Anton Vasiliev, Ambassador of Russia to Iceland:
“Russians are diligently working on the Arctic issues”
“I’m happy to be in Iceland and like the Icelandic people. Certainly, there are temporarily problems in relations between Iceland and Russia. I hope, however, that reason will prevail and that we shall succeed in finding solutions to these issues,” says Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s Ambassador to Iceland, when we met him in the ambassador residence in Túngata in Reykjavík. Vasiliev has served as ambassador to the country since April 2014. He knew a lot about Iceland before becoming ambassador. In 2008 Vasiliev had been appointed Ambassador of Russia for Arctic Affairs. “Thus, I also represented Russia in the Arctic Council and the Barents Euro-Arctic Council. I frequently came to Iceland on official business, got to know and like the country and nation.
Worked in turbulent times
Anton Vasiliev has a relaxed and friendly demeanour. After a short chat with this just over sixty year-old representative of Russia in Iceland there’s no doubt that here is a highly qualified and experienced man. The Russian authorities have clearly made a careful choice when appointing Vasiliev as Ambassador to Iceland. His resumé is impressive. “I was born in Moscow”, said Vasiliev, adding that he studied at Moscow State Institute of International Relations, specialising in International Economics, graduating in 1976, aged 22. “I also learned Chinese, French and English. Then I went to China, where I worked in the Soviet trade mission in Beijing. This was at the end of the period of the so-called Cultural Revolution in China. I returned home to Russia and completed my Ph.D. in Economics in 1983, focusing on the Chinese economy. I then returned to China and began a seven-year period as an diplomat of the Soviet Embassy.”
The Russian Ambassador has lived in tumultuous times. He was born only a year after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and lived to adulthood in the Soviet Communist society that most people believed was there to stay. All that would eventually change. “When I came back to Russia after seven years in China, the Soviet Union no longer existed. I returned again to China as the Deputy Head of Mission of the Russian Embassy. My job in China at first was mainly to monitor the Chinese economy. I travelled all over this magnificent country and learned a lot. China is one of the most interesting civilizations . I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know this country. There I witnessed a dramatic change in Chinese society in the wake of the economic reforms that were established in 1979 and marked the end of the Cultural Revolution.”
Disarmament and the Arctic region
Vasiliev said he lived 13 years in China altogether and enjoyed that time very much. “The stay there was an instructive and unique experience.” He moved back to Russia in 1996, where he was assigned a new and radically different task from that which he had in China and carried with it a great responsibility. “In following decade I worked for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the UN on arms control and disarmament. I was head of the Russian delegation in Geneva, Switzerland, in the implementation сommission of the START Treaty. The former Soviet Union agreed with the United States to reduce strategic nuclear weapons capabilities at the end of the Cold War in 1991. This was a very challenging but also rewarding work.” In 2002 – 2007 he embarked on the multilateral arms control diplomacy, representing Russia at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
Once again Vasiliev radically changed course in his work when he undertook new project. It happened in 2008, when he was appointed Ambassador of Russia on Arctic Affairs. “My experience of dealing with major international partners and multilateral negotiations, both from the years in China and in arms control, proved extremely helpful to me in this area. I really enjoy working on Arctic issues. The natural environment and the people living in this region fascinate me. The conditions are exceptional. It’s a vast area and in many ways the environment is harsh. This calls for cooperation and assistance between nations. People have got to work together. Collaboration among nations within the Arctic Council has already yielded results. Nations have agreed to joint legal obligations relating to the Arctic such as for search and rescue cooperation and in the field of marine pollution. The arctic environment is extremely important.”
A Commendation of Icelanders
In connection with his work as Ambassador of Russia on Arctic Affairs, Vasiliev regularly visited Iceland. “I was in the country during the economic collapse in the autumn of 2008 and witnessed the protests here in the city centre as a result.”
As a Doctor of Economics, it was an unforgettable experience for him to see the nation’s financial system collapse. He looked not only at this through the eyes of a diplomat, but also through the eyes of a professional. It fuelled his interest in Icelandic society. Today he praises the Icelandic nation for how it addressed the huge difficulties involved in the crash. “Through my work as an ambassador, I have watched closely and can testify today the vivid success Iceland has achieved economically. This has been accomplished in spite of numerous obstacles.”
Vasiliev said he was delighted to be appointed Ambassador to Iceland. He took up his post in April 2014 and has lived in this country ever since. This enabled him to get to know Iceland better and, at the same time made it possible to continue to monitor and work on issues related to the Arctic. “Between the environmental challenges we face due to global warming and the opportunities it offers for use of the Arctic’s resources and space, lies a contradiction. There are obvious commercial benefits, such as opening of maritime transport routes that were closed because of sea ice. Also, we can mention here an easier access to resources such as oil, gas and metals. Arctic nations must responsively explore and extract resources while, at the same time, taking into account the need to protect the highly sensitive ecosystem of the area. The damage can easily become almost irreparable if we are not careful in all our policies and conservation.” This suggests to Anton Vasiliev the obvious example of Iceland. “Icelanders are familiar with the nature of the damage caused by wind erosion on areas of vegetation, aswell as by human intrusion”.
Important factors in Arctic Affairs
This leading Russian expert on the Arctic region also highlights the human factor. He said that the rights of the indigenous peoples of the High North need to be guaranteed and their way of life protected. “This is a tricky tightrope walk that takes into account many factors. Into this are woven many challenges and problems due to changes in environment and technology. There is no doubt that global warming is taking place with the changes in the climate system. We’ve become aware of this now. Never since records began, for example, has as much rain fallen in one day in Moscow as was the case this November. The equivalent of an entire month’s average rainfall fell in one day. Here in Iceland, this winter has so far been very mild. At the same time, we’ve heard news of snowfalls in the Saudi Arabian desert.”
Vasiliev said that the Arctic Council has undertaken an important pioneering study of global warming and other environmental changes in the Arctic – Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). He says that it is evident that it’s due to manmade causes. “Russia recognizes this and, among other things, became a member of the Paris Accord on Climate Control signed in 2016. Therefore, we are committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with certain criteria.”
The Ambassador also mentioned that security is an important factor that has to be taken into account in the light of these changing circumstances. “Russia has about a ten thousand kilometre-long border along the Arctic Ocean coastline. Previously, the sea ice and difficult climatic conditions in this area provided a natural border protection. Now, as it warms and the ice retreats, the coastal areas became vulnerable to unwanted elements such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. We, in Russia, now need to look for new ways to protect ourselves and our borders in the north. Therefore, we are now systematically working to restore and build up military capability and surveillance in the North. This is just one manifestation of how we must now deal with the new challenges in the light of changing circumstances”.
Russians are working diligently
Vasiliev said that nothing in Russian activities in the Arctic region should be surprising. “Since 2008, Russia has followed the strategy formulated by the Security Council and signed by the President relating to Arctic affairs. It includes, among other things, the development of the infrastructure associated with the maritime route north of Russia between the Atlantic and Pacific – the Northern Sea Route. We see it has a great future because it shortens the sailing distance between Western Europe and East Asia by 40 percent. This means great savings. Countries such as China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore are showing keen interest in it. We are not sitting idle. We have adopted a comprehensive plan that aims at managing traffic on this route and ensuring its safety. Search and rescue centres are under construction at regular intervals along the coast, from the port of Murmansk in the west to Anadyr in the east. Russia is also putting up satellites to monitor the safety of the shipping route north of Russia, provide better weather information and more secure communications. It is also mapping the seabed in these areas, training captains and others who will sail there and work, and so on.”
The Russians are also constructing three new most advanced nuclear powered ice-breakers in the world. “These ships will be so powerful that they can break through all types of ice regardless of its thickness. We are also constructing new diesel-powered icebreakers. They are very sophisticated and are specifically designed to be capable of operation in shallow coastal waters. We are building a new large port Sabetta in Yamal region for exporting liquefied natural gas by ship. We see great potential in using this route for export of oil and gas to the market from the northern regions of Russia. There are enormous resources in the ground in Siberia, of both gas, oil and metals such as gold, copper and nickel.”
Expected economic growth in Russia
At the end of our talk with Anton Vasiliev, we touch on relations between Iceland and Russia. The Soviet Union was one of the first to recognize Iceland as an independent nation. It happened in 1943 when the first envoy from there received permanent residence in this country. The bilateral relationship has always been good in both cultural and business areas.
In recent months, however, a shadow has become evident over trade due to Iceland’s participation in the Western nations’ sanctions against Russia because of events in Ukraine and Crimea. “Iceland joined sanctions some western nations placed on Russia. We responded with countermeasures. The solution to this issue is in your hands. Of course, we should remove all these absurd barriers to trade. But the Russians can live without these foodstuff products that we no longer import from Western countries.”
Vasiliev adds that, in some ways, Russia has even benefitted from sanctions. “This has stimulated innovation in the technology sector and in creative industries in Russia. Our agriculture and domestic food production is flourishing. Russia, however, has certainly endured a recession in its economy. There are various explanations for this besides sanctions, such as a fall in oil prices on the world market. Currently this year there will be a GNP decline between 0.6 and 0.7 percent, but the bottom has already been reached. This year we expect more than a one percent growth. This is happening despite sanctions.”
Too bad for Iceland
Doctor of economics, Anton Vasiliev, says experience has shown that sanctions harm many of the countries initiating or taking part in them more than Russia itself. “Iceland is probably leading the pack. Marine products made up the bulk of imports of goods from Iceland to Russia and, generally, trade between the two states. Icelandic fish was highly regarded by Russian consumers. You had there a good market with bright future. The public in Russia witnesses that Icelandic fish has disappeared from the stores. I can feel it myself. When I’m home in Moscow I can no longer get the Icelandic fish I really like.”
The Ambassador of Russia to Iceland believes that his nation has rarely enjoyed fairness in disputes with states in the West. “Let’s look at the reasons given for the sanctions. Russia can refute all of them. First, the Crimea was not incorporated by force into Russia. It was the free will of the Crimean inhabitants, confirmed in a free referendum to join Russia. The entire process was fully consistent with international law. The Kosovo case was much less legitimate. Second, Russia did not shoot down the Malaysian passenger jet, MH17, over Ukraine in the summer of 2014. We have presented abundant proof to this, but it is disregarded. Thirdly, the Russian troops or arms have never been brought to eastern Ukraine. There is not one single piece of evidence to show that the accusations against Russia have a basis in fact. If there were any dependable evidence it would have emerged instantly because the surveillance systems are so advanced today, such as satellites, drones, Open Skies Treaty inspections etc., etc.. All these reasons are allegations and deception. Russia is not a threat to anyone (if you prefer to stay in a real world, of course, not in a world of make-believe built by information wars). This boycott is ludicrous and counterproductive and clearly serves other goals than were announced. But Russia is always open for fair and equal cooperation with anyone who really want it. I believe in further development of friendly relations and cooperation between Russia and Iceland in many areas, and will do my best in this regard,” says Anton Vasiliev in closing.
Journalist: Magnus Thor Hafsteinsson