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

Why the Arctic - and Russia's Role in It - Matters

| Feb. 23, 2024



On February 14, the study group met for the first time. Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow Margaret Williams provided general background on the Arctic, including the region's environment, biodiversity, natural resources, peoples, and connection to the global climate. Guest speaker, Arctic Initiative Senior Fellow Jennifer Spence, gave an overview of Arctic governance before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. The following post summarizes key learnings.


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. 

“The community and interrelationship of the interests of our entire world is felt … in the Arctic, perhaps more than anywhere else.”

—  Mikhail Gorbachev, Speech in Murmansk, October 1, 1987

The Arctic may seem distant and disconnected from the lives of many people. However, this region plays a crucial role in the functioning of our planet and deserves our attention and care. Here are several compelling reasons why we should all care about the Arctic.

1. The Arctic is home to unique and important ecosystems and wildlife.

Of the five countries with the most extensive wilderness areas, three of them are located in the Arctic region. These vast expanses of still-intact landscapes are home to unique ecosystems and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. From  majestic polar bears stalking the ice floes to caribou traversing the tundra for thousands of miles, the Arctic still provides large expanses of undisturbed territory which offer wildlife the freedom to roam. Cold-water corals thrive in the frigid waters, providing vital habitat for marine life. Preserving the Arctic's biodiversity is essential for maintaining ecological balance and resilience in the face of environmental challenges. Among all of the Arctic nations, Russia has the oldest and largest system of strictly protected areas, known as zapovedniks.

The Arctic supports diverse and abundant populations of wildlife and experiences extreme seasonality. Spring blooms of algae in the Arctic Ocean support a rich food chain. The region’s unique climate pattern drives the remarkable migrations of various species, including birds and marine mammals. Millions of birds flock to the Arctic each year from every continent to breed and raise their young. In Alaska and Kamchatka, Russia, salmon migrate from their natal rivers, to the oceans and years later, return to their spawning grounds, sustaining both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. 

2. Arctic Indigenous communities’ diverse cultures, lifestyles, and livelihoods continue to rely on the health of the land and sea. 

Four million people live above the Arctic Circle today, approximately ten percent of whom are Indigenous. Diverse cultures, languages, traditions and cultures are found throughout the circumpolar region. Indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years and still maintain deep connections to the land and sea, and depend on the health of Arctic ecosystems. Supporting Indigenous rights and ensuring the continuation of sustainable practices are essential for safeguarding the planet’s natural and cultural heritage. 

In the Arctic Council, Indigenous peoples are represented through six permanent participants: the Russian Association for Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Aleut International Association, Gwich’in Council International, Arctic Athabaskan Council, and the Saami Council. The recognition of the primacy of leadership and engagement of Indigenous organizations is a unique characteristic of this intergovernmental forum.

3. The Arctic is an  epicenter of climate change.

The Arctic is experiencing the most rapid warming on the planet. The melting of Arctic sea ice contributes to changes in wildlife behavior and distribution, weather patterns, and disruptions to global climate systems. Rising temperatures cause permafrost to thaw and release carbon dioxide and methane, both potent greenhouse gasses, further exacerbating climate change. Russia encompasses half of the northern hemisphere’s permafrost region. The consequences of Arctic warming extend far beyond the region, affecting weather patterns, ecosystems, and communities at lower latitudes across the globe.

graph and map showing 2023 heat extremes in Arctic

Summer 2023 was the Arctic’s hottest on record. Source: NOAA images, adapted from the 2023 Arctic Report Card.

4. The Arctic is rich in economic resources, including fishing, fossil fuels and minerals, and maritime transport routes.

As the Arctic sea ice melts due to climate change, new shipping routes are opening up, transforming parts of the region into a strategic corridor for maritime transport. The Northern Sea Route across the Arctic coast of Russia and through the Bering Strait offers shorter transit times between major shipping hubs in Europe and Asia, reducing costs. However, increased maritime activity also poses risks of increased underwater noise, collisions with wildlife and small watercraft, oil spills and other sources of pollution. All of these factors represent additional threats to ecosystems and indigenous livelihoods that are already feeling the impacts of climate change. These new developments highlight the need for responsible stewardship and international cooperation.

Resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, has long been a contentious issue in the Arctic region due to its potential environmental impacts and geopolitical implications. The Arctic is believed to hold significant reserves of oil and natural gas, both of which are major targets for exploration and development by energy companies in Russia. Chinese investment has accelerated infrastructure development and maritime traffic along this Northern Sea Route. Concerns about the potential for oil spills, habitat destruction, and disruption to Indigenous communities have led to calls for caution and stringent regulatory oversight in Arctic resource extraction.

Commercial fisheries are part of the economic activity in the Arctic. For example, the Bering Sea pollock stock shared by Russia and the United States, and the Barents Sea cod fishery shared between Russia and Norway, are billion-dollar industries. Other fish stocks support local economies and the process of harvesting and preparing fish is central to some Indigenous communities. Arctic fisheries provide food security for millions of people worldwide. However, the exploitation of Arctic resources must be carefully managed to prevent overfishing and environmental degradation.

5. The Arctic can serve as a model peaceful governance for other regions.

The establishment of a peace park in the Bering Strait, proposed by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, emphasizes the early roots of international cooperation and environmental protection in the region. By designating the Arctic as a sanctuary for peace and conservation, Gorbachev envisioned that the two great powers could work  together to preserve its unique natural heritage and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Although the geopolitical situation has changed dramatically since that presidential proclamation, the Bering Strait remains a place of shared cultural and natural heritage. The increased industrialization of the Arctic, coupled with climate change, makes this special marine waterway more vulnerable than ever to environmental damage.

The Arctic Council is the primary intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to promote cooperation and coordination among Arctic states and indigenous peoples in environmental protection and sustainable development. Its members include the eight Arctic states: Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. The council’s unique  structure includes six Permanent Participants, representing indigenous peoples from across the Arctic region. Observers to the Council include NGOs and numerous non-Arctic states. The Arctic Council addresses environmental protection and sustainable development through working groups focused on climate change monitoring and assessment; flora and fauna; pollution prevention, and sustainable development. The Council operates on the principles of consensus-based decision-making and non-binding cooperation, fostering dialogue and partnerships to address the unique challenges and opportunities facing the Arctic region.

In conclusion, the Arctic is a critical part of our planet's ecosystem, with far-reaching implications for biodiversity, climate stability, and global connectivity. Protecting the Arctic requires collective action, from promoting sustainable resource management to supporting indigenous rights and fostering international cooperation. By caring for the Arctic, we can ensure a sustainable future for generations to come.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Waldenfels, Viktoria and Margaret Williams.“Why the Arctic - and Russia's Role in It - Matters.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 23, 2024.