By Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir at the Wilson Center, 21 April 2022
It is a great pleasure for me to be with you here at the Wilson Center.
I know that Iceland has enjoyed excellent cooperation with you, in particular during our recent Chairmanship of the Arctic Council. This is very much appreciated.
I am here in Washington, on my first visit as Minister for Foreign Affairs, just about one year on from the Reykjavik Ministerial, when Iceland handed over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Russia.
At the time, there was a general satisfaction regarding the achievements made during our chairmanship and about the pleasant atmosphere at the meeting. The pandemic was still the primary crisis on the internatinal scene, and people were meeting face-to-face for the first time in over a year. We were hopeful that the first bilateral meeting between Secretary Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, which took place in Reykjavík, would mark improved relations between the counries.
How long ago and far away this now seems.
Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion of Ukraine - with its tremendous human suffering - has completely changed the political and security landscape in Europe and beyond. It has also fundamentally altered our perception of the security situation in the Arctic and in the waters around my own country, Iceland.
Many questions have arisen in the last few weeks, as Russia´s war on Ukraine progresses. Some involve hard security, not just for Ukranians but also for others in Europe, such as our Nordic friends in Finland and Sweden who are currently engaged in an internal discussion that many of us are following extremely closely.
Energy policies have also come under scrutiny – with dependence on Russian oil and gas emerging as a practical impediment to the West's response to Russia's aggression. For us in Iceland, with our ample energy resources, it is difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our European friends, but it is no wonder that some decisions of the past decade or so are being scrutnized in light of Russia's aggression.
And then there is the Arctic – an area that has in recent years has received increased attention, both here in Washington and in capitals around the world.
For Iceland, the changes happening in the Arctic have a direct impact on our environment, our economy and our security. Arctic affairs have, therefore, become an important pillar of Iceland’s foreign policy and their profile has also risen on this side of the Atlantic.
Of course, I—like so many others— am of the hope that the Arctic remains an area of low political tensions, much as has been the case with the other polar region, Antarctica. However, as we know, hope is not a strategy, and while we can allow ourselves to maintain the wish that good sense and co-operation between nations prevail in matters
concerning the Arctic, we must anticipate and prepare for higher tension and global power competition in the High North.
For Iceland, the smallest country represented in the Arctic Council, we have emphasized that the Arctic should be a peaceful and low-tension region. Our cooperation has focused on research, the society and sustainable development aimed at making the region livable.
While a low-tension Arctic may be the ideal, it would demand a huge effort to maintain cordial enough relations between the concerned parties. Here, of course, we come back to Russia, and the tremendous challenge Putin's regime now poses to any efforts to engage in friendly co-operation. Russia can no longer be considered a reliable partner and its leadership has shown itself to be wholly undeserving of trust.
Of course, while this remains the situation with Russia, the democratic Arctic Council member states must continue their cooperation to the extent possible.
When it comes to matters of the Arctic, the United States has proven to be Iceland´s indispensable ally and friend. I am glad to be able to say our bilateral relationship has rarely been as strong.
As I visit Washington, we have just concluded the bi-annual defence exercise Northern Viking, which is founded on our bilateral defence agreement. Then, next week, the annual Strategic Dialogue between our two countries will take place in Iceland.
This dialogue, and my conversations here this week, have taken on a new sense of importance given security developments in Europe. We will consult on what Russia’s actions mean for Iceland and Europe, and for security in the North Atlantic. In the past few years Russian submarine activity in the High North has already increased noticeably. This is a worrying development and Iceland will do its utmost to facilitate the ongoing monitoring of such activities and any response that may be required.
I want to underline that our relationship with the US is one that is based on deep respect for shared values. And Russia´s invasion into Ukraine is a reminder to us all that these values are sacred, but can be diluted and lost, if they are not nurtured and defended.
Russia's decision to invade Ukraine is because its leaders are threatened by the values we cherish. Putin offers a worldview based on lies, where his own people are suppressed and his neighbours are threatened with violence. On the other hand we defend a system where dissent is an integral part of public discourse. Our values do not have to be beaten into our citizens with violence and subjugation. This is the basis of our relationship with the US and it is a sound basis, in my opinion. And this is why I am so happy to be here in Washington this week.