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US-Russia Cooperation in the Arctic

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Coast Guard Air Station Sitka conducts hoist training operations with Coast Guard Cutter Anacapa (WPB 1335) off the coast of Sitka, Alaska. In the background, the sun is setting behind Mount Edgecumbe, a dormant volcano. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class William Parkinson.


There is nowhere in the world that is changing faster than in the Arctic, as climate change has rapidly reduced sea ice cover. Now, a region that once was covered in ice most of the year is accessible for human habitation, travel, and exploitation. The US and Russia share a maritime border along the Bering Strait and around the Arctic Ocean. They both share an interest in continued cooperation on safeguarding Arctic waters, ensuring that they can become economically beneficial for all parties, while also pursuing mutually beneficial research and preserving the environment. Greater cooperation in the Arctic can also mitigate the risks of an “Arctic arms race” between NATO nations and Russia, turning the region into a potential venue for conflict and competition. Putin has already signaled a willingness to meet with President Trump at a summit on Arctic issues; the Trump administration should make the most of this opportunity.


Improved Oil Spill Response Coordination

As the ice melts, previously inaccessible hydrocarbons can now more feasibly be extracted by offshore drilling rigs, but this raises the risk of an oil spill. The US and Russia share an interest in preventing oil spills and in continuing to expand their capacity to work together effectively under the auspices of Article 13 in the Arctic Council’s 2013 “Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic.


Oil spills would have negative effects on Arctic fish stocks, research, and shipping that would damage the interests of all Arctic nations. Potential research breakthroughs in the fields of environmental science, biology, and ecology can be lost forever due to oil spills; transnational fish stocks can be damaged or made poisonous to consume, and maritime travel through oil spills is dangerous. Article 13, Section 1 of the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution states that, “The Parties shall promote cooperation and coordination by endeavoring to carry out joint exercises and training, including alerting or call-out exercises, table-top exercises, equipment deployment exercises, and other relevant activities.” Building interoperability between US and Russian disaster response groups can build trust by increasing intergovernmental contact and potentially limit the damage of future oil spills by improving international response times and procedures. Sharing best-practices and specific technologies can prevent oil spills in the future from ever occurring, and a framework for doing so has already been developed by the Arctic Council.

This plan is low risk

The apolitical and largely civilian nature of preventing and responding to oil spills makes cooperation on this issue attractive and unlikely to be targeted by domestic politics in either country. The main risk associated with this plan comes from the potential export of specific technologies meant to prevent oil spills from occurring. There is a chance that certain technologies would also increase Russia’s capacity to exploit offshore hydrocarbons, which would undermine one aspect of current US and EU sanctions against Russia. The provision of technology is not required to improve prevention and response capabilities between the US and Russia. If there are not any technologies that could be exported without undermining other US foreign policy objections, that provision can be safely ignored without making cooperation useless.


Improved Fisheries Management

Although previously inaccessible, climate change is increasingly opening up Arctic waters to the world’s fishing fleets. In 2015, due to the lack of knowledge on Arctic fishing stocks and the fear of overfishing, the five nations bordering the Arctic Ocean (including the US and Russia along with Canada, Denmark, and Norway) voluntarily adopted a prohibition on fishing in the “high seas” of the Arctic until further notice (this does not affect fishing within any country’s territorial or Exclusive Economic Zone waters, where fishing has occurred for many decades). Since then, there has been an international effort to establish a binding agreement to safeguard Arctic waters until its ecology is better understood. It is within the interest of both the US and Russia to ensure that a binding agreement is adopted so that the Arctic’s rich fish stocks do not get destroyed by overfishing.


Without a binding agreement to mandate and enforce a prohibition on fishing in the Arctic high seas, there is a real risk that fishing fleets in waters not covered by the previous prohibition could devastate traveling fish stocks through overfishing.  A similar issue occurred in the 1980’s when a “donut hole” of international waters in the Bering Sea resulted in a massive crash in fish populations. Protecting fish populations throughout Arctic waters until sustainable fishing practices can be established, or until clear legal rights to all Arctic waters is established, is essential to maximizing the long-term economic gains for the American and Russian fishing industries. Additionally, preserving the ecology of those waters is important for ecological and biological research.

A binding agreement temporarily banning Arctic fishing can also serve as a future framework for common fishing practices to avoid a situation where uncoordinated national fishing policies lead to the inadvertent overfishing of transboundary stocks. While the current prohibition has been effective, its non-binding status means that the cooperation could give out unexpectedly to the detriment of American interests.

This plan is low risk

Arctic cooperation has historically been resilient to growing tension in other arenas between the US and Russia, and this particular policy area is relatively apolitical and requires cooperation to succeed. The penalties for cheating in arrangements to prevent overfishing have a very high chance of ultimately resulting in overfishing, the destruction of fish stocks, and the near-complete loss of economic and scientific benefits for all countries. Furthermore, there is no current fishing within the high seas area of the Arctic, so there remains time. Given the costs associated with cheating, the historical precedence for US-Russian cooperation in this area, and the potential benefits that require cooperation, this is an ideal area for US-Russian cooperation.


Joint Research Initiatives

The US and Russia should pursue joint research initiatives in the Arctic that would be mutually beneficial to both countries. One possible research initiative could be expanding support for the Russian-American Long-term Census of the Arctic (RUSALCA), which has been ongoing since 2004.


The Arctic holds important opportunities for advancing the fields of biology, environmental science, ecology, oceanography and geology that could lead to a more robust understanding of climate change, discovery of new fuel reserves, and the improvement of best practices in the fields of deep sea extraction, fishing, and shipping. These fields are likely to yield economic and scientific benefits for both countries, and are not likely to have a military dimension that would otherwise lead to further competition. Historically, research agreements have served as important platforms for trust building and as a channel for track-two talks between the two powers. Expanding the number of research agreements would increase these diplomatic dividends while also providing beneficial research. The agreements can also function as an additional lever of influence; judging by significant shifts in its security policies, Russia has demonstrated a greater interest in the Arctic than the US, which means that research agreements regarding the Arctic are relatively more value to them than to the US. This can potentially be used as a negotiating carrot.

This plan is low risk

Arctic research is difficult to militarize and research agreements can be tailored to specific topics that are not dual-use in any way shape or form. Just as the US could hypothetically threaten to end a research agreement as a foreign policy response, Russia could also make similar threats. Russia’s greater apparent interest in the Arctic means that they would have relatively more to lose from ending any such agreements, which means that it would be less likely to pursue such an option.


Improved Search-and-Rescue Coordination

The US and Russia should pursue increased cooperation in establishing search-and-rescue interoperability in Arctic waters through the auspices of Article 9, Section 3 of the “Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic”. This cooperation should take the form of joint exercises to build contacts between both countries’ maritime forces and reduce risk in future emergency situations.


Running search-and-rescue exercises between the US and Russia can build trust and relationships between the two forces that can reduce risk in future situations. Russia has an extensive body of knowledge on carrying out Arctic maritime operations, especially ones which may require the use of ice breakers, that could benefit US search-and-rescue operations, Additionally, because this cooperation would be carried out under the auspices of a pre-existing agreement and the mission is humanitarian in nature, it should not be politically costly to pursue.

This plan carries some risks

Russia remains sensitive to increases in US military assets in the Arctic, but the use of Coast Guard assets for the purposes of a Russo-American search-and-rescue exercise should not result in further degradation of American-Russo relations. Any such exercises will be used by the Russia to gather intelligence on US capabilities, but they will also provide a similar opportunity to the US. That being said, the US can minimize this risk by ensuring any assets deployed to the exercises do not contain sensitive equipment, intelligence, or capabilities. This could mean completely restricting the use of unmanned aircraft technology.