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Tillerson hosts Arctic forum in shadow of Russia spat

© AFP / by Dave Clark | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his way to the podium to address the Arctic Council 20th Anniversary Welcome Reception in Fairbanks, Alaska

FAIRBANKS (UNITED STATES) (AFP) - 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in Alaska to play host to the eight nations of the Arctic Council on Thursday, trailed by burning questions about Russia and climate change.

The policy forum for the countries of the great white north got underway in the former gold prospecting town of Fairbanks, far away from the political frenzy gripping Washington DC.

But two of the questions hanging over President Donald Trump's White House were also on envoy's minds in Alaska.

Can Washington mend ties with Russia, represented in Fairbanks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and will Trump honor the US pledges in the 2017 Paris climate change accord?

"We've got a lot to do tomorrow," Tillerson warned guests at a dinner on the eve of the forum late Wednesday.

- US and Russia -

Before he left Washington on Wednesday, Tillerson met with Lavrov and took him to see Trump at the White House -- a victory for Russia's efforts to resist diplomatic isolation.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was too early to speak of a thaw, but added: "Of course the fact that a dialogue is taking place is very positive."

Lavrov will again be at Tillerson's side Thursday, as the pair present the council a jointly-negotiated motion to ease access to Arctic waters to international climate scientists.

Russia and the United States are at loggerheads over the wars in Syria and Ukraine and over Russia's alleged attempts to covertly back Trump's victory in the US presidential race.

Tillerson, who visited Moscow last month but came away with no guarantees, is working on what he calls "very small" areas of common interest to see if the two powers can restore trust.

And Arctic cooperation is familiar ground for Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive who once negotiated oil deals in northern waters with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Putin set great hopes in Trump's election, hoping that the maverick mogul who praised him publicly and once hosted a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow would ease economic sanctions.

But in Fairbanks, the newly-minted American envoy may come under more pressure from traditional allies like Canada and Finland than from Moscow, this time over climate change.

The two-year American chairmanship of the Arctic Forum began under Tillerson's predecessor John Kerry, a passionate advocate of environmental causes and of the global Paris deal.

Previous meetings have drawn attention to the damage that has already been done to the Arctic ecosystem by climate change and the dangers that accelerated warming would pose worldwide.

- Arctic solidarity -

Finland has made it clear that the climate will remain at the heart of the body's deliberations when it takes over the gavel later Thursday -- but Washington's position is in limbo.

Campaigning last year, Trump vowed to pull out of the 196-nation accord, which campaigners, scientists and most governments see as a minimum step to slow dangerous warming.

He has since launched a review of US participation in the deal, but the White House revealed this week that no decision will be made until Trump returns from Europe on May 27.

This limits Tillerson's room to maneuver as he tries to find a way to express solidarity with fellow Arctic nations, without knowing where Trump will finally come down on the issue.

US deputy assistant secretary David Balton tried to square the circle this week in a call with reporters.

"Climate change has been an ongoing topic of interest for the Arctic Council for many chairmanships," he said, predicting that Finland would take up the charge.

by Dave Clark

© 2017 AFP