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Environmental Diplomacy: The United States and Russia in the Arctic

A desolate landscape and frozen ocean seems like an unlikely place for the scene of major world events and geopolitical confrontation. But as climate change accelerates the thawing of the Arctic polar caps, it welcomes an abundance of natural resources, fisheries, and commercial sea routes.

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin at 2021 Geneva Summit (2021) White House | Wikimedia Commons
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin at 2021 Geneva Summit (2021) White House | Wikimedia Commons

The countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, including the United States and Russia, all lay claim to areas of exploitable territory from their respective borders—and often with overlapping boundaries. Therefore, the Arctic Council was created in 1996 to resolve territorial disputes and promote cooperation to combat environmental challenges facing the region.

Despite a complicated relationship since the end of the Cold War, the Arctic Council facilitates a successful partnership between the United States and Russia. More recently, a June 2021 Biden-Putin summit recognized the Arctic as an area of peaceful cooperation; the two countries partner in areas of scientific research, search and rescue missions, environmental protection, and more. However, continued cooperation rests on the efficacy of the Council in light of increased military operations in the region and rising geopolitical tensions, especially with the introduction of new actors, such as China.

As the Arctic Affairs Officer in the State Department Bureau of Oceans, Environment, and Science (OES) in the mid-1990s, Ambassador Thomas Hart Armbruster had the opportunity to contribute to the creation of the Arctic Council. He served in the now-antiquated environmental science, technology, and health career track as a foreign service officer, focusing on nuclear policy with Russia after having developed an interest in the environment and Russia in his childhood. He worked on curbing pollution from nuclear power plants stationed in the Arctic and advocated for environmental protection initiatives in the Arctic and other areas during his diplomatic assignments in subsequent postings. Armbruster also served in the Marshall Islands, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, Cuba, and Finland.

Thomas Armbruster’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on November 28, 2018.

Read Thomas Armbruster’s full oral history HERE.

For further reading, click HERE for Ambassador Armbruster’s article on Practicing Environmental Diplomacy.

Drafted by Anya Gorodentsev

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Excerpts:

“I developed an environmental awareness. That was a thread throughout my Foreign Service career.”

           
Arctic Circle, University of Texas Austin | Wikimedia Commons
Arctic Circle, University of Texas Austin | Wikimedia Commons

Formative childhood experiences: Severna Park is on the Chesapeake Bay. One of the early interests I had was in the environment thanks to an eighth-grade teacher. She offered us the chance to not just write papers but to go out and do things. She encouraged us to pick an assignment and find a way to get out on the water. So, I spent the day with a Chesapeake Bay oysterman and interviewed him. I later worked on a charter fishing boat called the “Breezin’ Through.” I got to hear the captain’s stories about the Chesapeake when there were just acres and acres of fish. So, from that I developed an environmental awareness. That was a thread throughout my Foreign Service career.

Gil Callaway was going off to Moscow as the Press Secretary. My mom said, “You have a distant relative, who you never met, go help him pack up and move.” So I did. They invited me to live with them as a nanny for a year in Moscow. I was 17 and that opened my eyes to what embassy life was like. I also worked at the Anglo-American School as a gym teacher. I played broomball and went to the Marine House.

“Now with global warming there are sea routes that didn’t exist before and there is a lot of geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia staking their claims.”

The creation of the Arctic Council: Our major focus was on the creation of the Arctic Council. That was a nascent body that has since grown into a ministerial level gathering. As you said, they take on a lot of very substantive things. They have a working group on birds. They have something on persistent organic pollutants in the Arctic marine environment. Indigenous knowledge. They really take all of the Arctic countries and glean the expertise they can whether it is from scientists, politicians, or indigenous people so that there can be some concerted effort to advance the lives of people there and that very important habitat. It was exciting to be in at the ground floor of the creation of the Arctic Council and I think it has become one of those bodies that works very well. We also work on Antarctic issues. Of course, the Antarctic has the Antarctic Treaty and all countries can do scientific work there. I think that is a model that would work in outer space and elsewhere, but there are fascinating issues and I have tried to stay current on polar issues. Now with global warming there are sea routes that didn’t exist before and there is a lot of geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia staking their claims. As you said huge resources, both extractive and animal resources and now the potential for tourism. So, to have an international body that can try to improve the way we develop in the arctic is a good thing…. China was not formally in the Arctic Council but were also formally observing and participating because they saw it as an important international body. I don’t think it would be fair to say they were shaping policy at that point. I think now they are more powerful and the international Arctic organizations help to shape policy in the region.

“It was a chance to see what the triggers were for each country and how we could coordinate in the event of a nuclear disaster.”

           
Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant (2016) Maxinvestigator | Wikimedia Commons
Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant (2016) Maxinvestigator | Wikimedia Commons

Cooperation on the nuclear front: I worked on some of the risks to the Arctic, and so I went to Norway for an Arctic Council meeting and talked about the industries and sources of pollution that threatened the Arctic. That wasn’t a very popular briefing as far as the Russians were concerned because the top ten risks we identified emanated from Russia. And then the other project I had was something called RADEX, a simulation of a nuclear release in the Arctic. There is a nuclear plant in Bilibino, Russia. We called this “Arcticland” so we wouldn’t say that it was in Russia. But the Russians participated. At this point we had pretty good relations with the Russians. So we simulated a plume of radioactivity throughout the Arctic. Each country would say at this level of radiation we are going to distribute iodine. At this level we are going to evacuate people… It was a chance to see what the triggers were for each country and how we could coordinate in the event of a nuclear disaster. That took place in Anchorage and we all took a trip up to the Arctic Circle in a C-130. It was a good chance for the Russian scientists and the Norwegian and Swedish and Icelandic and everybody to compare notes and coordinate policy. I thought it was a good early example of what could be done. The Russians aren’t as cooperative today as they were then. That was an encouraging time.

“There was real resistance to having any kind of environmental relief for the Russians.”

           
THArmbruster (2015) | Wikimedia Commons
THArmbruster (2015) | Wikimedia Commons

Interagency tensions:
Q: OK, being in the department for the first time what were the other impressions or new learning you had. This is sort of the first time you are in the mother ship so to speak.

ARMBRUSTER: That is true and I got the feeling that environmental issues were being taken very seriously. They had created a career track; an environmental science, technology and health track for people interested in these fields. My follow-on assignment was George Washington’s Elliott School for International Science Policy. I thought that was going to be the direction I was going to go in my career. There was real resistance to having any kind of environmental relief for the Russians. I wrote a paper on expanding U.S. environmental assistance to Russia, that would go beyond our nuclear deals because of the public diplomacy payback we would get. You know, you go to a Russian town and do something good for their environment and put the American seal on it, it is going to be good for us. The same as if you do schools or roads or hospitals. But the reaction in the department was definitely no…the military was very cautious about what the U.S. was going to do and commit to in the Arctic, and they had real hard lines. So, we had to be careful about how far we could go and to what extent the U.S. could be involved in something…. That interagency dynamic was something I was just beginning to learn, finding out that other agencies have real equities and you have to take them into account, because if you don’t, your treaty, your agreement is not going to hold up.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in Political Science, Western Maryland College 1976–1980
MS in International Relations and National Security Studies, Naval War College 2003–2004
Joined the Foreign Service 1988
Oceans, Environment, and Science Bureau—Arctic Affairs Officer 1993–1995
Moscow, Russia—Nuclear Affairs Officer 1997–2000
Vladivostok, Russia—Consul General 2007–2010
Marshall Islands—Ambassador 2012–2016