Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article
Roger Rufe

Vice Admiral, United States Coast Guard (retired)

Henry Huntington

Senior Officer, International Arctic The Pew Charitable Trusts

Russia and the United States have a shared interest in keeping shipping routes open while also reducing uncertainty and risk. Arctic waters are no place for ill-equipped vessels that pose a hazard to themselves and others and may drain the search-and-rescue capabilities of Arctic coastal states. At the same time, Arctic routes promise economic efficiencies and opportunities, consistent with the principle of freedom of navigation on the seas.


The Arctic, once almost the exclusive domain of indigenous people, explorers and adventurers, is increasingly open toroutine shipping traffic. With the continued retreat of summer sea ice, the shipping season is becoming longer and more reliable. Icebreaker support along the Northern Sea Route reduces uncertainty further still. As a result, shipping through the Northern Sea Route is expected to continue to increase, and the Northwest Passage is also seeing commercial voyages. The benefits—shorter distances, access to Arctic resources, tourist cruises—will continue to attract commercial vessel traffic, despite natural hazards and a lack of infrastructure.

Shipping creates risks of accidents, pollution, fuel and oil spills, and collisions. Vessels may also become beset in ice, especially in the shoulder seasons or when trying to traverse the Arctic in marginal conditions. Such risks will increase insurance and other costs, reducing the benefits of Arctic routes. In addition to risks to the vessels themselves, Arctic shipping entails risks to coastal peoples and marine and coastal ecosystems. Large ships could strike or capsize small hunting boats. They can strike whales and other marine mammals. Noise disturbance and pollution could displace animals, reducing their health and making them less accessible to hunters. Fuel or oil spills can harm animals or make them unfit to eat.

Russia and the United States have a shared interest in keeping shipping routes open while also reducing uncertainty and risk. Arctic waters are no place for ill-equipped vessels that pose a hazard to themselves and others and may drain the search-and-rescue capabilities of Arctic coastal states. At the same time, Arctic routes promise economic efficiencies and opportunities, consistent with the principle of freedom of navigation on the seas. Particularly in the area of the Bering Strait, through which all Pacific-Arctic or Arctic-Pacific vessels must go, it is essential Russia and the U.S. cooperate for mutual benefit. The long history of the NSR gives Russia unmatched experience in vessel traffic in remote, icy waters. This is a major asset in guiding the future of Arctic shipping, and a valuable resource to draw upon in planning and management.

These and other points have been raised by the Russian International Affairs Council in its publication, International Cooperation in the Arctic: 2013 Report. The section on Arctic shipping notes “the need to ensure safety of the expanding shipping operations and prevent pollutionof marine environment” as a general principle and points out that “Expansion of shipping raises the issue of its regulation in the ‘bottleneck’area of the Bering Strait to protect highly productive ecosystems of the BeringSea from irreparable damage” in regard to that specific area. Here we build on that discussion to suggest ways in which Russia and the U.S. can move forward on their shared interests.

Common Interests and Existing Cooperationbetween Russia and the U.S.


Russia and the U.S. have similar interests in the Arctic, and are cooperating in many ways to address various aspects of Arctic shipping and other topics. The Arctic Council is the most prominent forum for international cooperation on Arctic matters. In 2009, it produced the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, still the most comprehensive review of the topic. The Arctic Council also led development of the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement and the Arctic Oil Spill Agreement, both of which advance the safety of humans and the environment through international communication and cooperation. Russia and the U.S. both recognize the benefits of Arctic resource development, and both produce minerals and petroleum in their Arctic regions. Both countries also recognize the challenges and risks of industrial-scale operations in the Arctic, and the importance of reducing those risks to ensure smooth operations and environmental protection.

In recent years, Russia and the U.S. have both issued national strategies for the Arctic that are remarkably similar. They both speak to maintaining the Arctic as an area of peace and stability, with a commitment to bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Both strategies emphasize the need to protect Arctic ecosystems and resources, and to protect the ways of life of indigenous peoples and other coastal residents. And both strategies stress the need for a unified information system to foster greater sharing of information, for both science and management.

Russia and the U.S. do more than share their aspirations for the Arctic. They have a long history of cooperation across the Bering Sea and Bering Strait, especially on search-and-rescue, fisheries conservation, and environmental protection. They mutually enforce the international agreement onfisheries in the international waters of the Bering Sea. They have agreed on sharing the quotas for indigenous hunting of gray whales and bowhead whales in the Bering and Chukchi Seas established by the International Whaling Commission. In October 1988, when three gray whales were trapped in ice near Barrow, Alaska, a Russian icebreaker came to open a channel to enable the whales to reach open water and survive. In December 2011, a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and a Russian ice-strengthened oil tanker joined forces to deliver much-needed fuel to Nome, Alaska.

In the area of commercial shipping, Russia and the U.S. are leaders at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Both are active on the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee and Marine Environment Protection Committee. Through this work, the IMO has developed a number of international conventions that have improved safety for commercial shipping and reduced pollution risks. Most prominent among these are the Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution (MARPOL). Russia and the U.S. are currently supporting IMO’s work on developing a safety code for vessels operation in both polar regions (the Polar Code), which is likely to lead to amendments to SOLAS and MARPOL to make its provisions mandatory.

Cooperation on Arctic Shipping

With this background, there are many areas where Russia and the U.S. can work together to address common goals and shared concerns with regard to Arctic shipping. These include:

  • Commit resources to improve hydrographic information and update nautical charts.
  • Improve navigation safety information sharing between the two countries.
  • Improve emergency response capability, such as stationing a rescue tug near areas of high risk or high value.
  • Conduct oil spill response exercises to test the effectiveness of the Arctic Oil Spill Agreement.
  • Institute communication and reporting requirements to better monitor vessel traffic, reduce risk and ensure vessel compliance with appropriate Arctic guidelines for safe navigation.
  • Cooperate on establishing voluntary navigation safety measures in the Bering Strait (see examples below) .

Many of these topics are best addressed at the IMO, for example as part of the Polar Code, so that consistent rules can be developed for the entire Arctic region. Some may be more appropriately addressed bilaterally with regard to specific areas, as discussed in the next section. For topics that apply Arctic-wide, Russia and the U.S. can continue to cooperate at the IMO in developing the Polar Code. They can also lead the way in making the Arctic Council’s Search and Rescue and Oil Spill Agreements operational and effective. They could also consider developing a coordination center for Arctic coast guards and other maritime forces to coordinate exercises, manage traffic, respond to disasters, and share information. Such a center could make a substantial, practical contribution to putting into practice the principles that are in both countries’ Arctic strategies and the interests that underlie both countries’ activities with regard to Arctic vessel traffic.

Cooperation in the Bering Strait Area

In addition to circumpolar shipping measures, some issues are specific to certain areas. For Russia and the U.S., the Bering Strait is the most significant shared area of concern when it comes to Arctic vessel traffic. Only 44 nautical miles (81 km) wide at its narrowest point, the Bering Strait is the only way for ships to get from the Pacific to the Arctic or vice versa. It is also the only way for marine mammals such as bowhead whales, beluga whales, gray whales, and walrus to migrate from the Bering Sea to the Chukchi Sea, which they do in spring (northwards) and fall (southwards). Indigenous Chukchi, Iñupiaq, and Siberian Yupik communities on both sides of the strait practice traditional hunting activities, sometimes far from land and across what are likely to be the main shipping corridors in the Bering Strait region.

The Russia-U.S. border goes down the middle of the Strait, between Big Diomede Island (O. Ratmanova) in Russia and Little Diomede Island in the U.S. As a recognized international strait, vessels from all countries may traverse the Bering Strait under the principle of “transit passage” without permission from either country and without being subject to the laws or regulations of either country. Only the IMO has the authority to regulate vessels in transit passage in an international strait.

That said, Russia and the U.S. are nonetheless in a strong position to promote maritime safety in this area by agreeing to implement voluntary safety measures. Prudent mariners are generally willing to comply with voluntary measures that reduce risk and improve safety. In addition, insurance companies are likely to require that vessels they insure follow the best standards of care for the routes they travel. These would include voluntary safety measures made separately or jointly by Russia and the U.S. Such measures can be developed from existing or planned national steps regarding Bering Strait shipping. Discussions between the two countries could begin at the academic and NGO level with assistance of the Russian International Affairs Council similar to a process already underway that is advancing cooperation between the two countries on Arctic fishing. At the appropriate time, discussions would advance to the working and diplomatic levels through the Russian Federal Security Service, U.S. Coast Guard, Russian Ministry of Transport, US Department of State and other agencies in both countries.

Permanent participants of the Arctic Council

Given the current level of shipping traffic in the Bering Strait, some may question whether safety measures are needed at this time. But putting some modest measures in place now would be prudent even with the current level of traffic. Local communities are concerned about impacts in their traditional hunting/fishing areas and the dangers that large transiting vessels pose to their safety. While the risk of an oil spill may be relatively small, its impacts would be catastrophic especially given the lack of response resources and the challenges of responding in Arctic waters.

Voluntary measures are also a common first step towards mandatory measures, including those established by the IMO. It will be far easier to confirm existing practices at the IMO than to establish new rules that have not yet been tested. Support from Russia and the U.S. will also be essential for the IMO to act, so having a cooperative system in place already will make it far easier to achieve international regulatory authority from the IMO if and when that becomes appropriate and desirable.

Measures that could be established for the Bering Strait include:

  • Institute a traffic separation scheme ortwo way shipping lanes (northbound and southbound)on either the Russian or US sides of the Strait, or on both sides.
  • Designate Areas to be Avoided. These would be areas hazardous to shippingor areas warranting special protection due to their cultural or ecological significance.
  • Encourage greater use of existing Automated Identification Systems (AIS). Ships should report via AIS when they arrive and when they depart the Bering Strait. AIS could advise transiting ships about hazards such as ice, environmental concerns such as marine mammal migrations, and subsistence activities such as active hunting in small boats.
  • Navigation aids could also be put in place as needed, and access to ports of refuge on both sides of the strait for vessels in distress could reduce the chances of the loss of a vessel or lives. Sharing response equipment, too, could lead to faster and more effective responses to accidents, spills, and other disasters.


Russia and the U.S. have a history of practical cooperation on Arctic matters, especially in the Bering Strait region where they share a maritime boundary. Cooperation on Arctic shipping would build on this history, promoting orderly development of the Arctic and its resources, safeguarding our coasts and coastal peoples, fulfilling the goals of both countries’ Arctic strategies, and increasing confidence among vessel owners about the safety and security of traversing Arctic waters.

By working together to develop voluntary measures regarding vessel traffic in the Bering Strait, Russia and the U.S. would take an important first step towards wider cooperation on Arctic shipping. Further steps can be taken through bilateral arrangements as well as through the IMO to achieve international recognition of measures that promote safety and stability of shipping in remote areas with many natural hazards and limited infrastructure or other support. By doing so, the U.S. and Russia would help achieve their respective goals for the Arctic, and reduce risks for people and the environment in a magnificent region that is important to both countries.


Rate this article
(no votes)
 (0 votes)
Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students