By Ved Nanda
Columnist for The Denver Post
Unlike the wide denunciation of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, the impact of the war on the future of the Arctic region has gone mostly unnoticed. The immediate concern is that the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental body established as a forum for regional cooperation and Arctic governance, is presently chaired by Russia, so the crippling sanctions have halted all work done by the Council.
The war has significantly affected Arctic governance, security, scientific research, environmental impact studies, and work on various projects, such as conservation, indigenous rights, resource extraction, oil pollution responses, search and rescue efforts, biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development.
The Arctic Council was initiated by then-Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1987, when he proposed that the Arctic be transformed into a “pole of peace,” notwithstanding geopolitical tensions.
The spillover of the war and mounting tensions have frozen engagement with Russia. On March 3, the other seven permanent member states of the Council — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. — released a joint statement boycotting their participation in the Arctic Council and its affiliated bod-ies. Being the Council chair until early 2023, Russia has responded that it plans to refocus its chairmanship on its own Arctic interests.
A major casualty of the war is research on climate change. Russia accounts for half the Arctic landmass and much of the world’s permafrost, so what has come to a halt is the Arcticwide monitoring by a consortium of permafrost scientists to collect and evaluate crucial data on the region’s warming. This research on carbon emissions is vital, as the Arctic is warming four times as fast as the rest of the planet. Since these scientists are unable to do any work in Russia, which would have been at least half their work, this erosion of political cooperation is a serious blow.
Tero Mustonen, a Finlandbased Arctic biodiversity expert and fierce advocate for Arctic Indigenous rights, said, “The Arctic is the most important canary in the climate change coal mine, so anything that takes away from the capacity to monitor, understand, and respond in an orderly way to climate change in the Arctic is a loss for humanity.”
After the Amazon rainforest, the Arctic region is the secondlargest carbon sink in the world. With the Arctic heating up and the permafrost thawing, carbon and methane gases are released and it is feared that instead of a carbon sink the Arctic might become a net carbon emitter.
With prediction from climate scientists that there might be ice-free summers in the Arctic by 2035, there will likely be increased shipping, fishing, resource extraction, and military activities. Without the cooperative mechanism of the Arctic Council, the consequences for the fragile ecosystem could be dire. Mustonen explains: “In a world of dwindling natural resources, the Arctic is the last place where most of those untapped assets – not only minerals, rare earth metals, and timber, but also fresh water and genetic diversity that has been lost elsewhere – can be found, if we don’t have a friendly mechanism to jointly agree on conservation, research, and development, actions in these areas will lead to a very different climate pathway than the one that could happen if the collaboration was in place.”
The Arctic region cannot be isolated from, nor is it immune to, the broader geopolitics. Thus, given the interconnected nature of the Arctic, the war and the sanctions are likely to create wide gaps in crucial data collection, sharing, and monitoring, which were facilitated by the Arctic Council in an atmosphere of peace and cooperation.
Ved Nanda is director of the Ved Nanda Center for International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.