The effects of the war in Ukraine on Arctic environmental cooperation

The effects of the war in Ukraine on Arctic environmental cooperation


On 24 February 2022 Russia’s president Vladimir Putin launched an unprecedented attack on its neighbour Ukraine. Justifying this attack, Putin claimed the need to demilitarise and to de-nazify the country. But in his statement in the early morning of this historic and sad day, he furthermore claimed that Ukrainians are ‘brothers’, tied closely to the Russian people, but only as part of Russia. Essentially, therefore, he negates Ukraine’s right to sovereignty.

Not surprisingly, this attack has had repercussions on the international order the consequences of which cannot yet be foreseen. For example, the crimes against humanity conducted by the Russian military have led to the country’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council – a move that Russia responded to by quitting the council altogether (e.g. Nichols, 2022).

But also other international bodies, such as the Arctic Council, have suspended their cooperation with Russia. In its statement from 3 March 2022, the non-Russian member states of the council, which has been been fundamental for integrative policy-making in the Arctic, distance themselves from Russian aggression and suspend their work that involves Russia until further notice (Arctic Council, 2022).

In this post I will discuss the implications of Russia’s attack on the environmental dimension of the Arctic Council. Please note that a more detailed analysis, including the effects on the Barents cooperation, will appear in Volume 1, Issue 2 (June 2022) of The Conservation & Livelihoods Digest at the end of June 2022.

Cooperation in the Arctic region

Cooperation in the Arctic in its pre-invasion form emerged after Michail Gorbachev’s famous ‘Murmansk speech’ from 1987 in which he envisioned an Arctic that is marked by nuclear safety, cooperation and stability between the Arctic states, envisioning a ‘zone of peace’. Based on an initiative from Finland, in 1993 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was launched, based on which in 1996 the Arctic Council was established, comprising all eight Arctic states — Canada, United States, Russian Federation, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden — as well as six ‘Permanent Participants’, representing the eight largest Arctic indigenous groups: the Saami Council, the Arctic Athabaskan Council, the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, the Aleut International Council and the Gw’ichin Council International.

Over time, the Arctic Council has developed into a full-fledged forum for Arctic cooperation, apart from ‘hard’ security issues, and has become a prime example for peaceful, effective and diverse cooperation (Keskitalo, 2004). Moreover, even when in 2014 Russia annexed Crimea, it appeared as if due to the different interests of the Arctic states, cooperation in the high north would continue relatively unabated (Rahbek-Clemmensen, 2017).

The work of the Arctic Council is primarily carried out by its six working groups: the Arctic Contaminants Action Programme; the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme; Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna; Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response; Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment; and the Sustainable Development Working Group. In each of these working group, a circum-Arctic approach is taken that aims to include the interests of all Arctic regions. A look at the map of the Arctic reveals, therefore, that in light of Russia’s extensive Arctic coastline, Arctic cooperation without it appears almost unimaginable.

Post-invasion environmental cooperation under the Arctic Council

Circum-Arctic cooperation without the Russian federation is difficult to imagine, given that Russia’s coastline amounts to around 1/3 of the Arctic coastline in general. The role Russia plays in Arctic cooperation does not only stem from this fact, but is also associated with its Northern Sea Route over which it has sovereign control. In the Arctic Council, the fundamental work of the working groups is based on knowledge exchange and the underlying cooperative spirit. For instance, A closer look at the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, standing representative for all other working groups, exemplifies this.

While the CAFF secretariat is located in Akureyri, Iceland, its work spans across the entire circumpolar north. Already in 2001 the working group published its first seminal report Arctic Flora and Fauna: Status and Conservation (CAFF, 2001), which provided the first comprehensive overview of the state of the Arctic environment in all eight Arctic states. Apart from the comprehensive overview, the report lives from its case studies from all across the Arctic, serving as a fundament for many other studies that were to come.

Inevitably, the Russia played an integral role for this report. Russian researchers and institutions provided valuable insights into the state of the respective Arctic environment and the conservation efforts that were already taken or that could be taken in the future. This allowed the lead author, Henry P. Huntington, to form the information that was received into a comprehensive whole, so that the Arctic environment was not merely considered from a national perspective, but rather from a circumpolar perspective.

Based on this report, numerous other assessments have been conducted. Yet another seminal one is the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (CAFF, 2013), which was compiled by 213 researchers from all over the Arctic. The outcome is a document of almost 700 pages that outlines in a very detailed manner what challenges and threats exist to Arctic biodiversity and what steps are taken to counter these. It therefore serves as a foundation for national environmental policies that allow Arctic states to sharpen and streamline their actions to ensure that the Arctic environment can build up its resilience in light of global biodiversity loss and climate change.

Also on the CAFF homepage it has been announced that “[t]he Arctic Council is pausing all official meetings of the Council and its subsidiary bodies until further notice.” What does this mean? This means that expert workshops, project-related meetings, assessment-related seminars and any other meeting that aims to implement the mandate of CAFF are suspended. In light of the many ongoing assessments and monitoring initiatives it is therefore no longer possible to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the Arctic environment – in its multiple ways – is changing, what this means for flora and fauna, for Arctic peoples and not least for the global environment. Decision-makers of the Arctic countries can consequently no longer rely on CAFF as a source of expertise since a trans-Arctic perspective is no longer available.

Ironically, in 2021 the Russian Federation took over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which rotates every two years amongst the council’s member states. The program of the Russian chairmanship highlights the protection of the Arctic environment, including the improvement of living standards for Arctic inhabitants. Furthermore, the chairmanship aimed to establish the council as “the leading format for international Arctic cooperation, improving its work [and] increasing the effectiveness of its Working and Expert groups” (Arctic Council, 2021). This goal was clearly missed. Even more so, as several scholars have noted: it might even be the time to fully reconsider Arctic cooperation without Russia in order to maintain the cooperative spirit and the expertise at least amongst the remaining Arctic states (Kirchner, 2022; Koivurova, 2022; Rogoff, 2022).

A threat to the Arctic environment and human life

Apart from the knowledge that has been generated and exchanged under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the suspension of all activities that include Russia could also have potentially cataclysmic effects on the Arctic environment. A case in point here is the danger that arises from Arctic shipping and Arctic oil extraction.

Over the last few years, a tight cooperative web in regard to oil spill prevention and response and Arctic rescue has developed. In fact, two legally-binding agreements were concluded that deal with these issues: the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic; the 2013 Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic. Without Russia, effective oil spill prevention and effective search and rescue is not possible.

An example in this context is the sinking of the Korean fishing trawler Oryong 501 in 2014 in Russian waters with 60 sailors dead and merely 7 rescued. While the number of the rescued sailors appears low, their rescue occurred through the cooperation between the Russian, South Korean and US coast guards in which armed US coast guard cutters entered Russian waters in a search and rescue effort that led to the rescue of the survivors. Without this cooperation, also these lives could have been lost.

Quo vadis, Arctic environmental cooperation?

At this point it is of course not foreseeable where Arctic environmental cooperation will be heading. What is clear, however, that the cooperative spirit of the Arctic Council can no longer be considered separate – or even above – other geopolitical developments. In order to come to terms with these new geopolitical environments, the ‘Arctic Seven’ must find ways to circumvent official channels and to establish backdoor diplomacy to keep environmental cooperation afloat.

One way may be to rely on the personal and professional contacts that have been established over the last 26 years since the inception of the Arctic Council. While not officially cooperating, Russian researchers could provide their Arctic counterparts with information that is relevant for a comprehensive Arctic perspective. At the same time it is imperative that none of the doors are permanently closed. Even though there will be long-term repercussions on Arctic environmental cooperation, the Arctic Seven need to keep the beacon of cooperation alive and signal their Russian colleagues that their expertise is valued and integral for true Arctic knowledge.

In this sense, science and the common goal should stand above emotion and politics. Arctic environmental knowledge and expertise, having potential effects also on human life, cannot be generated without the Russian Federation. A piecemeal Arctic is not what Michail Gorbachev had in mind. And we must do everything to maintain the Arctic as a zone of peace and cooperation.


Arctic Council. (2021). Russian Chairmanship 2021-2023.

Arctic Council. (3 March 2022). Joint Statement on Arctic Council Cooperation Following Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.

CAFF. (2001). Arctic Flora and Fauna: Status and Conservation. Akureyri: CAFF.

CAFF. (2013). Arctic Biodiversity Assessment. Status and Trends in Arctic Biodiversity. Akureyri: CAFF.

Keskitalo, E.C.H. (2004). Negotiating the Arctic. The construction of an international region. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kirchner, S. (2022). International Arctic Governance without Russia. SSRN.

Koivurova, T. (2 March 2022). The War on Ukraine: Consequences for Finland and the Arctic. The Polar Connection.

Nichols, M. (7 April 2022). U.N. suspends Russia from human rights body, Moscow then quits. Reuters.

Rahbek-Clemmensen, J. (2017). The Ukraine crisis moves north. Is Arctic conflict spill-over driven by material interests? Polar Record 53 (268), pp. 1–15.

Rogoff, A. (5 March 2022). It’s time for an Arctic Council 2.0. The Polar Connection.

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