Ecological Path To Peace Is Possible In Ukraine – Analysis


By Saleem H. Ali*

Current Western policy has framed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an assault on “world order.” While the term has no international definition and is widely contested, at its core “world order” connotes a view where economically or militarily dominant nation-states police the planet. Putin and NATO are both captivated by a Cold War geopolitics of order that is no longer relevant to complex changes in environmental and social systems on our planet. We need to move from such a narrow view of World Order to a more naturalized vision of what I call “Earthly Order.”

I define this term “Earthly Order (in the context of the eponymous new book from Oxford University Press) as governance that considers the constraints of planetary level natural processes when defining social, economic, and political systems. Thus, border delineation and enforcement of any flows of financial and human capital and ecological processes become intertwined in decision-making. Such an approach opens the way for developing what are called “superordinate goals” in psychological research which can be a highly effective mechanism for conflict resolution.

Instead of making this a hard fight between whether Ukraine’s border should be delineated along the old Ukrainian SFSR, or based on ethnic majoritarianism, we need to consider the underlying resource factors behind this invasion. 

Ukraine’s Natural Resources

The late Sen. John McCain noted in 2014, Ukraine was the jewel of the Soviet crown because of its rich arable land, vast mineral wealth and massive manufacturing infrastructure. The fact that the bitter battle for Mariupoul has occurred at a steel plant is emblematic of the resource nationalism of this conflict. 

Ukraine’s geography has given it highly arable land because of the river systems that bring alluvial deposits to its plains. The region was the bread basket for the Soviet Union and has continued to be a major supplier of grain since independence.

In terms of mineral wealth, the country has some of the richest deposits of base metals, copper, iron ore, and uranium.However, most significantly, the country’s eastern region is confirmed to contain at least 500,000 tons of lithium oxide. With rapid demand for lithium ion batteries, these reserves are particularly important as a strategic mineral. 

Furthermore, there has hardly been adequate mineral exploration with modern technologies in Ukraine for the past several years due to the conflict in Crimea. There may well be even more significant reserves of rare earth minerals and other key metals to be found.

Ukraine also has the second largest natural gas reserves in Europe (after Norway) and more significantly is the transit corridor for gas from the east if the Black Sea underwater pipelines are to be avoided. This has been a major bargaining element for Russia with Europe. Ukraine’s resource geography has thus been coveted by Russia and the narrative of nostalgia for the borderless Soviet Union has therefore been even more appealing to Putin’s domestic economic audience.

Hybridity of Borders

A key stumbling point in trying to chart a peace agreement has been an inability of both sides to consider hybrid solutions which recognize the resource interdependencies that could benefit either side. Rather than having a stylized view of world order with ossified notions of hard borders and protectionist control, we need to consider creative options on how territories can share aspects of access and governance. Such a pragmatic view would not undermine American or Western principles and lead to a more durable peace agreement that does not compromise our values. 

While hard borders can play a vital role in times of crisis, economic exchange that is linked to comparative advantage and market efficiencies provide a more natural means of crafting governance arrangements. Without relinquishing sovereignty Ukraine could develop an autonomous governance arrangement with the eastern territories. The flow of oil, gas, and even water (in the case of the North Crimean canal) across political borders has been another point of contention that has exacerbated the current conflict. If assurance mechanisms between nation-states could be developed around natural resource flows, the potential for conflict escalating to war would be severely reduced. On the western side of the Black Sea, Ukraine and Moldova have maintained a hybrid border arrangement where a sliver of Moldovan territory is sandwiched between Ukrainian lands (which I visited in 2018). The separatist region of Tranisteria is nearby with Russian troops present as well, and a frozen conflict situation has emerged.

Learning from a Comparative Case in the Region

There is an even more compelling case in point within the Eastern Black Sea region. The autonomous region of Adjara within Georgia has largely avoided war because a hybrid governance mechanism was established between the Georgian territory and the breakaway territory. The Russians maintained a military base within this territory as well until 2007. The capital of the region, Batumi, is a resource hub for oil from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and its oil refinery handles Caspian oil from Azerbaijan. By “naturalizing” a notion of order in this vital Black Sea location and considering the vitality of resource infrastructure and market efficiency, a pragmatic series of concessions were made that satisfied all sides. Over a decade the breakaway region felt secure enough in its relationship with Georgia and vice versa that the constitutional court of Georgia is now in Adjara.

For those who think that such a path towards pragmatic peace would erode sovereignty, we only need to consider variations of national order that countries have accepted in the past. Iraqi Kurdistan provides one example of how a hybrid governance mechanism has been workable within the existing United Nations system. Until trust can be built to have more defined mechanisms for ascertaining preferences for self-governance, such hybridity is a way of both saving human lives and natural systems on which we all depend.

Science Diplomacy as an Ice-Breaker

The next question to ask is how might we start the process of charting such a pathway towards ecological peace? This is where the foundational base of science for all environmental problem-solving becomes most salient. In 2021, at the height of the COVID pandemic, I had an opportunity to host a Congressional briefing on “Science Diplomacy” through bipartisan sponsorship from the offices of Sens. Chris Coons and Lisa Murkowski. Among the lessons gleaned therein were that science is an inherently collaborative process. This is especially true for ecological issues. Given the resource geographies of Russia and the United States, Arctic science, in particular, could pave the opportunity for “ice-breaking” in this context.

The Biden administration announced on Aug. 27, 2022, that they were appointing a new “Arctic Ambassador,” due to growing security concerns highlighted by NATO in this region. While the South Pole has been a hallmark of science diplomacy through the Antarctic Treaty, the Arctic has been a far more contentious domain. However, if the United States could negotiate the Antarctic Treaty at the height of the Cold War at the altar of science, there is potential to do the same now with the Arctic. There is also precedent for global environmental systems research leading to improved relations between Russia and the United States. The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year and exemplifies the endurance of science as a cooperative tool when given a chance.

Science is suffering in the Russian-Ukrainian War, even in areas where there would be no security threat from collaboration—such as with environmental research. If we are willing to make “exceptions” for sanctions on fossil fuel imports and internet companies, why can we not make exceptions for scientific collaborations that would benefit the planet? Political borders and ideological differences are inconsequential to global environmental processes. If we are truly serious about climate change data, we cannot ostracize science from Russia—the world’s largest country by land mass which occupies some of the most sensitive ecosystems to global warming.

Self-Defeating Impasse

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) has a major research program on “Navigating the New Arctic,” which is part of their “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” launched in 2017. In January 2022, I submitted a collaborative proposal under this program to study ways of re-developing old brownfield mineral extraction sites in the Arctic dating back to the Cold War era. The proposal included partners in the five largest Arctic countries in the proposal: the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), and Sweden.

Earlier this summer we got good news that our proposal was going to be recommended for funding, but only if we removed our Russian case study and forego any collaborations with researchers in the country. Clearly, this was NSF’s effort to comply with the White House guidance on the cessation of scientific collaboration with Russia. I tried to find a way to convince the NSF that Russia’s vast terrain spans more than half of the Arctic and that excluding it from research would undermine the core of any Arctic research program. However, we could not prevail and eventually had to replace the Russian case study with one in Finland.

Alaskan Heritage

The United States and Russia have cooperated closely on Arctic research, particularly in the borderlands of the Bering Straits. Since 1991 the National Park Service (NPS) has supported a science and heritage research program. The United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $ 7 million, which would amount to a modest $170 million in 2022 currency. Currently, the United States has the highest security concern from Russia in Alaska because of threats made by Moscow politicians on reclaiming Alaska. However, instead of falling for this bellicose baiting, the United States should deescalate the situation by continuing scientific research through the National Park Service program.

To be fair, the US government took a more cautious approach to cutting off science collaboration than European countries. The European Commission took the lead in severing research ties with Russia on March 3, 2022, a few days into the invasion. The United States has the largest research partnership arrangements with Russia.  According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, between 2017 and 2019 there were over 14,000 scientific papers co-authored between American and Russian scientists.

Track II Opening

The high level of academic productivity in US-Russian science as well as the technical collaboration on space infrastructure gave the US more pause in halting scientific cooperation. There was even a proposal to give special visas for Russian scientists to move to the United States, since a vast number of them had opposed the war. However, this proposal also fell through as more hawkish views became dominant in Washington. We are now at a stage where essentially all collaborations have ceased. Even private institutions such as my alma mater the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have halted longstanding collaborations such as the shared campus collaboration with Skoltech in Moscow.

All such “boycotts” or “severance” of ties is justified by proponents on the basis that most universities in Russia have connections to the state and hence Putin’s war apparatus could benefit from the research. However, the amount of funds used for basic science research, and particularly environmental research, is paltry compared with what we are allowing through exemptions or concessions to other countries from fossil fuel sales.

At best such protest gestures of preventing collaboration are symbolic, but science should not be sacrificed at the altar of sentimental symbolism. The US scientific research institutions should urgently consider a resumption of scientific collaborations with Russia on environmental research and other areas where there is no security threat. Such an effort might also help to open avenues of Track II diplomacy and lower the temperature of the conflict. 

Pragmatic but Principled Peace

The ecological damage and human cost of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is horrendous, and the more it is protracted the greater the risk of nuclear meltdowns at power plants or weapons usage (either through oceanic/terrestrial tests or in the war theater). Much as we must support Ukraine’s principled defense, we must also recognize a fundamental ground reality: An impaired planet due to stifled science or nuclear fallout will make any victory less sustainable for all of humanity.

The logic of such an approach is predicated not just in social and political science but in the natural science understanding of complex adaptive systems. For example, the development of cities has been well-studied and their growth follows many of the same “power laws” of scaling that we find in fundamental physics. A means of developing such a naturalized view of world order is to consider such resource complementarities through more nimble multilateral economic governance mechanisms such as the G20.

In the case of the Ukraine war, there are existing institutions of cooperation such as the Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation, which recognizes ecological connectivity and also has an environmental mandate. Henry Kissinger’s sharp comments at Davos this past year suggested land concessions for peace would be met with less opprobrium if seen from the lens of “Earthly Order.”

In his magnum opus on World Order, Kissinger identified power and legitimacy as the two key elements of a sustainable order. Add to this a recognition of natural systems of connectivity that transcend borders and we begin to chart a more durable geography of peace. However, the path to gaining such a naturalized vision of peace requires us to revisit some of the lessons of unconventional diplomacy from the Cold War era.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. 

*About the author: Dr. Saleem H. Ali is the Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware, chair of the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences, and the author of Earthly Order: How Natural Laws Define Human Life (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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