Trudeau in Iceland to meet Nordic leaders ahead of NATO, amid Arctic uncertainty

Trudeau in Iceland to meet Nordic leaders ahead of NATO, amid Arctic uncertainty
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by Hlynur Gudjonsson, Ambassador of Iceland to Canada, and Jeannette Menzies, Ambassador of Canada to Iceland, as he arrives in Keflavik, Iceland, on Sunday, June 25, 2023. Trudeau is in Iceland to attending the Nordic Prime Ministers' Meeting.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau landed in Iceland Sunday where he will be a guest at the annual meeting of Nordic leaders as uncertainty looms over the future of the Arctic and there are heightened concerns about global security following internal strife in Russia.

The Nordic summit will include leaders from the host country as well as Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, and the autonomous areas of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Ă…land Islands.

Trudeau’s office said it is a chance to advance common interests with the Nordic nations, which range from protecting the environment and developing clean energy to tackling security challenges.

The security discussions took on even more importance this weekend, after mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin led troops from his private Wagner Group in an armed rebellion in Russia as he called for the ouster of the country’s defence minister.

The move seemed poised to threaten President Vladimir Putin’s decades-long hold on power, but tensions de-escalated quickly on Saturday after the Kremlin announced a deal that halted Prigozhin’s march on Moscow. The arrangement will see Putin’s one-time protĂ©gĂ© move to Belarus and avoid prosecution for his role in the short-lived rebellion, while Wagner Group troops will return to Ukraine where they’ve been fighting alongside soldiers from the Russian army.

Trudeau said Saturday that Canada would be monitoring the situation closely, and foreign affairs ministers from the G7 held a call to discuss the situation before the deal was announced.

The Nordic talks also come a little more than two weeks before leaders travel to Lithuania to meet with NATO allies and discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in February 2022.

Sweden is the only Nordic country not a member of the military alliance, after Finland joined in April. Sweden is seeking membership, and Canada was the first country to ratify that request.

Trudeau was greeted Sunday at the Keflavik International Airport by Hlynur GuĂ°jĂłnsson, Iceland’s ambassador to Canada and Jeannette Menzies, Canada’s representative in Iceland, as well the country’s chief protocol officer, when he arrived this morning.

Iceland’s government says “societal resilience” will be discussed at the meeting, which is being staged on a group of islands known as Vestmannaeyjar and coincides with the 50th anniversary of a volcanic eruption there.

Roland Paris, a former senior adviser to Trudeau and director of the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said there is good co-operation among the Nordic nations.

“The Arctic has become a strategically more important part of the world as the ice melts,” he said.

“Each of these northern countries has a very clear interest in ensuring the security and sovereignty of their territory.”

Nordic countries, including Canada and the United States, hit pause on working with Russia through the Arctic Council after its invasion of Ukraine.

That has thrown what co-operation looks like in the region into serious question, Paris said.

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 that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused Canada to “reassess” its position in the Arctic.

NATO has also been paying increasing attention to the Arctic in light of aggression from both Russia and China, Paris added.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned of such threats during a visit to a military base in northern Alberta last summer, noting China has declared itself a “near Arctic” state and climate change was 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.”

Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway have all voiced support for Ukraine since Russia launched its attack.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke with the Nordic leaders in May, and Trudeau made a surprise visit to Kyiv earlier this month.

Landriault said the meeting in Iceland serves as a chance for Canada and the Nordic countries to demonstrate support for Sweden’s entry into NATO, which Turkey and Hungary have not endorsed.

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.

Canada is also home to the largest number of Icelandic immigrants and descendants outside that country.

The two countries view each other as like-minded and share interests on a range of issues, including the development of carbon capture and storage technology and ocean protection.

Trudeau’s visit follows Iceland President GuĂ°ni Th. JĂłhannesson’s recent visit to Canada, where the pair discussed expanding co-operation in green energy, ocean technology and aquaculture.

That trip, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon’s visit to Finland earlier this year and a 2022 Canada-Denmark agreement to resolve the border dispute over Hans Island were all signs that Canada was looking to enhance its diplomatic focus on Nordic countries, said Landriault.

“It’s likely to increase,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2023.

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