U.S.-Russian Arctic Relations: A Change in Climate?

The first official senior contact between the Biden administration and the Russian government occurred at the highest levels. On January 26, President Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke by phone and agreed to extend by five years the last remaining strategic nuclear arms control agreement between the two countries, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Following a telephone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on February 4 (the day before the New START Treaty would have ended had it not been extended), the next senior-level call was on February 13 between Special Envoy for Climate Change and former secretary of state John Kerry and Minister Lavrov, during which both agreed to work together on climate change.

Along with nuclear stability, bilateral engagement on climate change has become an urgent priority, particularly regarding an ocean that both coastal states share, the Arctic Ocean, as well as management of the long maritime border that extends from the Bering Sea into the Chukchi Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Russia and the United States are the fourth- and second-largest carbon emitters in the world, respectively. Both struggle with simultaneously adjusting their economic model and addressing increased climate devastation. The timing of this U.S.-Russian climate conversation is important as well: first, Russia potentially represents a ticking global carbon and methane timebomb due to its vast expanse of rapidly thawing permafrost; and second, because in May, Russia will assume the two-year rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that focuses on environmental protection, biodiversity, scientific research, and sustainable economic development in the Arctic.

Pursuing cooperative action may be difficult, however. On the Russian side, there is an enormous gap between words and deeds in their climate policy. In their regional development strategies, Moscow recognizes the threat of a warming climate and commits to protecting the Arctic environment. This is also the case with their upcoming Arctic Council chairmanship. Russian officials say cooperation on climate change will be put “above all” of the region’s common challenges, even to include projects for reducing emissions and mitigating environmental damage. Similarly, when discussing regional economic development, Russian officials often speak in terms of sustainability. And yet those same development strategies prioritize economic development of the Russian Arctic. They are primarily focused on transforming the Northern Sea Route into a viable shipping lane and pursuing Arctic oil and gas projects, such as the enormous Yamal LNG venture. Russian energy policy for the next 15 years is in fact focused on increasing not decreasing “fossil fuel production, combustion, and exports,” with a limited role for renewable energy. In other words, while Russian leaders may speak of sustainability in the Arctic, they are primarily focused on fossil fuels, mineral extraction, and transit opportunities.

On the U.S. side, there is great policy inconsistency. Partisan preferences lead to dramatic swings between environmental protection and climate mitigation on one side and economic development in the Arctic on the other. By joining, withdrawing from, and now rejoining the Paris climate accord—as well as placing moratoriums on, reopening, and now preventing new oil and gas exploration leases in the U.S. Arctic—the United States has failed to sustain a national climate and economic policy in the Arctic for longer than four- or eight-year increments. And unfortunately, there is one area where both political parties have been consistent: despite an abundance of strategies, the United States has largely failed to allocate adequate budgetary resources to enhance its physical presence in the region, whether for science, sustainable development, increased search and rescue capabilities, or greater domain awareness. This indecisiveness makes international collaboration challenging.

Given this context, how can the Biden administration prioritize its global climate initiatives in relationship to Russia and the Arctic? These activities would be challenging in even the most stable of bilateral relationships—and the U.S.-Russian relationship has been in a chronic state of crisis. The imposition of additional U.S. sanctions over the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, likely upcoming sanctions related to Russian election interference and cyber espionage, the recent harsh exchange of words between Presidents Biden and Putin, and the temporary recall of the Russian ambassador to Washington will only deepen this challenge.

Thankfully, there is a history of bilateral collaboration in the Arctic upon which to draw, ranging from the joint Vessel Traffic Management System in the narrow Bering Strait to successful negotiations on a fisheries moratorium for the Central Arctic Ocean and on a series of international agreements to include search and rescue, oil spill prevention and response, and science and research. Building on this foundation, the Biden administration can quickly identify several climate projects that could feasibly secure Russian support. We recommend two: greater remote sensing and observation of permafrost thaw and initiating the scientific research underpinning the future management of fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean.

The dramatic thawing of Arctic and sub-Arctic permafrost challenges both Russian and U.S. infrastructure and has global amplification implications owing to its potential release of huge amounts of stored carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, perpetuating a cycle of warming, melting, and warming again—possibly to the extent that “even the most ambitious attempts to cut global emissions” would fail to reach the critical global goal of stopping warming short of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Seventy percent of Arctic infrastructure will be affected by 2050—as well as ecosystems, indigenous communities, food and water security, economies, and defense assets—in North America, the European Arctic, and Russia alike.

Although extensive research is underway regarding permafrost thaw in academia, national government agencies, and via the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (or AMAP, one of the Council’s six working groups), there is still uncertainty about “the amount of CO2 held in permafrost, the impact of extreme events, and the rate of thaw.” There is also a need for more effective observation networks, as well as a need to fill gaps in understanding on technical questions like the impact of soil bacteria on carbon release and develop more sophisticated models for forecasting, perhaps by investing in artificial intelligence tools, as some researchers propose.

The Biden administration could encourage Arctic Council members to increase funding for AMAP projects related to studying permafrost thaw, developing more sophisticated research tools, and exchanging knowledge. Russia’s regional development strategy has called for a permafrost monitoring system for threatened infrastructure, for example. And while Moscow may stymie Council working group projects on issues like pollution or environmentally safe shipping, they could be interested in remote sensing and observation projects that can help prevent such incidents as the one that occurred near Norilsk, Russia, where 21,000 tons of diesel spilled from a fuel tank in 2020.

Another area of cooperation with Russia concerns Arctic fisheries. In October 2018, the five Arctic Ocean coastal states, along with Iceland, the European Union, China, Japan, and South Korea, signed the Agreement to Prevent Unregulated High Seas Fisheries in the Central Arctic Ocean, in which all signatories agreed to ban commercial fishing in that ocean until “adequate scientific information is available to inform management measures.” Under Article 4 of that treaty, signatories also agreed to establish, within two years of the treaty entering into force, a “Joint Program of Scientific Research and Monitoring” to conduct the very research needed to lift the ban. To date, however, no country has stepped forward to fund the program. With the exception of the European Union, an ad hoc observer to the Arctic, all other signatories are either members of or permanent observers to the Arctic Council. The Council—with its extensive institutional experience in coordinating joint research undertakings—could facilitate the scientific research during the Russian chairmanship, especially as Moscow has already expressed its intention to welcome greater engagement from observers during its tenure as chair.

A joint scientific research program in the Central Arctic Ocean may not have the same global level of impact as permafrost research, but it is an achievable first step and could restore a sense of collaboration, paving the way for more ambitious undertakings on issues like permafrost thaw. A recent meeting between U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Issues John Kerry and Russia’s senior climate adviser, Ruslan Edelgeriev, demonstrates the potential of this important dialogue, especially as Edelgeriev specifically identified the preservation of the Arctic as a “key area” of interaction.

It is an opportune moment for Washington to press Moscow to uphold its promising language made in bilateral meetings, interviews, and strategic documents, and to take them up on their offer for “new cooperation formats” as they prepare for their upcoming Arctic Council chairmanship. By focusing on supporting an already agreed-upon entity for deepening scientific understanding of fishing stocks in the Central Arctic Ocean and by tackling an issue that affects all Arctic nations and has a massive global climate amplification, the Russian chairmanship (and thus the Arctic Council) can have two initial successes—and the U.S.-Russian relationship can point to two small areas of bilateral success as well. Although these initiatives may not capture global headlines, they would strengthen much-needed cooperation across the Arctic region.

This commentary is made possible by support from the Hewlett Foundation.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Colin Wall is a research associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Colin Wall
Associate Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Heather A. Conley