Boat beside iceberg. Photo: Hubert Neufeld
The issue of sustainable development has particular relevance in the context of studying the problems of the Arctic territories’ development. This region is particularly vulnerable to climate change processes. Also, due to objective geographical factors, it is the least prosperous in terms of socio-economic aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In 2022, the issues of sustainable development of the Arctic regions are becoming particularly relevant. The decade of ambitious actions to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 has already begun.
Adopted by the UN in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda 2030) was designed to set guidelines for the development and implementation of national long-term development strategies with a balance of three components: economic growth, environmental sustainability and social well-being. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 specific targets form the basis of the 2030 Agenda, covering a wide range of issues faced by both developing and developed countries.
In the Arctic, the social, economic and environmental issues require joint cooperation of the countries of the region to preserve the planet and improve the well-being of people living in harsh conditions. The region is warming twice as fast as the global average, ice and snow are melting, ecosystems are transforming and Indigenous and local cultures are struggling to adapt to emerging conditions. Thus, the Sustainable Development Goals are more than a suitable platform for international partnership to take care of the planet and humanity. In the Arctic region, the following goals are most relevant, representing a consistent “ecological block” within the framework of sustainable development:
- 13: combating climate change
- 14: conservation of marine ecosystems
- 15: protection of terrestrial ecosystems
In addition, it seems important to touch on the eleventh goal, “sustainable cities and communities,” for the reason that global climate change has a destructive effect on the infrastructure of the Arctic. For example, the melting of permafrost deforms the landscape, destroying residential buildings, railways, etc. Finally, it is also reasonable to consider goal seventeen – “partnership for sustainable development” as a necessary platform for cooperation.
In this work, we will explore a potential partnership between the United States and Russia in the field of Sustainable Development Goals in the Arctic. We focus on these two countries because the Russian Federation cooperates with a number of Arctic states in the field of sustainable development, but cooperation with the United States is still at an incipient stage. Given the growing tension in international relations, along with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it seems necessary to analyze the case of cooperation between the above-mentioned countries within the framework of the SDGs for several reasons. Firstly, the UN humanitarian programs serve as a universal platform for dialogue, because they cover a huge range of problems, and accordingly, through the SDGs, many points of contact can be found. Secondly, through environmental and scientific cooperation, it is possible to reduce the degree of tension in bilateral relations. Before the events of February 24, 2022, Russia’s relations with other Arctic states were neutral, while there was always a high degree of tension with the United States. In view of this, we aim to consider possible prospects and directions of cooperation between Russia and the United States in the field of Sustainable Development Goals.
The U.S. Arctic Policy
The US Arctic policy focuses on environmental protection, sustainable development, human health, and the role of Indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents as stakeholders in the Arctic. The United States seeks to promote the viability and socio-economic well-being of Arctic communities. In addition, the United States is determined to support scientific research and expand international cooperation to achieve socio-economic prosperity in the Arctic.
The history of the formation of the United States as an Arctic state refers to 1867, when a deal with Russia for the purchase of Alaska took place. At that time, the biggest priority area of America’s Arctic policy was the economic development of the region, but with increasing interdependence, along with the emergence of global challenges, other areas of concern began to appear. Thus, scientific and technical cooperation began to form, primarily with Canada and the European Arctic states, which now serves as a unifying factor. At the same time, interactions with Russia in the Arctic region were characterized by low frequency, and if they happened, it was in the form of a security dialogue. In 1991, the United States joined seven other Arctic countries (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden) in developing an Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS). AEPS was a Finnish initiative to address various environmental issues in the Arctic. Within the framework of AEPS, four working groups were created that were engaged in environmental monitoring and assessment, conservation of flora and fauna, emergency preparedness and protection of the marine environment.
Over time, institutionalized regional structures aimed at optimizing the interaction of the Arctic states began to form. After several years of working on pan-Arctic environmental issues within the framework of AEPS, the member States, at the initiative of Canada, decided to expand the focus of AEPS to address issues of sustainable development in the Arctic. To this end, on September 19, 1996, the “Declaration on the Establishment of the Arctic Council” was signed in Ottawa, as a result of which the Council was created. The United States alternately chaired the Arctic Council in 1998-2000 and 2015-2017, promoting the environmental agenda. Sustainable development has become a key area for cooperation in the Arctic since their formation in 2017.
Recently, progress has also been made in the fight against climate change – in 2019 the United States has become a member of the Coalition of Finance Ministers to Combat Climate Change, which discusses the priorities of climate and economic policy in the Arctic. In the Presidential Decree on Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring Science to Tackle the Climate Crisis, section 4, of January 20, 2021 special attention is paid to the Arctic Refuge – this document establishes a temporary moratorium on all activities of the federal government related to the implementation of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. Thus, there is a positive trend in the environmentalist policy of the new US administration.
The Russian Arctic Policy
The Russian Arctic is a vast territory that includes the Murmansk Region, the Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets and Chukchi Autonomous Okrugs and the northern municipalities of the Arkhangelsk Region, the Komi Republic, the Krasnoyarsk Territory, the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), as well as lands and islands located in the Arctic Ocean that are part of the Russian Federation. Therefore, it is especially important for Russia to preserve the unique ecological systems of the Arctic and maintain this region as a zone of peace and cooperation. In the 1930s and 1980s, when the process of intensive development of the Arctic was underway, in parallel with the emergence of new enterprises, the environmental situation in the region deteriorated, since few people were engaged in waste disposal. However, in recent years, Russia’s environmental policy has sharply intensified. “The main measures for the implementation of state policy in the field of environmental safety in the Arctic zone of Russia is the establishment of special environmental management and environmental protection regimes, including monitoring of its pollution, reclamation of natural landscapes and disposal of toxic industrial waste,” Murad Kerimov stated, Deputy Head of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology of Russia. In addition, in the Year of Ecology (2017), the Clean Country project was launched in the Russian Federation. It assumes a reduction in the amount of environmental damage associated with the disposal of solid household waste and objects of accumulated damage throughout our country by 2025. Currently, the Clean Country project includes three activities carried out in the Arctic: the elimination of harm in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, the elimination of oil pollution of the Kuznetsov Creek in the Arkhangelsk region and the elimination of the tailings storage of the Kular Gold mining Factory in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia). In 2022 Vladimir Putin held a meeting on the development of the Arctic, where the President noted that the development of the Arctic should not destroy its ecology. “We consider all programs and projects in the Arctic in close connection with the tasks of preserving biodiversity and Arctic ecosystems, as well as with long term work to address the challenges of the climate agenda,” Vladimir Putin claimed.
In the field of international cooperation, Russia intends to: strengthen on a bilateral basis and within the framework of regional organizations, including the Arctic Council and the Barents Council/The Euro-Arctic region, good-neighborly relations with the Arctic States; to intensify economic, scientific, technical and cultural cooperation in the Arctic; to increase the efforts of the Arctic states in creating a unified regional system of search and rescue, as well as the prevention of man-made disasters and the elimination of their consequences.
Russian interests in the Arctic go deep into the past — in the sixteenth century, when the Russian state, driven by a constant desire to gain access to new natural resources and reliable trade routes, began the conquest of Siberia. For the Russian Federation, as the country with the largest territory and population living in the region out of the Arctic states, the tasks of sustainable development in the Arctic are highly significant. For instance, on September 22, 2020, the first general meeting of the members of the Interregional Scientific, Technological, Business and Educational Partnership “Sustainable Development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation” was held in an online format with the support of the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation. Despite the fact that the country has not adopted a unified strategy in the field of sustainable development containing references to the UN 2030 Agenda, many of the SDG objectives are reflected in separate documents, such as the Presidential Decree “On National goals and strategic development objectives of the Russian Federation for the period up to 2024.”
Sustainable development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation is one of the priorities of state policy. Evidence of this is the Decree of the President of the Russian Federation No. 645 dated October 26, 2020. The most important state document “On the Strategy for the development of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring national security for the period up to 2035” has been adopted. This is the result of a long public discussion conducted by the Ministry of the Russian Federation for the Development of the Far East and the Arctic and the Arctic Development Project Office. The Strategy defines the main directions, tasks and measures for the development of the Arctic zone, as well as the mechanisms, stages and expected results of their implementation. In the Decree, the President set specific goals for the development of the Arctic zone of the country. First of all, these are goals related to improving the quality of life of 2.5 million citizens living in the Arctic zone, goals related to the growth of the economy of the Arctic regions, and the development of the Northern Sea Route as a global transport corridor. The document fundamentally differs from the previous strategy and previously existing strategic planning documents in general in two key provisions: for the first time in a document of this level, the main goal of the development of the Arctic zone is to improve the quality of life of the people living there, and accordingly formulated a number of decisions aimed at the social development of the regions; secondly, a special regional section appeared in this strategy, which defines priority directions of socio-economic development of each territory within the Arctic zone.
In 2022, the Russian Federation assumed the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Therefore, nowadays Russia offers the Arctic states and the entire international community an urgent agenda for the sustainable development of the Arctic region. “The Russian Chairmanship’s main focus will be given to enhancing sustainability, resilience and viability of the Arctic communities, climate change adaptation measures, improving the well-being, health, education, quality of life of the Arctic inhabitants, as well as ensuring sustainable socio-economic development in the region. In addition, in the context of further development of the region it is important to take into account not only the vulnerability of the Arctic to climate change, but also its long-term contribution – due to its natural, energy and transport resources and solutions – in facilitating the transition to a low-emission economy and, accordingly, to the implementation of the goals of the Paris Agreement. Also, the Russian Chairmanship will continue supporting the establishment of the Arctic Council as the leading format for international Arctic cooperation, improving its work, increasing the effectiveness of its Working and Expert groups, the Secretariat, as well as developing mechanisms for financing the Council’s activities, including its projects and programs, implementing decisions and recommendations, as well as encouraging the dialogue and interaction with the Observers to provide their meaningful and balanced engagement in the Council’s activities.” The central event of the official series of events of the Russian presidency was the plenary meeting of the Council on December 1-2, 2021 in Salekhard. During it, the sustainable socio-economic development of the Arctic and opportunities for strengthening youth cooperation in high latitudes were discussed, issues of cooperation between the Indigenous peoples of the North and the Arctic regions were touched upon, as well as improving the effectiveness of interaction with the Arctic Economic Council, which Russia also chairs in 2021-2023.Within the framework of the Russian Chairmanship’s human dimension program, a conference on saving human health in the Arctic, a conference “The Arctic — a national Megaproject: Staffing and scientific support” and a conference on ensuring a comfortable urban environment “The Arctic – a Development Territory” are planned for the coming year. In March of this year, the Western member countries of the Arctic Council temporarily suspended their participation in official events of the Council and its subsidiary bodies.
Directions and Prospects of Cooperation between the United States and Russia in the Arctic
Against the background of local conflicts and confrontations in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the unprecedented speed and energy of cooperation in the Arctic served as a positive example and lesson for humanity. The Arctic regions have become an experimental laboratory for international cooperation. Even in conditions of temporary tension in international relations, cooperation continued at many levels. The system of international cooperation in the field of environmental safety of the Arctic began to be built in the early 1970s, however, according to a number of experts, it has not yet been fully formed.
Issues of international cooperation and legal regulation of environmental safety in the Arctic are regulated by a number of treaties, mainly through the establishment of general environmental requirements in them. Let us list some of them: the Convention on Civil Liability for Damage from Marine Pollution by Oil (1969), the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Waste and Other Materials (1972), the Declaration of the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972), the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979), UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982), Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973), International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Control and Cooperation (1990), UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), Kyoto Protocol 1997, The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) and a number of others.
In 1996, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the countries of the Arctic region signed the Ottawa Declaration and formed the Arctic Council, which is designed, among other things, to provide a program for the comprehensive implementation of sustainable development. The Arctic Council is a key institution for international environmental cooperation in the Arctic.
The main goals and objectives of the Arctic Council are: conducting environmental monitoring, obtaining reliable and sufficient information about the state of the Arctic environment; developing proposals and recommendations for the prevention and control of pollution for the Arctic States and observer countries. The work of the Arctic Council is carried out within the framework of six working groups on various environmental aspects:
- Elimination of Arctic Pollution (ACAP).
- Implementation of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP).
- Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF).
- Prevention, preparedness and Response to emergencies (EPPR).
- Protection of the Arctic Marine environment (PAME).
- Sustainable development in the Arctic (SDWG).
Thus, Russia and the United States cooperated both within the framework of the development of norms of international environmental law for the preservation of the fragile ecosystem of the Arctic, and directly “in the field”, participating in working groups.
The analysis of the approaches that are integrated into the policy of the United States and Russia in the Arctic suggests that the countries have many common interests in the region. Russia and the United States have no open or potentially significant conflicts on the climate problem in the Arctic. Guided by the principles of international law, participating in a number of international organizations (the Arctic Council, the International Maritime Organization), the countries have made attempts to develop a constructive multilateral and bilateral dialogue.
Speaking about the unifying factors, it should be noted that both countries declared their commitment to the concept of sustainable development for the preservation of the Arctic environment, monitoring climate change and solving problems arising in this area, realizing the great importance of the Arctic as a determining factor from the point of view of the global ecosystem. Russia and the United States understand the need to preserve the biological diversity and ecosystems of the Arctic, which are experiencing stress as a result of increased human activity. Mitigation of risk factors related to environmental and human safety is becoming increasingly important in the implementation of the policies of both countries in the Arctic. Both Russia and the United States emphasized the importance of science for understanding the specifics of the Arctic and ensuring the implementation of sustainable development. Thus, cooperation began to be built, first of all, under the auspices of the Arctic Council, in which there are many working groups aimed, in particular, at solving socio-economic problems in the Arctic.
However, 2022 was a turning point in the activities of the Arctic Council and international cooperation in the Arctic. Shortly after the events of February 2022, seven member countries of the Arctic Council (Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, USA, Finland, Sweden) announced the suspension of their participation in all official events of the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies in connection with the situation around Ukraine, as well as their refusal to send representatives to Council meetings held in Russia. The Arctic Economic Council did not suspend its activities involving Russia; however, it scrapped plans to hold the upcoming annual meeting in a mixed format in St. Petersburg, opting instead to hold the event online. The turning point came during the Russian chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which will last until 2023. Nikolai Korchunov, Ambassador-at-Large of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the AC, noted that the decision of the Arctic Council members will lead to an increase in the risks and challenges associated with maintaining security in the region. In connection with the current situation, the mechanisms of Russia’s chairmanship in the Arctic Council will be reoriented towards solving the national problems of the development of northern territories. Most likely, a return to the usual nature of interaction within the framework of the Arctic Council should not be expected in the near future. There have been no further official announcements about the format of the AC’s work. In the short term, at the expert level, the seven Western countries of the AC are considering options for cooperation without Russia.
From 2014 until recently, the Arctic remained the region least affected by the crisis — in cooperation between Russia and the West, it even continued, despite many difficulties. At the same time, the Arctic Council (AC) played the role of the most authoritative intergovernmental forum for the development of cooperation in the Arctic and was considered one of the few remaining non-politicized platforms for dialogue. The Arctic was often called the territory of peace and dialogue, many Russian and Western analysts included the Arctic among the areas where ties between Russia and Western countries are possible and promising, despite the general crisis in relations between Russia and the West. However nowadays, the future of cooperation in the Arctic, in particular within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, remains uncertain. At the same time, it is obvious that in order to solve many problems of the Arctic region in the field of ecology, economy, culture, health, emergency prevention, protection of the interests of the Indigenous peoples of the North, it is necessary to implement a multilateral approach. At the same time, given the current international conjuncture, it is difficult to say about the immediate prospects for cooperation between the United States and the Russian Federation in the Arctic, as evidenced by the continued interaction in the region on problematic issues without Russia’s participation, as well as Russia’s rapprochement with China, which has extensively increased participation in Arctic affairs. Thus, at present, cooperation in the Arctic region in the long term is seen as fragmented. Nevertheless, we believe and hope that the members of the Arctic Council, Russia and the USA especially, will find a way to collaborate under the banner of sustainable development in order to make the Arctic a zone of peace.
Ekaterina Volovich is a 3rd year student at the Tyumen State Institute, Faculty of International Relations. Anna Lotukhova is a 4rd year student at Tomsk State University, Faculty of History and Political Studies.
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