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Ukraine: The impact on international collaboration in the Antarctic

In June 2022, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties (ATCPs) gathered in Berlin[↗] to resume their face-to-face business after a hiatus caused by Covid-19. For an organisation that is premised on the principle of consensual decision-making, the decision to move from previous experiments in ‘zoom diplomacy[↗]’ was widely welcomed. Informal conversations, corridor encounters and post-meeting social gatherings have always been a feature of these meetings ever since the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty[↗] in 1961. Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCMs) are the formal mainstay of this treaty-based system. However, the last few months have been fraught as Russia and Ukraine, two Antarctic Treaty signatories, remain locked in conflict after the former’s full-scale invasion of the latter in February 2022. 

The Berlin ATCM was tense. Held between 23rd May and 1st June, many ATCPs (25, including 23 consultative parties) overtly showed their support to Ukraine – including a walk out[↗] from a meeting involving Russian representatives. Five ATCPs staged a démarche to the Russian Federation representative. This is unprecedented in the history of the ATCMs.

At an open plenary, Maksym Yemelianov[↗], the Minister Counsellor of the Embassy of Ukraine in Germany, spoke to delegates about the Russian invasion and its implications for ongoing Antarctic cooperation and goodwill. One issue involved Ukraine’s polar vessel, the Noosfera, and whether it would be able to return safely to its besieged home port of Odessa after being stranded in Chile since March. Ukrainian officials also confirmed that funding for Antarctic research was likely to be affected by the costs of the ongoing war. 

To be sure, even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the relationship with European and North American Antarctic parties and Russia had been ‘frosty[↗]’. Some of these tensions are due to broader structural forces affecting the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), and its regional-based model of polar governance. And some of it is simply down to the fact that Russia is perceived by Europeans and North American parties to be a difficult yet dominant Antarctic power[↗] to work with. 

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a timely reminder to the ATS that it is, and will continue to be, caught up in wider global geopolitical dynamics. All of which connects to the planetary changes affecting Antarctica as well. The greatest contribution that countries such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), Russia, and European Union could make to the protection of Antarctica would be to take seriously commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement. However, intensifying geostrategic competition between larger states – and notably with Russia – will make climate progress even harder given the focus is once again on energy security, supply chain vulnerabilities and competing power blocs.

An emerging pattern of bad Russian behaviour in the Antarctic

Securing consensus in Antarctic decision-making can be challenging when one party or more will not support a particular proposal or seeks to test the limits of governance. Four key examples of this in recent years have involved Russia. 

The most prominent has been sustained opposition to marine protection area (MPA) proposals in certain portions of the Southern Ocean. MPAs are widely used to help manage[↗] fish stock viability and overall marine biodiversity. Since 2016, the ATCPs have struggled to build on earlier MPA approvals. Russia and the PRC have been the most sceptical of these proposals and voiced concerns about their size, rules of engagement and longevity. 

Out of self-interest, Moscow wants to ensure fishing activities are strictly regulated to avoid a ‘free for all’ as well as to avoid MPAs from being used as a springboard for territorial claims over the continent. There is intense suspicion on the part of Russia that historic claimant states such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK promote MPAs as a proxy for advancing their territorial and resource interests. Russia did eventually support the Ross Sea MPA but has proven unwilling to support more recent proposals[↗] encompassing other areas of the Southern Ocean. 

Another notorious example involved a Russian fishing vessel, the Palmer, that was rightly accused of illegally fishing[↗] in the Southern Ocean in January 2020. Other parties accused the vessel of falsifying its global positioning system data and there was a push to blacklist the vessel following a meeting of the Commission on the Convention for Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Russia dissented – threatening to use its veto power at the Convention – and the proposal was dropped. 

It is an important reminder that the consensus norm can be weaponised against the majority of parties and is an illustration of how Russia can make its presence felt in the ATS. The UK discovered this recently when Russia objected to fishing catch limits for Patagonian Toothfish (Chilean Sea Bass) as part of the annual work of the Hobarb-based Commission for the Convention of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. After failing to secure a necessary consensus on catch limits, the UK unilaterally issued fishing licences[↗] for Chilean Sea Bass in order to protect the revenue stream for the Government of South Georgia, a British overseas territory. In the end the US rebuked[↗] the British for by-passing the CCAMLR process.

A third example was the ‘Novo incident’. In 2018, Norway conducted an official inspection of the Russian Novo and Perseus runways at the Novolazarevskaya air base[↗]. During the inspection, Russia blocked access to the Perseus runway by simply parking an aircraft in the middle of the runway. This created explicit concern among the Norwegian inspection team and wider ATS members regarding the nature of activities conducted there (notably possible military intelligence activities as opposed to science and logistical-based operations). The Norwegian report[↗] concluded about the Perseus runway that ‘The inspection team’s impression is that the Perseus runway is being established on the basis of a long-term strategy for developing and providing logistic services in the Eastern region of Dronning Maud Land.’ 

Finally, Russia continues to use its vessels to survey the Antarctic for the purpose of assessing the prospects for oil and gas deposits[↗] as well as to conduct hydrographic surveys for potential mineral extraction (notably uranium and rare earths). This sits uneasily with the provisions of the Protocol on Environmental Protection, under which article 7 declares that there should be a permanent ban on mining. What the article does not prohibit, however, is scientific research – which Moscow argues is what its surveys consist of. Russia’s activities are considered by others to be a conscientious decision to undermine the norms associated with seismic survey research, and ultimately a precursor for forthcoming resource extraction.

Where next? Russia and the Antarctic

Russia’s renewed assault against Ukraine[↗] has revealed a suite of ramifications that go far beyond the immediate region and has shed light on Russia’s intentions for the international order more broadly. 

Some Russian practices are linked to Moscow’s regional posture. Russia has an increasingly securitised understanding of Antarctic governance[↗] and there is growing suspicion that the Kremlin is transgressing the rule of ‘peaceful purposes’ of military activity in the region. Indeed, Russian ground-based space research and the use of Global Navigation Satellite System installations in Antarctica[↗] are suspected of being used for military intelligence purposes – for instance to track missiles. Furthermore, Moscow might also be using its Antarctic stations and ‘scientific’ expeditions at sea to conduct dual-use activities (notably naval intelligence and surveillance). All these actions would be in clear violation of the rules and norms associated with the ATS. 

The Berlin ATCM represented a breakdown in the relationship between some parties and Russia. The meeting did finish its business and importantly the PRC was not part of any condemnation of Russia at the meeting itself. Furthermore, the PRC shares Russia’s view of the ATS. Both countries have complained of an entrenched Antarctic club of European and American countries that is quick to identify both Russia and the PRC as obstacles to Antarctic unity. Beijing and Moscow contend that they have valid concerns about the wider ramifications of fisheries conservation, resource management and wider treaty business. 

For Russia, its presence in Antarctica is caught up in its strategic vision of the continent and ocean. The 2021 Action Plan[↗] sets out its objectives, and those include securing unimpeded access to the region and its resources. In 2020, concerted efforts were made around the world via Russia’s embassies to promote Russia’s historic and symbolic role in Antarctica[↗] and its status as a ‘semi-claimant’ (a country like the US that reserved the right to make a future territorial claim back in the 1940s and 1950s – even if the Antarctic Treaty’s Article 4 is clear that the territorial status quo of the continent is considered ‘frozen’ for the duration of the treaty). 

The Kremlin is defending its perceived national interests in the region. A more assertive Russia increases the risks of miscalculation and accidents. A challenge for the ATCPs is therefore how to manage the headache posed by Russia, both physically in the region and in terms of the maintenance of ‘consensual governance’. 

Isolating Russia carries with it considerable dangers. As an original signatory and pioneer of polar exploration and science, Russia will resist any attempts to be marginalised or isolated in the ATS. The reception of Russia at the ATCM in Berlin carries with it risks of adding to Russia’s entrenched sense of victimhood[↗]. Indeed, the Kremlin’s list of grievances runs deep, including the perception that the ATS itself has become geo-politicised and plays against Russian interests. This is important to understand because many European and North American states would consider their behaviour to be informed by science and environmental protection and shaped by the rules and norms of the ATS. 

The principle of consensus carries with it a considerable weight of expectation – and the move to majority voting would be strongly resisted by Russia in both fishing/conservation matters as well as more general treaty business. Russia also might yet attempt to divide the ATCP community by seeking to capitalise further on strategic relationships with countries such as South Africa. Russia’s Antarctic programme, including its marine seismic surveying activities and polar flights, depart from Cape Town. South Africa also did not condemn Russia at the ATCM in Berlin. 

Russia will continue to press its strategic agenda for the Antarctic undeterred, if not vindicated – considering the war against Ukraine – that displays of strength are (always) right. 

The pressure is therefore very much on the other ATCPs going forward to figure out how to hold onto cherished rules and norms such as consensus in a world that is becoming ever more competitive and controversial.

Prof. Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics and Executive Dean of the School of Life Sciences and Environment at Royal Holloway University of London. Mathieu Boulegue is a Senior Research Fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

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