Andrei Zagorsky talks to Russia Direct about potential U.S.-Russia collaboration in the Arctic ahead of an international conference that will cover important issues related to the future development of the Arctic region. 


Polar Explorer on the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Getty Images / Photobank

At the same time as the Pentagon released its first Arctic Strategy with the goal of protecting U.S. interests in the region and saving the region’s environment, Russian officials, academics, businesses and environmentalists are preparing for an international conference, “The Arctic: Region of Development and Cooperation,” organized by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO).

One of the participants of this conference, Andrei Zagorsky, director of IMEMO’s Department of Disarmament and Conflict Resolution, talked to Russia Direct about potential fields of collaboration for Russia and the U.S. in the Arctic as well as how these nations can take into account the interests of non-Arctic states like China. In addition, he discusses in detail the agenda of the upcoming Arctic conference and analyzes which factors can impact the dialogue between environmentalists and governments in coping with the consequences of climate change in the Arctic.

Russia Direct: What are the most important and challenging issues that you will focus on at the conference? Why?

Andrei Zagorsky: The conference will concentrate on four important issues, all of which are interconnected: regional governance, with a particular focus on the Arctic Council; international fisheries in the central Arctic Ocean; vessel traffic regulation and harmonization of environmental legislation. In addition, we will have a special corporate panel of businesses working in the Arctic. We will focus on the U.S.-Russia agenda for cooperation in the Arctic, and we will have a panel on which different Arctic regions can articulate their specific interests.

We pay much attention to international fisheries in the open parts of the Arctic Ocean that extend beyond the jurisdictions of the coastal states. So, we look forward to developing an agreement regulating fisheries in this area. We also look into international regulation for harmonizing the current regulation of vessel traffic in the Arctic waters, including both in the exclusive economic zones and the central Arctic Ocean, which is not covered by their jurisdictions. Additionally, we find it relevant to improve and harmonize environmental legislation, particularly for the coastal states, since we anticipate growing economic activities in the Arctic.

We have to establish cohesive rules for coastal states to follow. If we have similar legislation in all coastal states, this will establish a very important part for the regional regime for the protection of the environment. The jurisdiction of coastal states doesn’t go beyond the economic zones.

This is why, particularly in the central Arctic Ocean, we need rules governing economic activities, such as fisheries or vessel traffic for the sake of the conservation of biological resources and establishing strict rules for maritime safety environmental protection.

In practice, states don’t think in terms of comprehensive planning; instead, they take decisions and promote these decisions when they see a problem. So, that’s why the basic practice is when we identify the problem (for instance, an increase in vessel traffic in the Arctic area), we look for solutions.

RD: Could you give a specific example to illustrate why we need to harmonize environmental legislation?

A.Z.: Well, the U.S. and Canada have very, very strict environmental restrictions, which also now include the lessons from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. If the same incident happens in the Arctic, the consequences will be much more disastrous not only for coastal states, but also for the entire Arctic. And these nations have introduced such high requirements for any offshore drilling in the Arctic, so that the interest in offshore drilling in Canadian or U.S. waters is coming back: Businesses are complaining that they can’t meet these criteria.

Last year, Shell failed with its test drilling offshore of Alaska. The company made an attempt to drill offshore not far from Alaska. But it continues looking for a job elsewhere and  is looking for someone who is less strict on environmental protection. It looks particularly for deals in Russia. But is it in Russia’s interest? Of course, there is interest to work with such companies because we don’t have enough technologies and money and we look for those who do have them.

And since we have a  pretty difficult investment climate in this area, we compensate by a more liberal environmental regime. It is in Russia’s interest to develop the Arctic because the oil production elsewhere in Russia is on the decline. Many old fields are largely depleted. So the hope is that Arctic resources would compensate for this development. But the risks remain high.  

Andrei Zagorsky, director of IMEMO’s Department of Disarmament and Conflict Resolution. Photo: Russia Direct

RD: In what specific fields can Russia and the U.S. find common ground in the Arctic?

A.Z.:  There are common interests in many areas. One of them is mineral resources which are basically governed by the coastal states and located within the exclusive economic zones of these coastal states. Yet this issue is less relevant because the jurisdiction here is clear and not contested: It’s not disputed to whom the oil or gas belongs.

What is more important for Russia and the U.S. is the regulation of commercial fisheries outside the exclusive economic zones. The problem is complicated by the fact that a large part of the Arctic Ocean is becoming ice-free in the summers: So these are potential fishing areas because fish are migrating northwards and getting outside the exclusive economic zones, which creates a temptation to do more fishing there. We want to study this area and decide what sort of regulations we need to govern this area.

Besides, Russia and the U.S have a lot of common interest in promoting both individual and joint research in different fields. For example, we do cooperate in geological or oceanographic research. We have a  vested interest in looking for appropriate measures for vessel traffic regulations, particularly, in regard to the Bering Strait: The vessel traffic is growing from year to year and we also see increasing vessel traffic through the Arctic between Europe and Asia. The Bering Strait is the bottleneck here. It’s also an area with the Bering Sea which is one of the most biologically productive areas not only in the region, but worldwide.

So, to avoid any unintended consequences with the region’s biodiversity for the environment, it is in interests of both the U.S. and Russia to start thinking of what sorts of legitimate measures we could take to better organize the traffic and avoid any harm that could be done. This also involves special measures because the U.S. has the Alaska resort while we have another resort in Chukotka, Beringia. And the plan is we can bring these two parts of the national resorts together in order to more strictly regulate any economic activities on both sides of the Bering Strait.

RD: How can politicians and business groups come up with a compromise with environmentalists and academics in the Arctic and establish effective dialogue?

A.Z.: We have been open to environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They have been very helpful to us, particularly, when we started looking into very, very precise issues in the area. They do have an expertise for us, though we may not agree on everything. For example, last year we saw the need of increasing harmonization of environmental legislation on national and regional levels and asked for expertise from the WWF.

For instance, together we worked on the status of Russia’s ratification of the ESPOO convention that assesses environmental risks for specific sorts of industrial activities and obliges every state to seriously engage public in discussing every industrial project which may cause environmental damage.

I believe there should be no reason for strictly separating environmentalists, businesses, governments and other expert communities. This separation sometimes comes when we don’t talk to each other or it sometimes occurs when some groups take a radical course. Fortunately, our experience is very positive. Environmental groups are interested in this dialogue because they are interested in promoting their points in the government and expert community. It is relevant, because we have a lot of stereotypes about the Arctic.

RD: Do you mean the old metaphor of the Arctic as a big pie divided by several countries, each of which is craving for its own slice?      

A.Z.: The metaphor is misleading and oversimplified because there are several legal regimes in the Arctic which are pretty clear. If we are speaking about the marine Arctic, we have to be mindful of the exclusive economic zones beyond territorial seas that are clearly delineated.

In reality, this Arctic is not contested by anyone, since the attachment to economic zones is very clear and relevant economic activities within the exclusive economic zones fall under national jurisdiction. At the same time, we have another legal regime in the High Seas beyond the economic zones, where no particular national jurisdiction applies. So, this is an area where every country may enjoy not only the freedom of sailing in the area, but also of economic activities.

RD: What do you think about the Greenpeace activists who allegedly attacked the Gazprom oil rig in the Pechora Sea?    

A.Z.: It was too exaggerated in Russia and outside of Russia. The problem is most people would join Greenpeace in sharing their concerns about drilling offshore. Yet many of them would not share the methods used by Greenpeace. At the same time, I find measures taken against Greenpeace were not proportional: Their capture, arrest, the charges – there was an overreaction from the Russian side. Although Greenpeace is not very much beloved by many governments, nevertheless, other states have learned to be respective of the Greenpeace radical campaigns and, at the same time, not to cross the red line which would go beyond the acceptance of the general public.             


Greenpeace activists demonstrate in front of the Russian consulate general in Hong Kong Friday to protest the detention of its activists by Russia's authorities. Photo: AP

RD: What is more reasonable today - to focus on environmental challenges and to work on environmental projects or to invest into energy projects in the Arctic?

A.Z.: Everything here is important because everything is very much interlinked. The Arctic ecosystems have been very much under shock over the past decades because of the climate change which affects both ecosystems and biological diversity. At the same time, the climate change has raised the hopes that it would be more opportunities for increased economic activity, which basically entails eventual work on the shelf for oil and gas primarily. Yet, this is not the issue of today. If it comes, it will come much later, beyond 2030 because it’s too risky, too expensive.

What is happening now is increasing pollution of the Arctic from land because most economic activity takes place on land. Fifty percent of vessel traffic is fisheries, so fisheries are the biggest polluters of the Arctic. There is growing vessel traffic which is, I believe, becoming a pressing issue because any incident may result in unpredictable consequences. The current fears are if drilling is progressing offshore, it entails a much higher risks of an oil spill. But an oil or fuel spill can happen also because of the shipping - and in the Arctic, it is very difficult to deal with these issues.

So, if we anticipate an increasing economic activity, we need to assess risks that could be linked to more pollution. We need to take precautious measures if this pollution at best can be prevented and if does happen there would be quick measures to be taken to minimize the negative consequences of pollution. It’s very difficult to do so in the Arctic because it is a very remote area, with different climate, low temperatures and ice conditions. Most of the existing technologies to deal with an oil spill don’t work properly in the Arctic.


The Russian Arktika class nuclear powered icebreaker “50 Years of Victory” sails through the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Press Photo

RD: Many believe that warnings of environmentalists are exaggerated. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

A.Z.: The warnings of the environmentalists should be taken seriously. The concerns are very legitimate. That’s why we should not dismiss these warnings by environmentalists, but we should look for very clear and precise solutions. And we are open to dialogue and talk to each other.

Of course, there are some radical proposals. Some environmental groups, for example Greenpeace, suggest turning down and prohibiting any sort of economic activity, particularly, drilling in the Arctic. Ok, this is not going to happen. But we need to look for practical solutions to the relevant problems. They are very good in identifying the problems. After all, it’s their job to ring the bell. And now we need to sit together to come up with solutions during the dialogue.

RD: OK, there is dialogue between environmentalists, government and business. To sum up, what are the major risks of interrupting or hampering this dialogue?

A.Z.: Of course, any environmental radicalization makes the dialogue more difficult. Any business lobbying makes the progress more difficult. Any government inefficiency hampers it. I believe Russia may not be the best example of dealing with this issue because we don’t have any established tradition of listening to civil society and engaging in common decision making. It’s tough work, but without it, there will be no solutions.

RD: What will be the role of the non-Arctic states like China in the discussion at the conference? Why is it important to invite them to such discussions?

A.Z.: There are issues on which decisions cannot be taken only by coastal states because other states have rights and responsibilities. And when we want to have a regime and activities which would not harm the Arctic, we need to talk to those who have interests, rights and responsibilities there. And this goes to different areas including vessel traffic and fisheries.

If you exclude other states, this makes them worry and they are more inclined to some symbolic action in order to emphasize that they do have rights. If you choose an inclusive approach – you say, ‘OK, you have an interest – join us and we can talk’ – this though don’t satisfy their ambitions, but at the same time it will sort out common interests and rules wherever it’s needed.                 

RD: How can the concept of global governance contribute to regulating the Arctic and integrating non-Arctic players in resolving the region’s challenges?

A.Z.: Global governance instruments – the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, MARPOL convention [International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships], International Maritime Organization (IMO), International Seabed Authority  – are universal and cannot be substituted by regional instruments. And they are very important for engaging non-Arctic states in the dialogue. This is the place where they can voice their interests and positions. So, if we want the dialogue with Chinese on the vessel traffic, the best place to talk is within the International Maritime Organization.

The problem is, since the Arctic has been untouched for centuries, the interplay between global governance, regional governance and national governance was never practically applied there. It was more theory than practice. So, we are now in the situation when we’d better start sorting out what is the relationship between national, regional and global governance here. Where does national jurisdiction end? Where does regional governance apply? Where does it begin and end? What is the border line between regional and global governance? This is what states should talk about. This is the agenda of our upcoming conference.           

In this context, we should keep in mind the distinctions between costal states and non-Arctic states because Arctic states first think in terms of national and regional jurisdictions and they look what they can do at the regional level and are much less inclined to rely on global instruments. Meanwhile, non-Arctic states see global governance as more important because they are part of it, they are not the part of the regional governance. Thus, they think differently. So, to find common ground here is very important.   

The floating nuclear power plant can be used to generate electric power and heat, and also to desalinate seawater. Photo: ITAR-TASS

RD:  What role can the private sector play in tackling the Arctic problems, including the challenge of energy resources and environmental standoff? How to step up the collaboration between private sector and government?   

A.Z.: If economic development of the Arctic expands, it will be primarily the private sector which will do it, no matter what it will be: fishing, drilling, or shipping. For the private sector, it’s necessary to stay within the regulations and restrictions established by the state. The state doesn’t have enough resources to develop the Arctic – that’s why the state is interested in public private partnerships (PPP).

At the same time, this benefit is not very obvious for private businesses, particularly in the Arctic, because the expense will be huge: If you need only to develop Arctic infrastructure, land communications, harbors, it will be very difficult. And businesses, of course, would ask what is going to be in their interests. That’s why we proposed last year to establish an Arctic Business Forum which would bring together on the Russian side federal, regional and local authorities, as well as businesses and civil society.

The governments would have a platform for informing businesses what their plans are. Likewise, businesses would be able to articulate their concerns, or their problems with investment climate in the region. Meanwhile, civil society would be very important for checking them both, so that their deals don’t come at our expense, or at the expense of environmental protection.