US Secretary of State John Kerry assumed chairmanship of the Arctic Council on Friday as an international summit on the future of the quickly melting Far North opened in Iqaluit, Nunavut, amid ongoing tensions over Russian military aggression in Ukraine.
It's expected Kerry will focus the two day summit in Canada's most northern city on combatting climate change, but some Arctic states attending the meeting are suspicious of increased Russian military activities in the Arctic and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.
"The environment must shape the future of the Arctic," said Kerry in his opening statement as chair, avoiding the geopolitics surrounding the summit. "The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on earth[…] During the US chairmanship, my government will work every single day to help prepare Arctic communities for the impacts of these changes."
Officials from Arctic indigenous peoples, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the US, and Russia are in attendance.
But Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister and mainstay of the summit since 2004, is noticeably absent from the meetings. Environment minister, Sergei Donskoi, is serving as the official Kremlin representative, instead.
In the past, Arctic Council members said the war in Ukraine wouldn't hamper key discussions over the North Pole, but Canadian officials, in particular, have outspokenly condemned Russia's involvement in the now two year old civil war.
"Canada continues to condemn Russia's aggression in Ukraine, which is absolutely unacceptable, and has sanctioned a number of key Russian and Ukrainian entities and individuals in relation to the current crisis," a spokesperson from Canada's department of Foreign Affairs told VICE News.
The Canadian government says the spirit of the summit meetings in Iqaluit will focus on sustainability, the Arctic environment, and "does not deal with military issues."
At a news conference following the first meeting at the summit Canadian Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said she expressed "our concerns and condemn the Russian actions in Ukraine" to Donskoi, while Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson said he "made that very clear, all the time, everywhere" and "we will continue to support the freedom and sovereignty of Ukraine."
Kerry echoed those sentiments saying he had personal conversations with Lavrov over the Ukrainian conflict and Russia's involvement. As for the militarization of the Arctic, the US Secretary of State said "it is inevitable that it will be talked about" in the near future, but that the Arctic Council was not the place for that dialogue.
Professor Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary, told VICE News on Thursday that the summit is overshadowed by the ongoing war in eastern Europe and Russian military activities in the Arctic.
"There's no question it's the 800 pound gorilla," said Huebert. "Russia resumed fairly intensive military actions [in the Arctic] as far back as 2008 coinciding with when they were in a war with Georgia and Georgia was talking about joining NATO.
Now you have several of the key Arctic states taking fairly strong action against the Russians. Of course that means sanctions and that's escalated the circumstances and definitely casts a pale."
Though Russia denies its covert military involvement in the Ukrainian conflict, President Vladimir Putin openly gave orders for exercises deploying tens of thousands of Arctic troops in March and outlined plans to militarize northern regions of Siberia and northeastern Russia.
As part of a military spending plan aimed at modernizing the Russian army by 2020, Putin says new super ice breakers, fighter jets, polar bases, and nuclear missile systems will be deployed in the Arctic to assert Russia's sovereignty over its northern borders.
Those plans come on the heels of provocative actions by the Russian air force against NATO and Arctic member states.
Along with maritime provocations in Sweden, as early as December 2014, Russian heavy bombers flew into Canadian and American Air Identification Zones scrambling fighter jets from both countries to escort the two Russian Tu-95s away from their respective airspaces.
NORAD confirmed to VICE News on Friday that those flights were the latest Russian bombers to fly near North American airspace. And in January, a NORAD official said they have noticed "an increase in the number of these flights near North America in recent months since Russia's incursion into Ukraine and Crimea."
Those types of actions have put the Canadian government on high alert with one government source telling VICE News in January that Canada remains, "vigilant in our surveillance of the Arctic" given Russia's increased activities in the Far North.
According to Huebert, Russia is also looking at American missile sites in Alaska with suspicion. While the world considers the Arctic a potential oil and gas resource bastion, it's a key geopolitical region that both the US and Russia use to position their nuclear arsenal.
"Their nuclear deterrent system has to be based predominantly in the Arctic," said Huebert. "The Americans are placing most of their mid range interceptors in Alaska. So is it about the Arctic? No it's not about the Arctic, but that's where the weapons systems are going. When the political issues explode that's when we see the exercises and moves to what many people call 'militarizing the Arctic.'"
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