Pan-Arctic Science: Frozen of Broken?


Russia’s unilateral decision to suspend annual payments to the Arctic Council Secretariat has sparked debate on how the international community should perceive and explain such a form of political behavior: either a symbolic gesture, signalling that the current working arrangements in the Arctic Council are not enough, or a deliberate demonstration that Russia is ready to get closer to China, up to the prospect of the West losing control over the Arctic. The first means Russia's desire to remain in the Arctic Council and, thus, maintain cooperation with Western counterparts, others hint at the emergence of a Russia-China axis in the Arctic in the foreseeable future, which does not involve the Western party. The latter, in addition to current Russian-Chinese research projects, is facilitated by the dynamics of the increasing presence of Chinese companies in the Russian Arctic - an 87 percent increase in registrations in 2022-2023 compared to the two full years prior from 2020-2021.

Obviously, these decisions evolved from a certain political gridlock in which all Arctic stakeholders found themselves following the beginning of the armed conflict in Ukraine. It led to economic and investment downsizing, as well as the disruption of scientific ties in projects with Russian participation. Meanwhile, any social, economic and industrial activity in the Arctic still requires strong scientific expertise due to the environmental vulnerability, harsh weather conditions, sparse population and remoteness from industrialized regions and communications. The cost of a mistake may be too high or even irreparable.

In this regard, there is no coincidence that the interest of non-Arctic states in scientific data exchange in the Arctic is increasing. This interest is fueled by the fact that, on the one hand, global phenomena are directly related to observed physical changes in this region, including melting ice cover, permafrost thawing, ecosystem shifts, etc. On the other hand, in the absence of Western competitors in a certain sense, they see an opportunity to find their economic niche in cooperation with Russia, represents almost half the landmass of the entire Arctic region.

This is generally confirmed in a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service, when it comes, for instance, to strengthening Russia-China cooperation in the Arctic and directly China's presence in the region, which might potentially affect, apart from Russia, China's ability to work with the A7 states on Arctic-related matters.

As for the Western part, the exchange of data from Russia has completely dried up so far. During the side-events at Arctic Frontiers 2023, UArctic President Lars Kullerud noted that Western science has never been as detached from Russian scientists, even during the Cold war, as nowadays.

We do not know what's happening on the ground there and of course, what's happening there will also affect the European, US and Canadian part of the Arctic, said Rolf Rodven, executive secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme of the Arctic Council.

Moreover, the sanctions have had a deep impact on young Arctic scientists, the potential builders of Arctic research networks in the future. Within the project Rethinking Arctic collaboration, the Academia Europaea Bergen alongside their academic counterparts from Germany, Canada, and the USA, reports that 15 PhD candidates at the Alfred Wegener Institute could not accomplish their thesis research because they were relying on data they had collected with Russian colleagues, data-use that Germany has placed sanctions on.

Despite the boycott of Russia declared by Western states, it is worth considering the number of scientists from different countries advocating the resumption of scientific cooperation with Russia. Although formal dialogue is extremely difficult, the Geneva Center for Security Policy is one of the few in Europe that explores the possibility of resuming dialogue with Russia even in the face of a sharp deterioration in relations with the West.

So far, the Geneva Center has released the report which focuses on Arctic science diplomacy as a promising venue for politicians, diplomats, and scientists to develop science-based solutions. This report reveals the constraints that science diplomacy faces, describes tools for cooperation and proposes particular research fields to be potentially developed jointly with international scientists in the Russian Arctic. For this purpose, unique research infrastructure and a number of facilities have been created which enable to find breakthrough solutions in meteorology, climate control technologies, hydrogen energy, compact nuclear power plants, floating nuclear installations, etc.

The Geneva Center report can be found here.

Still, even though the Arctic Council is generally recognized to play a highly central role, it should be mentioned that Arctic science collaboration has become much broader than it used to be under the working groups of the Arctic Council. Until the Western Arctic nations lift their sanctions, Arctic scientific activities will run to a large extent without Russian specialists, institutions, and data.

The Editorial Board of the Arctic Century