Chesley Bonestell, “The Exploration of Mars” (1953), oil on board, 143/8 x 28 inches, gift of William Estler, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC.

Channels for Arctic Diplomacy

Disease surveillance in the thawing Arctic requires international cooperation, but fractured relations between Russia and the other Arctic states demand deliberate approaches to science diplomacy.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Illustration by Shonagh Rae

During the summer of 2016, in Russia’s arctic Yamal Peninsula, a heat wave resurfaced anthrax bacteria long buried in the permafrost. The bacteria then killed thousands of reindeer and affected nearly a hundred local residents—the first large outbreak of anthrax in the region since 1941. The world reacted with concerned curiosity: What other viruses and bacteria could the thawing permafrost bring back to life? Microbiologists and cold region experts have since set out to deepen our understanding of how changes to climate and weather patterns in the Arctic may increase human and animal exposure to novel—or really, really old—pathogens freed from dormancy.

Over the last few decades, the international community has dedicated significant resources to building up networks to detect and combat tropical disease. But the 2016 anthrax outbreak, along with research on other viral strains recovered from permafrost since, shows just how important scientific cooperation and public health surveillance are in polar regions. 

Monitoring public health in the Arctic is challenging. The region is home to about 4 million people scattered across roughly 6 million square miles. Unlike the global commons of Antarctica, the Arctic is comprised of sovereign territories and exclusive economic zones of eight nations. Nonetheless, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Arctic public health analyses were based on data disaggregated at national, regional, and local levels; the cooperation, transparency, and communication required for this joint activity were themselves important feats of pan-Arctic collaboration. Another accomplishment is the International Circumpolar Surveillance program, which monitors the spread of pneumococcal, meningococcal, and Haemophilus influenzae bacteria through a network, launched in 1999, of hospitals and public health offices in seven of the eight Arctic states—all but Russia.

Until the 1990s, the Russian Federation’s infectious disease control systems evolved independently from Western public health systems, making cross-border surveillance and cooperation difficult. But when a sharp rise in diseases including HIV and tuberculosis in the Baltic Sea and Barents Sea regions demanded joint action on control and prevention, a process for collaboration began. Eventually, a rising interdependence on such international collaboration shifted Russia’s foreign policy strategy for health toward multilateral and bilateral diplomacy.

In mutually dependent regions like the Arctic, scientific research on climate and health can sustain channels for diplomacy.

Today, new geopolitical tensions are renewing complications in scientific and health cooperation with Russia. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Arctic states of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the United States suspended the Arctic Council’s cooperation with Russia. In the months since, Russia has threatened to withdraw from the Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum for the region. In September 2023, it formally withdrew from the 30-year-old Barents Euro-Arctic Council.

At the same time, warming temperatures in the Arctic are opening sea routes and allowing new access to natural resources, prompting increased traffic and cooperation between Arctic and non-Arctic states. Climate change is destabilizing the health, food security, and livelihoods of people in the area. We argue that, in mutually dependent regions like the Arctic, scientific research on climate and health can sustain channels for diplomacy. Indeed, new—even experimental—strategies for cooperation are necessary at this critical time. 

Cooperation and competition in the Arctic

The Arctic Council was established in 1996 as a high-level intergovernmental forum for the eight countries with Arctic territory and the six Indigenous people’s organizations granted “permanent participant” status. The council promotes cooperation, coordination, and communication among Arctic states, Indigenous communities, and the rest of the Arctic population on issues including sustainable development, health threats, and emergency response. The chair of the council rotates among the Arctic state members, with initiatives carried out by working groups, task forces, and expert groups.

The Arctic Council has successfully navigated diplomatic disagreements among member states, including the Iraq War in 2003, the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. On March 3, 2022, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the other seven member states announced a pause in their participation. The pause disrupted the council’s 130 projects related to environmental monitoring, data collection, equity, and search and rescue. It also put the brakes on critical work and communication related to Indigenous peoples, the environment, scientific research, and health safety.

How can collaboration with Russia happen when established diplomatic channels are diminished?

Following discussions, in June 2022 those seven member states of the council agreed to resume partial activity on existing projects not involving the Russian Federation. In August 2023, all the Arctic Council countries, including Russia, agreed to guidelines for resuming working group and expert group activities. Further discussions with the six permanent participant Indigenous peoples’ organizations in October 2023 encouraged resumption of working group–level activities with Russia. Then, in February 2024, Russia withheld its annual payment to the Arctic Council. This step raises urgent questions about the council’s future without Russian participation. How can collaboration with Russia happen when established diplomatic channels are diminished?

Understanding Russia’s aspirations in the Arctic

A key to navigating future collaboration on emerging diseases and other health risks in the Arctic is a deeper understanding of the future Russia sees for itself as a leading power in the region. Russia controls about 45% of the geographic territory of the Arctic, including the Northern Sea Route—which is in Russia’s exclusive economic zone—a particularly useful seaway for moving cargo between the North Pacific region and Northern Europe. Russia’s position in the Arctic and its role in current geopolitical crises contribute to broader debates on the effectiveness of “soft law” (such as recommendations and codes of conduct) and diplomacy in various areas of international scientific cooperation, particularly for health and climate issues.

Already, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have shifted Russian foreign policy approaches to health and science deeper into the security realm. The invasion prompted many Western countries to impose a range of scientific sanctions on Russia, and though individual researchers are not banned from cross-border collaboration, travel between Russia and the West is more complicated. The number of research collaborations between Russian scientists and those from the United States and European countries has fallen, as has the attendance of Russian researchers at international academic conferences. 

A year into the war with Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin presented a new Foreign Policy Concept (FPC), an outline of Russia’s national interests, strategic goals, challenges, and main directions of foreign policy, which had last been updated in 2016. The new FPC emphasizes Arctic policy in commitments to “counteracting the unfriendly states’ policy aimed at militarization of the region” and “establishing a mutually beneficial cooperation with the non-Arctic states pursuing a constructive policy toward Russia.” These statements signal Russia’s strategic interest in maintaining a formal presence on the Arctic Council to preserve its political power in the Arctic while testing new bilateral partnerships in the region.

Russia’s current inclination toward bilateral rather than multilateral cooperation, coupled with China’s ambitions for the region, could set back the Arctic Council’s work to build up necessary health security and cooperation networks.

Global health priorities in the FPC suggest Russia’s continuing interest in international discussions, but with variations in focus across regions. The document links global health to environmental protection and climate change, and goals include “increasing efficiency of international cooperation in the area of health care and preventing its politicization,” as well as “consolidating international efforts in order to prevent the extension of dangerous infectious diseases” and quickly responding to crises, epidemics, and pandemics. Russia remains a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is active in convenings related to WHO’s International Health Regulations and the pandemic accord led by its Intergovernmental Negotiating Body.

It is significant, however, that neither of the FPC’s agendas for health or the Arctic refers to the existing international platforms—WHO and the Arctic Council—for maintaining multilateral cooperation.

The lack of mention of multilateral platforms is notable alongside a joint Russian-Chinese political statement in March 2023—timed closely with the presentation of the Russian FPC—declaring the two countries’ intentions to act “in favor of preserving the Arctic as a territory of peace, stability, and constructive cooperation.” Though China has no territorial claim in the Arctic, its plans for a Polar Silk Road via Arctic waters to Europe, which is included in its Belt and Road Initiative, indicate a vision for leadership in the region. Official dialogue on the Arctic between Moscow and Beijing began in 2013. The cooperation has produced two large Arctic energy infrastructure projects and a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on maritime law enforcement in the Arctic zone.

Russia’s current inclination toward bilateral rather than multilateral cooperation, coupled with China’s ambitions for the region, could set back the Arctic Council’s work to build up necessary health security and cooperation networks among all Arctic states and peoples. We think the situation calls for consideration of new mechanisms for dialogue around emerging climate and health threats in the region.

The entangled future of the Arctic, global health, and science diplomacy

As geopolitical and military instability abuts nonmilitary humanitarian pursuits, Arctic states may be forced to allocate resources to protecting individual interests over supporting scientific cooperation. However, in other periods of tension, science diplomacy has been key to preserving cooperation between allies and rivals, as with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, the Edinburgh Conversations, Cold War–era polio vaccine cooperation, and the international effort to sequence SARS-CoV-2.

With the Arctic region in a precarious position, now may be the time to move beyond traditional forms of diplomacy and center the pursuit of alternative means of scientific cooperation around health and climate security as a unifying purpose for continued engagement.

An important component of any effective international science collaboration is the personal relationships cultivated between scientists from around the world, often nurtured over decades. To preserve those relationships under an Arctic Council with diminished capacity, we recommend Western policymakers and other stakeholders engage in bilateral initiatives extending beyond the Arctic Council framework.

Strategically expanding approaches to scientific cooperation in the polar regions, particularly through individual contacts, could solidify the Arctic’s significance as a focal point for twenty-first-century science diplomacy.

Nongovernmental, informal interactions (known as Track II diplomacy) among scientists from Arctic (and even non-Arctic) states could be a powerful strategy for keeping Russia engaged and communicating with the global scientific community. The first mechanism to try is for researchers in neighboring states or territories (for example, Alaska, the Russian district of Chukotka, and Yukon, a Canadian territory) to arrange for partnerships in climate research. Strategically expanding approaches to scientific cooperation in the polar regions, particularly through individual contacts, could solidify the Arctic’s significance as a focal point for twenty-first-century science diplomacy.

Second, the science diplomacy community, housed in universities and connected through national scientific academies, should continue to play a leading role in Arctic science diplomacy by incentivizing researchers to build new scientific partnerships across borders. This would require the European Union and NATO members that discontinued projects with Russian institutions after Russia invaded Ukraine to take a step forward in reestablishing collaborations with Russian partners. Resumed research partnerships should prioritize studies on the climate risks associated with permafrost thaw and the mitigation of potential reactivation of ancient microbiota and dormant pathogens. There should also be a much more significant focus on cooperation between Arctic states and Indigenous peoples’ organizations, with a research agenda that intertwines scientific and local knowledge.

And finally, the international community still working within the Arctic Council platform should prioritize establishing a network of monitoring stations in the high-latitude Arctic to swiftly identify pathogens in hot spots of microbial diversity, such as mass bird-nesting sites. Such monitoring activities can reinforce or create points of contact within Arctic states and Indigenous peoples’ organizations to buttress the goals of the Arctic Council’s 10-year-old One Arctic, One Health project, which aims to improve coordination and strategies for handling emerging threats. Improved monitoring and coordination would have multiple benefits: more opportunities to develop scientific diplomacy, stronger Arctic health and environmental security, more knowledge about the global impacts of climate change, and the potential to stimulate new initiatives to understand other microbial hot spots around the globe.

In one of the last examples of Arctic scientific cooperation with Russia before its invasion of Ukraine, a study conducted by a team of German, French, and Russian scholars identified 13 new viruses revived from ancient permafrost—the result of almost a decade of joint research. Keeping scientific connections like these alive among Arctic researchers should be a diplomatic imperative, both to deepen the global understanding of shared health and climate risks as well as to preserve peace, stability, and constructive cooperation in the region and beyond.

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Cite this Article

Shok, Nataliya, and Katherine Ginsbach. “Channels for Arctic Diplomacy.” Issues in Science and Technology 40, no. 3 (Spring 2024): 42–45.

Vol. XL, No. 3, Spring 2024