All eight Arctic nations — including Canada and Russia — are to sign a historic deal next week for their coast guards to work together in the treacherous and increasingly accessible waters of the North.
Creating the Arctic Coast Guard Forum is considered a significant step forward for international co-operation in the region and will flesh out previous search and rescue agreements.
"(The forum) will be an operationally focused organization that strengthens maritime co-operation and co-ordination in the Arctic," said an emailed statement from the United States Coast Guard.
"The impetus for creating (it) grew out of the concerns of Arctic Council member countries over the increasing need to ensure safety, security, and stewardship of Arctic waters."
The forum will also discuss emergency response, icebreaking and collaboration, said a statement from the Canadian government.
"The heads of the eight coast guard agencies, including Canada, have agreed that collaboration on such operational matters is to everyone's benefit," said Carole Swaindon of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which runs the Canadian Coast Guard.
The forum was to have been created in Canada in March 2014.
An agreement in principle had been reached and the final deal was supposed to have been signed. But negotiations were delayed when the Harper government refused to allow Russian officials to take part.
"The (Prime Minister's Office) insisted the Russians not be invited because of the Ukraine," said John Higginbotham, who attended that meeting as a fellow of Carleton University's Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Canada's allies were not pleased at the refusal, Higginbotham said.
"That really put the cat among the pigeons."
Russians were allowed into the U.S. to complete the talks after the Americans assumed the lead. The deal will be signed at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., at a meeting between the leaders of all eight services.
The signatories include Canada, the U.S., Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. The meeting takes place next Wednesday through Friday.
In most countries, coast guards are a branch of the military. That means the new forum will also provide a venue for high-ranking officers from different countries to meet regularly and open channels of communication, say experts.
"It will create another channel of communication, especially between the United States and Russia," said international law professor Michael Byers. "This is part of a larger Russian and American strategy to maintain and build these back channels so as to provide some stability to the larger relationship."
Under the deal, the coast guard heads are to meet yearly.
The deal also puts meat on the bones of the 2011 treaty on Arctic search and rescue, negotiated through the Arctic Council. That treaty committed signatories to providing search and rescue in their sector of the North.
One of the forum's first actions next week in Connecticut will be to run a tabletop search and rescue simulation. That will establish communications protocols and determine who responds to what.
The head of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, has said an actual exercise could be mounted as early as next year.
The forum, although it will involve military personnel, will steer clear of security issues. That will follow the lead of other coast guard forums that already exist, such as those for the North Atlantic and North Pacific.
The forum is separate from the Arctic Council, the chief international diplomatic body on northern issues. However, its leadership will rotate in concert with the council, which is now led by the U.S.