Science and National Security Meet in the Arctic

Scientific cooperation in the Arctic is a rare bright spot in U.S.- Russian relations and may help reduce the likelihood of nuclear catastrophe.

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Russia’s dramatic military buildup in the Arctic could aggravate an already icy relationship with the United States.1 Russia is in the process of reopening over 50 Soviet-era bases along its Arctic coastline as search-and-rescue stations, deep-water ports, airfields, and air-defense radar stations.2 Russia is also expanding its nuclear capabilities in the region, including new ballistic missile submarines3 and refurbished airfields to allow nuclear-capable bombers to cover the polar region.4 This expanded infrastructure has been accompanied by several massive unannounced military exercises, some simulating the use of nuclear weapons.2

Moscow has rejected claims about its “aggressive steps” in the Arctic,5 claiming that its Arctic presence is purely defensive in nature.6 The region holds significant economic value—about a fifth of Russia’s GDP is produced above the Arctic circle7—and it is home to Russia’s Northern Fleet, which includes a majority of its strategic maritime nuclear capabilities. Although Russia’s growing presence in the area may be intended solely to protect its economic and military interests, the increased militarization of the region has raised concerns about the possibility of conflict as melting ice leads to competition over natural resources and control of new trade routes.5, 8–10

This ominous portrayal of Russian militarization in the region is juxtaposed against a much different description provided by Arctic scientists. In a New York Times letter to the editor, Victoria Herrmann, the U.S. director of the Arctic Institute’s Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, describes the Arctic as a region where “science diplomacy [is] helping both countries better understand the challenges of warmer winter.”11 Despite concerns over future conflict, the Arctic region is still marked by significant cooperation, including between the United States and Russia. The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum of the eight Arctic states (United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) and six indigenous groups, works on issues like the adverse effects of climate change and protecting the Arctic environment. Scientific cooperation is vital to achieving these goals. The United States and Russia have worked together on this mission through initiatives like the Russian–American Long-term Census of the Arctic (RUSALCA), ongoing since 2004.12

U.S.-Russian scientific cooperation in the Arctic has managed to largely weather the recent downturn in political relations.7, 13, 14 This is important for advancing both U.S. scientific goals and national security. For one, scientific research in the region is essential to understand the growing effects of climate change, an important question to the U.S. military. A warming climate will affect U.S. military posture in the Arctic as melting ice allows for the expansion of surface naval activities but reduces protection for submarines, and climate change will play an increasingly destabilizing role in other regions as well.15 The harsh environment and lack of resources in the Arctic preclude the United States from undertaking vital scientific research on climate change alone, making cooperation with Russia not only beneficial, but imperative. For example, the United States has just two icebreakers that can assist with scientific missions; Russia has 40 and counting.16

Scientific cooperation has also helped the United States maintain leadership in the region. The United States does not have the same economic ties to the Arctic as Russia, with less than one percent of the U.S. GDP coming from the Arctic region.17 Non-Arctic countries like China are also looking to become more involved in the region.18 In an increasing multilateral environment, the United States has maintained leadership in the region in part by championing scientific programs like climate change mitigation and environmental protection. These issues were a key focus during U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 2013 to 2015. The United States, Russia, and Finland also co-chaired the Scientific Cooperation Task Force, in operation from 2013 to 2017, which led to the May 2017 Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation.

Finally, scientific cooperation in the Arctic can improve U.S.-Russian relations on nuclear issues. At the end of the Cold War, basic science collaborations in high-energy physics and computational modeling fostered trust and paved the way to effective cooperation on nuclear security projects through the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. These efforts have effectively ceased in recent years, to the detriment of global security.19 Maintaining scientific cooperation in the Arctic on less politically sensitive topics could potentially lead to resumed collaboration on nuclear security issues such the remediation of legacy nuclear waste in the Arctic.

In a written statement to Congress last year, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated, “The Arctic is key strategic terrain. Russia is taking aggressive steps to increase its presence there. I will prioritize the development of an integrated strategy for the Arctic.”5 A comprehensive national strategy for the region should include scientific cooperation. Understanding climate change, maintaining leadership in the region, and cooperating with Russia on nuclear security are all in our national security interests and will help preserve peace in a high-stakes region. The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation, which former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed in May 2017, is a solid step forward, but as U.S.-Russian relations are likely further strained, it is crucial to not abandon this aspect of the U.S. Arctic security strategy.


  1. Lynch, J. America Needs to Get Serious About the Arctic. The National Interest. Published January 12, 2017.
  2. Conley, H. America in the Arctic. CSIS Commentary. Published June 4, 2015.
  3. Phasing NATO Out of Arctic: Russia Arming Up Northern Fleet with New Weapons. Sputnik International. Published January 6, 2017.
  4. Galeotti, M. Russia Is Using Extortion in the Arctic. The Moscow Times. Published December 2, 2014.
  5. Watson, P. A Melting Arctic Could Spark a New Cold War. Time. Published May 12, 2017.
  6. Sergunin, A., Konyshev V. Russian military strategies in the Arctic: change or continuity? Eur Secur. 2017. 26 (2): 171–189. doi:10.1080/09662839.2017.1318849.
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  11. Herrmann, V. Letter to the Editor: U.S.-Russian Cooperation in the Arctic. New York Times. Published May 9, 2016.
  12. Crane, K. RUSALCA Introduction. National Oceanc and Atmospheric Administration Arctic Program. Accessed March 28, 2018.
  13. Tingstad, A., Pezard, S., Stephenson, S. Will the Breakdown in U.S.-Russia Cooperation Reach the Arctic? The RAND Blog. Published October 13, 2017.
  14. Berkman, P. A., Kullerud, L., Pope, A., Vylegzhanin, A.N., Young, O.R. The Arctic Science Agreement Propels Science Diplomacy. Science. 2017. 358 (6363): 596–598. doi:10.1126/science.aaq0890.
  15. Climate-Related Risk to DoD Infrastructure Initial Vulnerability Assessment Survey (SLVAS) Report. 2018. Risk to DoD Infrastructure (SLVAS) Report.pdf.
  16. Gramer, R. Here’s What Russia’s Military Build-up in the Arctic Looks Likey. Foreign Policy. Published January 25, 2017.
  17. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Gross Domestic Product by State: Fourth Quarter and Annual 2017. 2018.
  18. Lanteigne, M., Shi, M. China Stakes Its Claim to the Arctic. The Diplomat. Published January 29, 2018.
  19. Hecker, S. S. US-Russia Rift Threatens Science Ties that Keep Us Safe. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Published December 8, 2016.
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