Our Burning Planet

EXCLUSIVE: BATTLEGROUND ANTARCTICA

As ‘ice curtain’ descends, Ukraine speaks out about Antarctic war shocks

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Antarctic division head Evgen Dykyi and fellow officials inspect the arrival of the country’s new polar research vessel, the Noosfera, in the port of Odesa in October. (Photo: The Ukraine National Antarctic Scientific Centre)

The Antarctic Treaty’s annual meeting makes major decisions about the world’s largest climate-threatened wilderness. This year, amid war tensions, host country Germany has blocked the media from attending the entire gathering under way in Berlin. Ahead of Ukraine’s polar vessel arriving in Cape Town on Friday, the country’s Antarctic director, Evgen Dykyi, said that Russia’s war has already spilled onto the ice — 13,600km from Berlin.

Antarctica is not the only part of the planet currently in the dark. While the winter sun will only rise over the South Pole in September, a traditional media blackout has descended over the two-week annual meeting that governs the ice-bound Antarctic and its Southern Ocean.

The gathering of polar powers under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty — which has ruled the bottom of the Earth more than 60 years for peaceful aims such as tourism and science — opened Tuesday. 

Attended in person by many of the treaty’s almost 55 signatories, the hybrid meeting is of global interest — not only because Antarctica hit record-low sea ice the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, but because Germany, as host, faces the Sisyphean task of sufficiently cooling heated discussions with the warring states in attendance. 

Hosted in Berlin, the event marks the first time Russia and Ukraine — both treaty signatories with voting rights — have sent polar diplomats to sit around the same table since Russia’s unprovoked 24 February invasion. 

An informal recording of Ukraine delegate Andrii Fedchuk, speaking at the annual meeting in Berlin about the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine’s Antarctic activities. The cellphone video was taken from inside the hall, where journalists are not allowed. Source: Ukraine’s Berlin Embassy via Facebook

Media access has been rebuffed — including requests by Daily Maverick to observe the opening ceremony, the only part of the closed-door annual meeting normally open to journalists. 

“The opening ceremony was not open for any member of the press,” Germany’s foreign ministry told Daily Maverick

Although treaty meetings are always closed to the press, delegates privately told Daily Maverick that the ministry was wary of war tensions. 

Among diplomatic coups, the treaty and companion agreements ban militarisation, nuclear tests, radioactive waste, mining and territorial possession in a wilderness that can accommodate five Australias — but, without consensus, conservation and scientific decisions are impossible to advance.  

Even so, during Tuesday’s ceremony — according to a rare statement released out of the meeting — it was Germany’s climate envoy and state secretary, Jennifer Morgan, who was handed the podium to address the war, waged by one signatory upon another. 

“Russia is waging an unjustifiable, unprovoked and illegal war of aggression against Ukraine,” said Morgan, former head of Greenpeace, marking a historic departure from the treaty’s usually restricted, don’t-rock-the-icebreaker culture. 

The state secretary said Russia had “violated the UN Charter and other fundamental principles of international law”, calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime to end the war and withdraw troops immediately “from the entire territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”.

Morgan urged delegates “not to block important decisions for reasons unrelated to Antarctic interests”, referencing the challenges of hosting deliberations during the biggest land war since 1945. 

antarctic ice curtain
The 13,600km distance between Berlin and the bottom of the Earth, as shown on Google Maps. Yet, war can make Antarctica seem remarkably close.

After the ceremony, during a speech by the Russian delegation, 25 states including Ukraine staged a walkout to show “decisive support for Ukraine in connection with the Russian armed aggression”, according to a statement by Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre, which executes state polar interests. 

Ukraine Antarctic authorities told Daily Maverick the members joining the walkout included 24 out of 29 states with treaty voting powers, including the US, the UK, EU countries and India — but not China, Peru and South Africa. The latter has adopted a controversial “non-aligned” approach that featured during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s awkward presser with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Pretoria on Tuesday. Scholz said that votes with Russia were “intolerable”.

antarctic ukraine delegation
The in-person Ukraine delegation, from left: Maksym Yemelianov, minister counsellor of Ukraine’s embassy in Germany; and Andrii Fedchuk, head of international scientific and technical cooperation for Ukraine’s Antarctic division.

Photo provided by the Ukraine National Antarctic Scientific Centre

“In that manner, most of the treaty countries have shown that the Antarctic world is a civilised world in which there is no place for Russian barbarians,” said Oleksii Shkuratov, Ukraine delegation head and deputy minister of education and science, commenting on the walkout. He participated online. 

“We hope this is only the first step towards the forthcoming restriction of any activity of the Russian Federation in the international legal system of the Antarctic Treaty. And that is what we are actively asserting throughout this year’s meeting.” 

Ukraine: Antarctic scientists called to fight

In a candid interview with Daily Maverick, Ukraine Antarctic official Evgen Dykyi — also an online delegate — said the war had severely disrupted Ukraine research. 

As sirens wailed over Kyiv in February, the country’s new polar research vessel, the Noosfera, was undertaking her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to Antarctica. She had departed the now besieged Black Sea port of Odesa at the end of January — marking Ukraine’s first independent Antarctic voyage in about 20 years. 

Acquired from the UK at a nominal peppercorn price, the vessel aimed to serve “the needs of Ukrainian Antarctic expeditions and re-establish marine research in the Southern Ocean and other parts of the world ocean”, said Dykyi, director of Ukraine’s National Antarctic Scientific Centre. A trained Black Sea ecologist and 2014 Donbas war veteran demobilised by disability, Dykyi was speaking ahead of the Noosfera’s expected Cape Town arrival this Friday after wrapping her recent Antarctic season, despite the war.

“The return of the vessel to Ukraine is now temporarily impossible,” said Dykyi. 

According to a Wilson Centre webinar last week, Ukraine was to present a paper at the annual meeting detailing challenges caused by the war. Dykyi —  not at liberty to discuss proceedings — was unable to confirm the paper’s details. 

However, Dykyi explained that the war had “sequestrated” Ukraine’s Antarctic budget and reduced its marine research, which intended to contribute data to marine protected areas repeatedly blocked by Russia and China since 2016. 

Ukraine was owed Antarctic scientific facilities after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, claimed Dykyi, but he said Russia had not fulfilled asset agreements. 

A donation by the UK of a West Antarctic research station, now called Vernadsky, “was the only possible way for Ukraine to return to Antarctic research, interrupted by the violation of the agreement”, said Dykyi. The 2014 Crimea occupation had also “created significant difficulties” and budget cuts for Antarctic and oceanographic research, he added.

“It was only in 2018 when we renewed the funding, and also received additional budget for the renovation of Ukraine’s Antarctic research base,” he explained. 

President Volodymyr Zelensky personally inspected the Noosfera in Odesa in October last year — just months later, the port city would be shelled by Russian warships. 

“Some of the participants of the Ukrainian Antarctic expedition were drafted to serve in the armed forces of Ukraine, while the other participants are in the military reserve and unable to leave Ukraine during martial law,” Dykyi noted. Antarctic staff serving Ukraine after a year of isolation in the frigid, inhospitable Far South learnt about the war “while being far from home”.

Even so, he pointed out the expedition had fulfilled its state agreements, arriving “safely” at Ukraine’s West Antarctic research station at the end of March. Supply deliveries and personnel exchanges were completed in “normal mode”. 

“The main staff of the 27th Ukrainian Antarctic Expedition — 14 persons — were delivered by land across the Ukrainian-Polish border to Warsaw airport, from where they departed to Chile,” he said.

In the interview, Dykyi exhorted treaty states to adopt “response measures” to address Russia’s “unilateral violation of the basic principles” of the treaty. His suggestions included economic sanctions, preventing Russian officials from chairing working groups and “termination or suspension” of joint treaty projects.

Before the war, Russia loudly and often reaffirmed its treaty commitments — but a new Daily Maverick investigation shows Russia has not stopped searching Antarctica for vast oil and gas deposits and other minerals since the region’s 1998 mining ban entered into force. 

“The unconditional loss of confidence in the aggressor party in terms of its compliance with international obligations in other areas, including obligations under the treaty, is an equally significant negative consequence of this,” said Dykyi. 

“This jeopardises the atmosphere of mutual trust and support that has been built up by the Antarctic community over the years and requires a consolidated response from the community.”

Dykyi’s words were echoed by Morgan’s statement, which emphasised the importance of multilateralism, “although the loss of confidence in the aggressor party in terms of its compliance with international obligations is evident”.

“Lessons learned from this situation”, the Black Sea ecologist suggested, could strengthen the treaty and its agreements. “Ukraine is fighting now not only for Ukrainian freedom, but for the freedom of the democratic world,” he said. 

Referring to Russian scientists “who publicly condemn the Putin regime and oppose war”, he cited “single heroes” with whom he was “ready” to collaborate. “In general, Russian science is part of the totalitarian state,” he said, referencing institutions.

These principles, said Dykyi, applied to treaty state Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, who aided the invasion, but has applied for treaty voting rights — under consideration at the current annual meeting. 

“The Ukrainian position is clear: we are waiting for Belarus in the international Antarctic community after real democratic presidential elections,” said Dykyi. “Lukashenko’s regime could not be part of international scientific cooperation.” 

Russian and Belarusian state authorities could not be reached for comment.

In a Nature opinion article, researchers from the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists have argued that polar science had to “transcend borders”.

“Science is rooted in collaboration,” it said, “so we should resist isolating climate scientists in Russia.”

In a recent analysis, global governance scholar Yelena Yermakova told Daily Maverick she worried about a “very likely scenario” — “blocked and/or isolated states withdrawing and doing whatever they want in Antarctica, for instance, mining”.

A senior research Fellow at Japan’s Kobe Polar Co-operation Research Centre, and a Saint Petersburg native no longer based in Russia, Yermakova said international institutions “should contribute to developing a language of reason, especially at times like these”.

No ‘situations’ or ‘actions’ — please

Meanwhile, the “#icecurtain”, as veteran Antarctic commentator Andrew Darby yearly reminds the Twittersphere, appears to remain largely in place as treaty states convene until 2 June. 

Shortly after Tuesday’s opening ceremony, the treaty secretariat posted on its Twitter account an image of a Ukraine delegate within the meeting hall. It had disabled public replies on that post. Apparently deleted, the post no longer appears available on the secretariat’s account. 

Secretariat authorities did not respond to questions about media restrictions or details about the opening ceremony, although previously treaty secretary Albert Lluberas told Daily Maverick the secretariat did “not provide comments on situations or actions as it is not in our mandate”. According to the treaty secretariat’s website, to which Lluberas himself referred us, the secretariat’s mandate includes “providing and disseminating information about the Antarctic Treaty system and Antarctic activities”.

The South African delegation told Daily Maverick it could not discuss South Africa’s position on key issues, citing “media protocols”. 

At the time of publication, organisers under Germany’s foreign office had also placed the agenda under lock and key — we share a draft version here, which may not resemble the latest version. 

The provisional agenda of the treaty meeting in Berlin. (Source: Antarctic Treaty)

At a recent Wilson’s Centre webinar, however, senior German diplomats slated to be at the annual meeting offered clues to priority issues on the discussion table. 

Meeting chair Tania von Uslar-Gleichen said the German delegation’s rallying cry was “from policy to protection”. 

“We have to protect Antarctic biodiversity, which includes establishing a network of protected areas,” she said. The gathering would also consider proposals about the future of the emperor penguin and growing tourism pressures. 

The meeting chair also alluded to possible tectonic tremors in treaty discussions about fragile Antarctic immunity. 

“We hope this meeting will send a strong message of co-operation in light of serious challenges to the Antarctic ecosystem,” Von Uslar-Gleichen said.

“We need to counteract the effects of climate change, which we all feel globally. What starts in Antarctica, does not stay in Antarctica.” DM/OBP

 

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  • ‘The bottom of the earth’? Ag nee wat! There is no up or down in space. This conventional view of the earth is entirely arbitrary, deriving from a period when European (‘Northern’) countries dominated geographical research and it was found to be entirely natural for the’ northern’ hemisphere to be pictured as dominant and superior. Consider the common phrase ‘ ‘going south’ (i.e. deteriorating). This ‘picture’ of ‘high’ and ‘low’, and its ongoing acceptance as normal/natural, is a mostly unregarded relic of colonialism.

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