Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Current and Future Arctic Cooperation: Where to Next?

| May 01, 2024

ABOUT THE STUDY GROUP

This six-session study group, led by Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow Margaret Williams, is evaluating the costs and benefits of renewing cooperation with Russia on science and conservation issues. In the process, participants will learn about the Arctic's unique environmental and cultural characteristics, as well as the key agreements and governance structures supporting environmental protection and sustainable development in the region. 

 

Many challenges in the Arctic - biodiversity loss, climate change, resource extraction - span state boundaries, and many of the solutions to these problems still lie in the future. Can the Arctic be a place of solutions? And how can we - future leaders in government and public policy - make a collective effort to find them?

Over the course of the semester, my classmates and I grappled with practical and ethical obstacles for collaboration in the Arctic and came to a general, but not unanimous, agreement on the need to resume limited cooperation with Russia. 

In the second to last session of the study group, we were joined by John Holdren, Faculty Co-Chair of the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative, and Eduard Zdor, a research fellow at the University of Alaska originally from Chukotka, Russia, for a discussion of historical examples and other potential avenues for collaboration. What follows are some of my reflections on promising ways forward.

Prioritizing and Supporting Research by and with Indigenous Communities

Indigenous peoples are well-positioned to facilitate international collaboration through their enduring cross-border ties. The Bering Strait region is an example of where this sort of collaboration has been really successful in the past.

Many people might not realize this or have made fun of Sarah Palin for correctly noting this back in 2008, but when you’re standing in Alaska, you can see Russian territory. Within the Bering Strait are two small islands which are located less than three miles apart -  Big Diomede, situated within Russian territory, and Little Diomede, part of the U.S. On a clear day, you can see the Russian side from the Alaskan island.

map of the Bering Strait showing Chukotka and Alaska with the Diomede Islands in the middle

At the narrowest point of the Bering Strait, Russia and the United States are separated by just 53 miles. (Map: Google).

Cooperation between both sides - Alaska and the Chukotka region - was started in the 1980 by researchers trying to understand marine mammal migration patterns. What makes this special is the early collaboration between research and Indigenous communities to document bowhead whale migrations, behaviors and population numbers. Because this cooperation has a transcultural nature, two types of knowledge have been harnessed: Western science and Arctic peoples’ traditional knowledge

The homeland of Inuit extends from Eurasia and the Bering Sea to Greenland and the Atlantic Ocean. In the post Cold War period, Yup'ik, Siberian Yup'ik and Inupiaq people of Alaska and Chukchi people in Russia re-established many ties across the maritime boundary, and from both sides, made contributions to environmental management. In the words of Eduard Zdor, “The Bering Strait is not a border, but a unique habitat of the Chukchi, Inuit, and Siberian Yup'ik who depend on the region to preserve their  cultures, languages, and identity.”

Since the start of the War in Ukraine, however, conducting joint research in the Bering Strait region has become increasingly challenging, leading to a halt in the once fruitful collaboration between scientific organizations. In many cases, though, Indigenous communities are keeping in touch across the borders. As the political challenges posed by the war persist, there arises an urgent need to strengthen the bonds of cooperation, ensuring the continued protection and celebration of the diverse cultures that call the Bering Strait region home.   

Learning from the Cold War

The Cold War era offers valuable lessons for fostering future collaboration with Russia, particularly amidst contemporary tensions. During the Cold War, science advisors managed to facilitate some communication and even cooperation on certain topics, such as nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. Physicists in the 1970s from East and West were allowed to work together on fusion energy. This vision of collaboration was driven by individuals who were aware of the value of collaboration for all stakeholders involved.

Despite discord between the current Russian government and the United States, severing all forms of cooperation would “ultimately undermine our own interests more than punishing the Russian regime”, said John Holdren. It's important to recognize that the Russian population should not be held accountable for the actions of the Putin regime. In a letter written just after Russia’s invasion, Holdren and four other scientists warned:  “We urge that our nations’ policymakers and our science and technology communities avoid shunning all Russian scientists for the actions of the Russian government.” 

Instead of allowing our scientists to become isolated from each other, we must identify areas of mutual interest where cooperation benefits both nations. Drawing from historical precedent, maintaining a degree of collaboration can prove fruitful. Today, the situation is harder than back then and the level of collaboration from the Cold War has not been reestablished. The open question remains of how we can circumnavigate this problem to resurrect collaboration where it is in both sides’ interest when the sheer affiliation with a joint research project can put people in danger? 

Solutions

How can scientists hold on to existing ties that have been so fruitful in increasing awareness and preservation of languages, traditions, wildlife and understanding of this unique region? Student participants in the study group proposed several potential solutions, including:

  • Resuming Arctic coordination with Russia on scientific, environmental, and response efforts in the Bering Strait, while prioritizing engagement with Indigenous communities. Given that extensive planning is needed to develop a contingency plan in case of emergencies, the loss of momentum in cooperation between the United States and Russia is a significant setback. An oil spill in the remote and ice-filled waters of the Bering Strait could have irreversible impacts. Re-starting communication with Russia to protect the long-term integrity of this marine ecological and cultural hotspot is essential.  
  • Treating the Bering Strait as a U.S. strategic national resource, not only because of its important role as a shipping route, but as a place of extreme cultural importance and a highly productive ecosystem that supports people and rich biological diversity.
  • One suggestion from some of the students – aspirational, but worth attention - is to designate the Arctic as a zone of limited arms control or demilitarization. Could we see a future where we restrict naval exercises and weaponry passing through the Arctic? The origins of the Arctic Council are rooted in the vision espoused by Mikhail Gorbachev: that the circumpolar region should be a place of peace, where nations work together to protect the shared circumpolar ecosystems.
  • Harnessing technology to find ways around constraints for cooperation - for example, by tagging birds to collect data for research across the border with Russia.

A few exceptions to the current halt in collaboration offer some hope: the new Central Arctic Ocean Fisheries Agreement continues to convene all signatories, including Russia, and move forward on developing a joint research plan. The Arctic Council recently resumed virtual Working Group meetings. In another arena, exchanges on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation between the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a corresponding organization on the Russian side are still upheld today, communicating through the miracle of electronics. These topics are apparently important enough to Russia to allow some scientists to participate in international discussions. The open question is: are there other issues on which collaboration can be resurrected? 

Western policymakers should consider allowing federal marine biologists, climate scientists, and oceanographers to resume some level of communication with their Russian counterparts, in order not to lose the momentum gained over decades of work collecting and sharing data about life and changes in the Bering Strait and Arctic Ocean. Because climate change and associated oceanographic and ecological changes are occurring so quickly in the Arctic, maintaining ongoing information exchange with Russia is in Western countries’ interest to understand impacts on our own resources. Western scientists and those who have been involved in transboundary research and nature protection for 30 years need to hold on to the relationships, and continue to evaluate priorities so that when the geopolitical situation allows, they can spring back to action.  

As John Holdren put it, “Decisions made in Western countries today about how to deal with Russia and Russians may be in place for a long time and, ultimately, difficult to reverse.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Waldenfels, Viktoria.“Current and Future Arctic Cooperation: Where to Next?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 1, 2024.

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