June 25, 2023 By Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
VESTMANNAEYJAR, Iceland — Arctic security and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were top of mind on Sunday as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Iceland for a two-day summit with Nordic leaders.
Trudeau is a guest at the annual meeting of leaders from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Global security was already high on the agenda for the gathering before 24 hours of chaos in Russia threw even more uncertainty into the mix.
At the beginning of a bilateral meeting with Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, Trudeau said the complicated events in Russia over the last two days will form a large part of the meeting’s discussions.
“We’re watching carefully the situation in Russia right now as it’s been complex over the past couple of days,” he said.
Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, who also met briefly with Trudeau, said the issue of the invasion in Ukraine was “the most important topic” for leaders at the gathering.
On Saturday Trudeau convened his government’s incident response group, and G7 foreign ministers held a call as the world kept watch on news out of Russia of an armed rebellion by the mercenary Wagner Group that has been helping the Russian military invade Ukraine.
Wagner Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led his troops through several Russian cities and got within 200 kilometres of Moscow before calling the whole thing off, allegedly through a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
It remains unclear exactly what Prigozhin intended with his armed march and what effect it will have longer term on Putin’s hold on power or his ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
After landing in Iceland, Trudeau immediately discussed the situation in Russia by phone with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and United States President Joe Biden.
On Twitter, Zelenskyy said he offered Trudeau Ukraine’s assessment of what he referred to as the “attempted coup” in Russia and the impact Ukraine thinks it will have on the Russian hostilities in his country.
Russia’s invasion had already caused new problems for Arctic security before this latest turn of events.
The five Nordic countries have all voiced support for Ukraine since Russia launched its attack, and they, along with Canada and the United States, hit pause on working with Russia through the Arctic Council after its invasion in February 2022.
Mathieu Landriault, director of the Observatory for Arctic Policy and Security, said the issue remains “fragile,” adding that without co-operation with Russia — which has a huge Arctic coastline — the council does not have data related to how climate change is affecting a major part of the region.
Landriault also suggested Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused Canada to “reassess” its position in the Arctic.
Roland Paris, a former senior adviser to Trudeau and director of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said cutting Russia out of the Arctic council talks changes what co-operation looks like in the region.
NATO has paid increasing attention to the Arctic in light of aggression from both Russia and China, Paris added. The Nordic leaders’ summit is happening less than three weeks before NATO leaders travel to Lithuania to meet with allies and discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Sweden is the only Nordic country not a member of the military alliance but is seeking membership. Canada was the first country to ratify that request.
Trudeau told Orpo Canada is very happy Finland joined NATO in April and they both noted that Canada was the first to support that application as well.
Landriault said the meeting in Iceland serves as a chance for Canada and the Nordic countries to demonstrate further support for Sweden’s entry into NATO, which Turkey and Hungary have not endorsed.
During a visit to Canada last summer, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned of growing threats to Arctic sovereignty from Russia and China. He said China has declared itself a “near Arctic” state and climate change is opening up access to the region.
Trudeau, who accompanied Stoltenberg on that visit, touted plans to spend billions on bolstering Canada’s military, including modernizing the aging Canada-U. S. Norad system which monitors Arctic aerospace.
Paris said he expects Trudeau may draw attention to those same commitments during his visit to Iceland.
“The fact is we are far behind where we need to be in order to secure the Arctic in a world where it will increasingly be an area of geopolitical competition,” he said.
Landriault said there are signs Canada is looking to enhance its diplomatic focus on Nordic countries. He pointed to this trip, a visit to Canada by Iceland President Gudni Johannesson in May, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon’s visit to Finland in May and a 2022 Canada-Denmark agreement to resolve the border dispute over Hans Island.
Besides a shared interest in security, the Canadian government also has trade interests with the five Nordic countries, with two-way trade totalling roughly $13 billion last year.
Trudeau’s office said the summit also offers a chance to advance common interests with the Nordic nations on environmental protection and the development of clean energy.
Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland said during a photo op with Trudeau Sunday that the Arctic, climate, biodiversity and “societal resilience” are all going to be discussed.
The meeting is taking place on a group of islands known as Vestmannaeyjar and coincides with the 50th anniversary of a volcanic eruption there.
With files from The Associated Press.
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