Our Burning Planet


Ukraine should lead, but marine parks may have to wait, says former head of Kremlin’s Antarctic programme

Ukraine should lead, but marine parks may have to wait, says former head of Kremlin’s Antarctic programme
Emperor Penguins. (Photo: iStock)

In a rare in-depth interview, Valery Lukin — who executed Russia’s Antarctic interests for decades until 2017 — told Our Burning Planet he did not see why Kremlin officials would object to Ukraine’s pending chairship of the Southern Ocean’s hotly contested fisheries body, meeting in Australia until 4 November. But he was less buoyant on the matter of marine protected areas.

The question on everyone’s lips at a tense Antarctic fisheries and conservation meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, is whether Russia might thwart the pending chairship of the sovereign state it invaded in February as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing war of aggression. 

As is their alphabetical right, Ukraine’s polar authorities are set to follow in the footsteps of Sweden, the current chair, by assuming the rotating reins of the major fisheries body in 2023 and 2024. Known as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), this body was forged in 1982 under the Antarctic Treaty System’s (ATS’s) six-decade peace and science laws to protect the Southern Ocean against commercial overfishing. 

In a separate interview with Our Burning Planet this week, Ukraine’s polar authorities were keen to stress that the war-torn state would have the multidisciplinary capability to lead the commission of 26 member states, plus the EU. 

“All necessary and possible measures for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, based on the best available scientific data” were critical to it, said the state, which harvests Patagonian toothfish, as well as krill, a shrimp-like crustacean. It owns a research station in West Antarctica, plus the Noosfera ice-class vessel, which is at anchor in Cape Town — an Antarctic gateway port. 

But would officials from Russia — a commission member state alongside BRICS partners China and South Africa — have the gall to veto Ukraine’s chairship under the body’s consensus-based decision-making system? 

In response to that question, the Russian polar expert Dr Valery Lukin told us that Russia has “always advocated and advocates, at present, for preservation of existing international law in any regions of the planet, including the Antarctic”. 

The UN Charter prohibits “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. 

Last month, a two-thirds majority of UN members, including most ATS members, voted to condemn Russia’s “illegal so-called referendums” in the Ukraine regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia. This was the latest in a series of UN resolution votes since Russia’s February 24 invasion — furnishing ATS members with sufficient reason to be suspicious of Russian motives at the current annual fisheries meeting. 

Unless most commission members exercised a possible option to ignore a veto of the chairship, such a move would potentially throw this key Antarctic governance body into disarray. (As it was, the current meeting in Hobart kicked off with several Western states walking out on the Russian delegation’s speech.) 

Lukin emphasises that he does not have, “at present, official government status” — but says he is “well informed about the CCAMLR session held in Hobart this year”. 

Indeed, the 75-year-old oceanographer is the fêted former figurehead of Russian polar programmes, heading the Russian Antarctic Expedition’s interests between 1991 and 2017. Lukin also, in 2002, was known for defending a US attempt to reportedly bill the Kremlin $80,000 for rescuing Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov from the South Pole during a biplane incident. (In 2007, Chilingarov planted Russia’s flag on the North Pole seafloor.) 

Though no longer a formal “representative of the Russian government on Antarctic matters”, Lukin points out that, “when asked”, he still consults at executive state bodies. 

In 2018 and 2019, he was a member of the Russian delegation at annual ATS meetings and says he remains interested “in the issues of development” of Antarctic governance. 

‘Russia cannot have objections’

Session chairship, Lukin says, “does not give any additional rights to the national delegation at such forums”. It is the duty of that chair to “preserve neutrality and take into account the opinion of all parties”, as opposed to advocating that country’s position. 

“The chair of the CCAMLR session is designated in the order of names of the country participants to the convention, according to the Latin alphabet — similar to chairmanship at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings,” he observes. 

“So, in my opinion,” he offers, “Russia cannot have any objections in this regard.”

Russia ‘thought it necessary’ to support 2016 MPA

Both China and Russia supported the creation of the Ross Sea MPA (marine protected area) — the largest in the world — in the Southern Ocean’s Pacific sector. Throwing their weight behind this Western-led push in 2016 would ensure that 80% of a two million sq km area was declared off-limits to fisheries — but since then, both states have blocked new MPAs in the Weddell Sea, and off East Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. The areas under consideration total four million sq km.

This is a significant lagging project for the ATS’s Western bloc — the US this year sent the assistant secretary of state, Monica Medina, to spearhead a high-level bid. 

In a hard-hitting call to action, published in the journal Science to coincide with the meeting, an A-list of polar scientists note that MPAs can “alleviate the stressors on the ecosystem, such as fishing”. 

We can do extraordinary things in the Antarctic. At the height of the Cold War in 1959, countries came together and signed the Antarctic Treaty — suspending sovereignty, banning nuclear and military operations and dedicating the continent to peace and science,” says Professor Cassandra M Brooks, the University of Colorado Boulder’s lead author on that paper.

For his part, Lukin suggests that sentiment had little to do with Russia’s 2016 MPA support — it backed the Ross Sea campaign because it was commission chair at the time. 

“Russia thought it necessary to join participants of this MPA in 2016 when our country was chair of the CCAMLR session,” he says, but argues that the organisers of that marine park are yet to deliver on their promises.

“When Russia agreed to join the participants of the Ross Sea MPA, our specialists demanded an obligatory requirement,” he notes. This asked for an “international programme” that would monitor “the state of bio-resources” in the area. 

“However, as far as I know, no such programme was created up to now. The organisers of the Ross Sea MPA — New Zealand and the US — could not establish such a programme due to different reasons. New Zealand does not have the necessary material resources for this,” he claims. “The US considered that their objectives were already fulfilled.”

That is because, the oceanographer notes, the US is a commission member, but it is not a registered Southern Ocean fishing state

Lukin accuses New Zealand of pursuing the Ross Sea MPA for commercial reasons: “I want to remind you that the catch of toothfish in the Ross Sea by New Zealand was the largest of all country participants. The declared restrictions in the fishery create advantages for New Zealand as it can continue its fishery under the guise of monitoring bio-resources, but not at the international level.” 

New Zealand and US authorities could not be reached for immediate comment. 

Russia’s general “standpoint” on Antarctic MPAs was outlined “in detail” in a working paper tabled at the ATS’s 2014 annual meeting in Brazil, he says. Ukraine is among a number of members sponsoring protected area research, and stresses that it regards “best available scientific data as a top priority”. Yet, Lukin — by referring to that working paper published shy of a decade ago — suggests that some of the document’s issues remain relevant to the present fracas. 

“The rectangular boundaries of the declared MPAs have nothing in common with bio-geographical habitats and in many respects repeat the boundaries of the maritime Antarctic sectors declared by a group of countries in the first half of the 20th century,” it says. “The proposed periods of duration of the MPAs are in no way connected to the real requirements of marine biological science and ecology.”

That working paper contends Russia is not an antagonistic MPA actor. 

“Russia in the main is not opposed to the creation of MPAs in Antarctica but insists that they fully correspond to the initial goals and tasks of the organisation of such regions,” it says.

The Palmer — cloaked in mystery

Since December 2020, there is no record of a registered Russian fishing vessel on the commission’s database since New Zealand accused Russia’s Palmer — a toothfish harvester — of plying off-limits waters.

Asked why this is the case, Lukin says that he has “no official information about the activity of Russian fishing ships in the region of CCAMLR activity from the Russian agency on fisheries. 

“I hope that, after the end of the session of this year, I will receive some information about the events there.” 

A multipolar world

Lukin insists that consensus principles “practically eliminate” the use of “alliances and bloc relations” to swing ATS decision-making. 

But “one cannot say that Russia is in isolation among other parties to the Antarctic Treaty,” Lukin contends. “China, India and South Africa support us.”

South Africa’s latest Antarctic strategy, gazetted last year, does not cite Russia, but it does make special mention of the BRICS bloc — among other “effective geopolitical alliances” — with which it would seek to forge ATS partnerships. 

Over the past year, South African state officials have repeatedly failed to respond to questions about the government’s stance on various Antarctic issues, including Russia and the latest meeting in Hobart. But South Africa is on record, if controversially so, for Pretoria’s non-alignment policy, rather than active support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The 1959 treaty “united many countries of the world,” Lukin continues, referring to BRICS as another example of successful cooperation. 

But “globalisation of the economy that occurred in the world for the last 20 to 30 years did not touch the Antarctic in any way,” Lukin proposes. “Existing and fulfilled international Antarctic projects in science, logistics, politics and environmental protection are carried out under strict observation of the national interests in them.” 

Claims of Antarctica’s continued isolation can be challenged, but Lukin argues that the ice as a theatre for national actors — one in which the interests of individual states hold equal weight — has advantages. 

“In my opinion, the Antarctic is an effective example of development of the multipolar world in the near future.”

Dr Alan D Hemmings, an Antarctic governance professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, argues a consensus-based system provides cover for bloc positions, but says he shares aspirations for a multipolar world — even if the ATS may not be “presently fit for purpose in this regard”. 

“And, if it is not, can we rehabilitate it so that it is?” Hemmings asks. “The concern is that the truly awful interstate relations consequential to the invasion of Ukraine — and the worsening West/China relations — means that it is very difficult to see the space and inclination to do so.”

The axis has certainly shifted from the early 1990s when Russia and China were ATS players with relatively limited clout — Lukin had inherited Russia’s weakened Antarctic wherewithal during the transition from collapsed Soviet rule, and China was still a featherweight in polar terms.  

Since then, Russia has brazenly pursued a vision of scientific endeavour weighted with the sense of conquest typically aired by a state that insists it not only discovered Antarctica in 1820, but gave it to the world. (This is in dispute by Western ATS members.) 

Russia has also searched the Southern Ocean for oil and gas ever since the 1998 mining ban entered into force.

Meanwhile, Ukraine Antarctic scientists have been forced to swap lab tools for weapons of war.  

And, in October, Daily Maverick reported that a Russian missile struck ‘15m’ from Kyiv’s Antarctic headquarters during the large-scale strikes across Ukraine. It was unclear if the missile was aimed at the headquarters, but the force of the nearby impact heavily damaged the offices, almost destroying the critical climate server, Ukraine authorities told us. 

The Noosfera, at anchor in Cape Town after her brave maiden voyage for Ukraine during the 2021/22 Southern Ocean research season, has been unable to return to her besieged homeport of Odesa. 

Russia’s formal state agency for south polar science, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, has not responded to requests for comment. 

Indeed, when considering how this seemingly remote idyll faces a suite of incursions from the outside world, political philosopher Dr Yelena Yermakova points out there are inalienable realities.

It’s not difficult to see the link between globalisation of the economy and global warming, which is melting the Antarctic,” Yermakova says. And there is the fact that internet operators are seeking to make the Antarctic more connected to the outside world than ever before. 

There are non-trivial tourism developments, too: such as more than 100,000 sightseers predicted to descend on Antarctica this year for the first time in a single season.

A governance scholar, Yermakova is involved in an academic and civil society effort to draft a declaration for the rights of Antarctica: this seeks to give the region personhood, which would be defendable in a court of law. 

No wars have yet been fought below 60°S, the line of latitude that separates the Antarctic and Southern Ocean from the rest of the human planet. But the inevitable casualties of weakened Antarctic governance, and the tensions that threaten to capsize it, are vulnerable species, such as the now-endangered emperor penguin, which have no other home but the Frozen South. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Become a Maverick Insider

This could have been a paywall

On another site this would have been a paywall. Maverick Insider keeps our content free for all.

Become an Insider
Elections24 Newsletter Banner

On May 29 2024, South Africans will make their mark in another way.

Get your exclusive, in-depth Election 2024 newsletter curated by Ferial Haffajee delivered straight to your inbox.