China tension

The European Union’s new head of Arctic policy has watched Russia build up its military presence and China plant its economic ambitions in Arctic states. While others see the countries’ growing influence as a new frontier for international conflict, Michael Mann says climate change is still the biggest threat to the high north.

“Climate change is a real thing that is happening that brings with it certain threats,” Mann, the former EU ambassador to Iceland, said in an interview Monday. “I would like to sort of play down the idea of tension building up. It has been a very successful period for cooperation in the Arctic.”

The ambassador-at-large for the Arctic notes that countries worldwide view the region as an arena for oil and gas development, rare earth mineral extraction and faster transportation due to shipping lanes created by the rapidly accelerating Arctic ice melt. Many countries fear that nations will butt heads in bids to exploit these types of natural resource development.

“Where the Arctic was [historically] reserved for the Arctic states, now it’s very much seen as an international area of interest, and I don’t see that as being a problem as long as it’s well-handled,” said Mann, who took on his current role on April 1.

A senior U.S. State Department official in a briefing late last month characterized this era as the “the return of geopolitics” in the Arctic, and warned “we can expect … the rapidly changing Arctic system to create greater incentives for the Kremlin and the [People’s Republic of China] to pursue agendas that clash with the interests of the United States and our allies and partners.”

Russia and the EU have their differences, which is “clear” to Mann, though it’s historically been a place where the two entities have cooperated, he said. “I think one should avoid looking for flare-ups and tension where they don’t exist. That’s not to say that there won’t be in the future, but at the moment, things are running smoothly in my opinion.”

The EU’s Arctic chief cited the Northern Dimension policy, a joint framework between EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland that promotes cooperation, economic competitiveness and sustainable development in Northern Europe as an example. Also, a new international fisheries agreement, ratified by Norway on Sunday, is an “absolutely amazing achievement” that’s a “sign that people are able to agree on things,” he said.

Mann noted that Russia and the EU are both part of the Barents-Euro Arctic Council, a forum to discuss issues in the Barents region — the stretch of land that runs along the Barents Sea.

Many non-Arctic countries in the EU, and elsewhere, are now shifting to design their own Arctic strategies, something he said is a welcome move. Arctic policy has normally been left solely to the Arctic nations to hash out.

“New players are playing a very serious role in the Arctic now, well at least China. That wasn’t the case perhaps four years ago,” Mann explained. The concern about new Arctic activities “depends on the country,” but he did not point out a specific area of unrest.

U.S. and British warships sailed to the Barents Sea this month for the first time since the 1980s, sparking buzz about what the operations meant in a militarized Arctic. However, a Navy spokesperson said in a statement the operations were routine and are “the latest in a series of ships operating in the Arctic Circle in recent years.”

Mann stressed that “it’s worth underlining that the Arctic has been, and currently is, a place of peaceful cooperation … [which] has been rather good. One of the EU’s main goals in Arctic policy is to promote multilateral cooperation and keeping it an area of peace.”

New commercial opportunities that arise alongside the Arctic’s sea ice melting is a main driver of growing interest in the region, but the northern sea lanes and how much new traffic there is increasing are “being slightly overplayed,” he said.

The apparent rise in tensions has led international officials to call for a body or forum for nations to discuss security issues, which Mann agrees may not be a bad idea.

The Arctic Council, composed of the eight Arctic states, is a forum for discussion on cooperation in the Arctic, though it’s not required to discuss security matters and instead focuses on work in environmental and sustainable development, and support for indigenous communities.

“Any forum that comes together where dialogue is possible, is going to be a good thing. I can’t tell you now what form that should be,” he said.

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White House weighs shorter extension of nuclear arms pact with Russia

The option is part of a strategy that would also seek a broader agreement with Moscow that possibly includes China.

White House weighs shorter extension of nuclear arms pact with Russia

The U.S. is weighing a face-saving strategy for keeping an Obama-era nuclear treaty from expiring while it pursues a more sweeping arms pact with both Russia and China, according to current and former Trump administration officials with direct knowledge of the deliberations.

Under the plan, the White House would temporarily extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty while seeking a new agreement with Moscow that also tries to convince China to come to the table, they said.

The diplomatic formula is viewed at the U.S. State Department and National Security Council as a promising way to both prevent the New START from expiring in February and getting Russia to agree — at least in principle — to more comprehensive limits on nuclear arms.

“Both approaches are available, or a mix thereof,” said a State Department spokesperson who asked not to be named.

New START is one of the last remaining pacts aimed at keeping the world’s largest atomic arsenals in check. But concerns have grown among Republicans and Democrats that President Donald Trump could walk away just as he has jettisoned the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and the Obama-era nuclear pact with Iran.

The administration’s potential approach has gained traction in recent weeks as the Trump administration faces growing criticism that Trump’s goal of negotiating a broader nuclear treaty with both Moscow and Beijing before New START expires is unrealistic and, if it fails, risks igniting a full-blown nuclear arms race.

“There are a host of options or steps that could be taken to accomplish the president’s direction, some of which could be done in fairly short order,” said an administration official also involved in the deliberations. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all model.”

Arms control experts raised a number of questions and concerns, noting that the approach still poses a risk to New START with no guarantee that any follow-on pact would be as enforceable.

But it also has intriguing possibilities, said Jon Wolfsthal, who oversaw nuclear policy on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

“A six-month extension to buy yourself some time to negotiate something new with the Russians — and call on the Chinese to join — inherently isn’t bad,” said Wolfsthal, who is now a senior adviser to Global Zero, a disarmament group. “It might be a way to square the circle — if you can also be sure that the next administration has the leeway to extend [New START] more.”

New START, which was signed by President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in 2010 and ratified by the Senate, limits strategic nuclear arms on both sides to 1,550. It also includes detailed verification measures such as on-site inspections to ensure both sides are complying.

Russia said publicly late last year it is willing to extend the treaty the full five years without preconditions. So far, the Trump administration has insisted that the treaty is flawed because it doesn’t cover a series of nuclear arms in the Russian arsenal such as tactical warheads.

The U.S. has not committed to an extension of the treaty and says Trump instead wants to replace it with a more comprehensive agreement that covers more classes of weapons to include stringent verification measures.

“This is crucial because we’re talking about two countries with abysmal track records in terms of treaty compliance,” Marshall Billingslea, Trump’s special envoy for arms control, recently told the Washington Times. “Russia has violated nearly every single agreement we’ve ever had with them — and the Chinese stand in violation of a number of agreements that they’ve also signed.”

Officials said the first element of the strategy now under serious consideration would be an extension of New START, but for a significantly shorter duration that the maximum five years permitted under the treaty.

Wolfsthal said one major issue is whether the treaty could legally be extended again if the U.S. and Russia — not to mention China — failed to reach any follow-on agreement before the New START extension ran out.

“Could you have multiple extensions as long as those multiple extensions don’t exceed a five-year period?” he asked. “There is some concern that this administration, in order to kill New START, would say we are going to extend six months, but then you burn your bridge. Others are saying, ‘No, you can extend for six months and then extend for four-and-a-half years or three years, as long as the extension periods don’t total more than five years.'”

An even more controversial move would be to pursue a new agreement with Moscow that doesn’t clearly spell out how compliance would be guaranteed.

A former government official who closely tracks nuclear policy described the administration’s evolving thinking as reflecting a growing reality that this late in the president’s term — and as relations with Russia and China continue to suffer — the administration is not likely to be able to achieve the kind of historic diplomatic breakthrough Trump has been promising.

“I don’t think anybody ever thought they were going to get an official deal but they wanted at least [a] gentleman’s agreement,” the former official said. “I’ve heard that used many times in terms of what they want to get from the Russians.”

The administration could seek a “one-year or two-year extension of the treaty while they get something — a gentleman’s agreement is probably too light, I think they wanted something in writing,” the former official explained. “But it wouldn’t be a binding legal document. I think it would just be in principle.”

Added the State Department spokesperson: “It doesn’t necessarily need to look just like New START.”

Some officials have held out the prospect of a follow-on agreement more akin to the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, also known as the Moscow Treaty.

Signed by Putin and then-President George W. Bush, it called for further cuts to nuclear arms on both sides but was less prescriptive than similar treaties and included fewer constraints on how each side could carry out its commitments. Some critics used its acronym to call it the “sort of” treaty.

But a major element at the time was that START I, which predated New START, was still in place for seven more years, and the Moscow Treaty was able to piggyback on its verification measures.

“You still had inspectors on the ground in both countries,” said Wolfsthal. “You still had a fence around their missile production facilities and X-rayed what went out. The intelligence community could certify that we have high confidence that Russia’s was complying with the Treaty of Moscow because of the START verification provisions.”

Without new verification procedures, a short extension of New START would unlikely offer such backup — and that gives arms control advocates pause.

“Gambling with the benefits that New START provides on a very low-odds-of-success bet that a short-term extension will convince the Russians and the Chinese to come to the table and meet our terms does not strike me as a smart or responsible approach,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

The State Department, however, says it hopes to restart talks with Russia as soon as possible and reiterated its invitation for China to join the discussions.

“Russia has stated that it has no preconditions to extension, which is a position that we will remember,” said the spokesperson. “In December 2019 we separately formally invited China in good faith to begin a strategic security dialogue on nuclear risk reduction, arms control, and their future. We hope to begin this as soon as possible. We await Beijing’s response.”

But the biggest immediate question, says Wolfsthal, may be whether Trump can be convinced to take the first step.

“The central question is whether there is a way to convince Trump to extend an Obama treaty,” he said. “There is a lot of doubt about that.”

Lara Seligman and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.

Source : Politico EU More   

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