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

Should the West Engage with Russia on Science and Conversation While the War in Ukraine Continues?

| Mar. 28, 2024


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. 



Over the previous three weeks, participants in this forum have explored the Russian Arctic as a place of cultural importance for many Indigenous people, significant biodiversity, and commercially valuable resources from fish to oil. We have learned about the three decades of post-Cold War cooperation in Arctic wildlife and ecosystem research, speaking directly to biologists who worked on both sides of the U.S.-Russia maritime boundary. We also have examined some of the main economic drivers accelerating energy development in the Russian Arctic since the onset of the war in Ukraine. These factors include the exodus of Western business partners, sanctions on Russian companies, and expanding relationships between Russia and Asia along the Northern Sea Route. 

In the study group's fourth session, structured as a debate, we used our knowledge of these key issues facing the region to weigh a question that many Western governments, NGOs, and academia are confronting at this time: Should the West engage with Russia on science and conservation, at a time when Russia is waging an unjust and violent war on a sovereign nation? And if so, how to move forward? Joining us as expert commentators were Fran Ulmer, former Alaska Lieutenant Governor and Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative, and Ambassador David Balton, Director of the U.S. Arctic Executive Steering Committee.

Respect for the rule of law is the priority criterion for the relationship between Western scientists and Russian counterparts.


The West should keep Russia in diplomatic isolation for its violation of international norms.


It’s “worth it” to overlook principles because we cannot understand ongoing Arctic transformations and their global impacts without knowing what is happening in the Russian Arctic.

Supporting environmental issues will harm Russian activists.


Putin’s administration has already designated hundreds of NGOs and individual activists as “foreign agents.” U.S. NGOs should not attempt to support Russian environmental or scientific issues, potentially adding to their problems.


Throughout the world, activists and scientists alike are facing challenges of repression, restricted media, harassment. Russian individuals should decide for themselves whether they will take on the risk.

“Science is science” and should remain separate from politics.


Even during the Cold War, Western scientists were able to work with Soviet counterparts (for example in fisheries research, nuclear energy and eventually space exploration). The United States still maintains some partnerships with adversarial countries. For example, there are plenty of examples of Sino-American cooperation. By narrowly defining partnerships and carefully executing projects, it is possible to develop trust and produce positive outcomes.


Science is always intertwined with politics, especially when the outcomes of research have high stakes for influencing policy. Furthermore, in this current situation, any engagement with Russian individuals or scientific organizations will send a signal to Ukraine that the United States is not fully committed to Ukraine, or even worse, that the United States is betraying Ukraine.

Working “on the margins” – person-to-person collaboration outside official frameworks – may be a way forward to achieve common aims in science and conservation. Participation in multinational events and fora is another way to demonstrate commitment to a common goal without directly engaging the Russian government.


This approach has been successful in relationships between the West and other high-conflict areas, such as China. Multilateral fora can provide a productive and protective venue for communication among Western and Russian counterparts, allowing for a focus on a specific issue or resource (fish, ecosystems, polar bears, for example).


Attitudes within leadership circles in the West have changed significantly. Today there is less interest in and appreciation for enabling these relationships. Some Russia experts believe that to weaken the Russian authoritarian regime, the West should completely isolate Vladimir Putin and all of his advisors.

Building up a strong U.S. military presence in the U.S. Arctic is necessary to serve the dual goals of maritime safety and security and environmental protection.


Currently the Bering Strait is highly vulnerable to oil spills and accidents because of increased traffic on the Northern Sea Route, but the capacity to deal with a future accident here is woefully inadequate. Agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard are sorely needed to put in place emergency prevention measures and stand ready to respond to spills, groundings, collisions, pollution events, and search and rescue missions.


In this period of heightened tensions, increasing military presence in this region could lead to unintended outcomes, especially given the severe erosion of trust on both sides.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Waldenfels, Viktoria and Margaret Williams.“Should the West Engage with Russia on Science and Conversation While the War in Ukraine Continues?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 28, 2024.