Interlude: Venus Favours the Bold? Russia and the Second Planet

Venus dayside synthesized false color image by UVI (2018 Mar 18) No.1 [Photo: (C) Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)]

by Marc Lanteigne

For years, the planet Venus [video] was considered the ultimate cautionary tale about the dangers of the Earth’s global warming, given that the world’s cloud-shrouded atmosphere is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide, with surface temperatures reaching over 460ºC, (a record for any planet in the Solar System, including Mercury). Adding to the hostile conditions are atmospheric pressures ninety times that of Earth, winds that can reach 360 kilometres per hour, intense volcanic activity, and clouds (and rain) made of sulphuric acid. These conditions have been blamed on a ‘runaway greenhouse effect’ caused by ancient oceans evaporating due to extended periods of sunlight, and a build-up of carbon dioxide in the Venusian atmosphere, which eventually heated the planet in extremis.

As Stephen Hawking warned in 2017, climate change trends on Earth could result in our world becoming much more Venus-like in the future. Climate change continues to affect our planet this year, despite the slowdown of economic activities caused by the pandemic, and the results can also continue to be seen in the Polar Regions. Updated research published this month provided further evidence of a ‘new Arctic’ emerging, marked by warmer air, melting ice and more frequent precipitation in the form of rain as opposed to snow.

Venus has often been referred to as ‘Earth’s twin’, given the similar size, and overall composition, (both are ‘terrestrial planets’, meaning a telluric / rocky planet), of the two worlds. Yet the radical differences in other aspects including atmospheres, (Venus has no magnetic field and spins clockwise, or ‘retrograde’), include the fact that Venus is lifeless.

Or rather, potentially lifeless. A paper published earlier this month in the journal Nature Astronomy by Prof Jane Greaves (Cardiff University) et al. detailed evidence, via chemical traces during long-range observation, of a gas which has most commonly been linked with life processes on Earth in Venus’ cooler upper atmosphere . (An additional paper looking at this phenomenon, prepared for the journal Astrobiology, can be read here [pdf]). The apparent detection of phosphine (PH3) detailed in these studies may be caused by a previously unknown natural chemical reaction, or could also be a sign of life in the clouds of Venus. Phosphine is a colourless gas but is flammable, corrosive and toxic, and is found in many places on earth, being associated with various life processes.  

Venus had been almost entirely ignored by scientists seeking life in other parts of the Solar System, as its temperatures and overall conditions made it a dubious candidate at best. Some papers in the last century had indeed posited the possibility of life forms in the Venusian higher atmospheric levels, including a watershed 1967 study published in the journal Nature by Harold Morowitz and Carl Sagan, (Mr Sagan, during his doctoral research in 1960, had also hypothesised that Venus had been subjected to an extensive greenhouse effect long ago).

However, far more attention has been focused in another direction, namely towards Mars and the outer planets, (and their moons), in the search for extra-terrestrial life. Mars had long been seen as an optimal location for potential life, or possibly fossils, to exist. The planet has been the focus of numerous exploration operations, including most recently the American Perseverance rover mission, China’s Tianwen-1 (天问一号) probe [in Chinese] and the Hope (الأمل‎ Al-Amal) mission led by the United Arab Emirates, all of which were launched in the middle of this year. More recently, two satellites of Saturn, namely Enceladus and Titan, as well as Jupiter’s moon Europa, had also been placed high on the roster of life-bearing worlds. With the discovery this month, however, Venus may just have been catapulted to the front of the line.

It is at this point where Russia entered, (or rather re-entered, as will be explained), the picture, and there are notable links to this involvement and Russian Arctic policies in recent years. Since the tentative phosphine discovery was announced, calls have been made for new missions to the planet. At present, only a single satellite, Akatsuki (あかつき Dawn), operating since 2015 by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is taking readings over Venus. NASA is also considering four new potential probe missions at present, including two to the second planet from the sun. One option, DAVINCI+, would entail a survey of the Venusian atmosphere.

Moscow is now also coming forward to express its interests in missions to Venus, including an announcement by the Russian space agency Roscosmos (Роскосмос) of a national effort to encourage independent exploration of the planet. This would be in addition to the Venera-D (Венера-Д) Venus project, which Russia proposed in partnership with the United States, but which may or may not be affected by the difficult diplomatic relations between the two powers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, left, and Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin shake hands following a television interview, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 at the Cosmonaut Hotel in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. [Photo via Wikimedia Commons, Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)]

However, in announcing renewed Russian participation in Venus exploration, the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, seemingly took matters a step further by noting [in Russian] that Venus was a ‘Russian planet’. Also last week, a statement [in Russian] from Roscosmos weighed in on the matter by stating that during the cold war, even American commentaries referred to Venus as ‘the Soviet Planet’ (советской планетой) in recognition of the wide lead which the USSR had in regards to exploring that world.

Whether these remarks were actually meant as an intention to eventually stake a claim, or were simply reflecting the long history of Russian, and before that Soviet, missions to the planet, was unclear, but they received much international attention last week. The Soviet Union was the first country to successfully land probes on Venus, via its Venera (Венера) missions between 1967-84. Venera-7 (1970) was the first victorious attempt to place a lander on Venus, and the Venera-13 (1981) mission transmitted the first colour images of the planet’s surface. The first US mission to the planet took place in 1978 with the arrival of the Pioneer orbiter.

For all the current controversy, an actual attempt to claim the planet for the Russian Federation would face the international prohibition of such actions as detailed by the Outer Space Treaty, which came into effect in 1967. Article II of that document [pdf] specifies that ‘Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.’ Russia / USSR, as well as the United States and China, are amongst the 110 current signatories to the Treaty.

Mr Rogozin, who has been the Director-General of Roscosmos since 2018, has had a previous history of being somewhat of an iconoclast when it came to certain international laws and norms, including those covering the Arctic. In April 2015, he courted controversy, as well as criticism from the Norwegian government, when he appeared in Svalbard despite being subject to a travel ban in Norway and the European Union, in the wake of the Russian-backed invasion of Crimea during the previous year. At that time, Mr Rogozin was Deputy Prime Minister (Defence / Space) under President Vladimir Putin.

Artist’s concept of lightning on Venus, 2007 [Image by J. Whatmore via the European Space Agency / ESA]

The Russian government reacted negatively to Norwegian criticism of the visit, (which included pictures [paywall] on Twitter), by arguing that the sanctions did not apply to Svalbard, which is Norwegian territory but governed under the 1920 Spitsbergen Treaty. The visit was seen as one of a long series of challenges which Moscow has issued regarding Norwegian oversight of Svalbard, as well as part of expanding Russian interests in developing a stronger and more visible Arctic presence, which included a controversial flag-planting under the ice of the North Pole in 2007.

Such an event is unlikely to be repeated on Venus, as the flag would melt, (unless it, like the North Pole flag, was also made of titanium, which has a melting point of 1668ºC or so), but the events of the past week do demonstrate links between that planet and the Arctic, politically as well as environmentally.

Arctic News Roundup: 14-20 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) According to RÚV, ten pilot whales were discovered stranded on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, in western Iceland, and almost all had perished on the beach. Attempts to move one of the whales back to sea were also unsuccessful. The reason behind the tragedy was not immediately confirmed by researchers. 

2) An alarming article was published by High North News on climate change, and its influence on both the Arctic and the rest of the world. Experts warn that climate change, and the thawing of glaciers in the Polar Regions were affecting not only human lives, but ecosystems as well, such as the migration of fish stocks in the oceans. There is the argument that information-sharing and cooperation are now essential in tackling these trends.

3) The carcass of an ice age bear was found by reindeer herders in the Lyakhovsky Islands (Ляховские острова) in northern Russia, thanks to melting permafrost in the region, as the CBC reported. The skeleton was well preserved, and scientists assumed that the animal was living between 22,000 to 39,500 years ago.

4) Marc Lanteigne, Chief Editor of Over the Circle, published a commentary on trends in the debate over Arctic security. The article concluded that even though much more attention is being paid to military affairs in the region, other security areas, including gender, health, and the affects of the COVID-19 pandemic, were also worthy of greater notice.

Arctic News Roundup: 7-13 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) As RÚV reported, the Diamond Circle of Iceland has opened. It is a tourism region in Northern Iceland which consists of a number of destinations, such as Goðafoss, Dettifoss and Lake Mývatn. The new tourist area is seen as an answer to more well-known Golden Circle in southern Iceland, which includes Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir geothermal area and Gullfoss waterfall.

2) The Arctic Council published an interview on the subject of wildfire management with two representatives, (Edward Alexander and Devlin Fernandes), from the Gwich’in Council International, a partner with the Council. In the light of more frequent wildfire incidents in the region in recent years, the two interviewees emphasised cross-border cooperation as essential in fire control, with knowledge gained by Indigenous peoples contributing to this work.

3) CBC reported on We Matter, a nationally registered organisation in Canada, which focuses on supporting Indigenous youth across the country. The group has been exploring new ways to prevent youth suicide among Indigenous peoples. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face communication is discouraged. However, the organization has been increasing the accessibility of online resources on mental health for the public.

Whose Arctic Security Is It Anyway?

Globus II Radar Station at Vardø, Norway, near the Russian Border [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

by Marc Lanteigne

The question of security in the Arctic has become more pronounced in the region of late. This is thought to be a result of the shredded relationship between the West and Russia, which is showing more frequent signs of spilling over into the far north, as well as the question of access to various regional resources which has caught the attention of Arctic and non-Arctic actors alike. Whether this situation which has often been linked to the concept of regional ‘exceptionalism’ [pdf], can be described as a ‘return’ of security in Arctic, or possibly the evolution of Arctic security concerns into different forms, it is clear this debate is now starting to show more overt signs of bifurcation. Yet, what does this ‘two-track’ approach to security in the Arctic actually consist of?

Great power, and state-level, concerns and policies are becoming ever more evident in the discussions about Arctic security, potentially at the cost of attention to other areas of regional strategic importance, including combating climate change, and addressing human security threats such as poverty and underdevelopment. These two often-competing narratives have begun to shape the definition of security in the region, the effects of which may influence many facets of future policymaking in the circumpolar north.

Earlier this month, a report by the research group Friends of Europe published a report [pdf], supported by the European Commission and the Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union, outlined concerns that the changing focus on military and hard security issues in the Arctic was distracting from the pressing issues of local environmental changes. The emerging accounts of the militarization of the Arctic and a return to some sort of neo-Cold War milieu were described in the document as being over-hyped, prompted by the cooler relations between the US and NATO on one side and Russia on the other, as well as the growing presence of a major newcomer to regional affairs, namely China.

The European report also pointed to the developing global interest into tapping into the region’s now-accessible resources, including fossil fuels and raw materials, as well as ‘toothless but functional bodies’, such as the Arctic Council, which do not address strategic or military concerns directly, as other factors in the changing shape of regional security. Some important near-Arctic organisations were also cited as being ill prepared for the changing strategic conditions in the high north, with the European Union described as suffering from gaps in its Arctic engagement policies, including in the strategic realm, and NATO, viewed as having ‘struggled to develop a strategy’ to best address Arctic security concerns.

All of these events are described in the paper as occurring in the shadow of ongoing climate change in the Arctic and the effects on local populations, including Indigenous groups. The specific cases of Sámi populations in the Nordic-Arctic, and the effects of altered weather and ice conditions on traditional reindeer herding, were cited as one example in the document.

EU flags at the European Commission Berlaymont building [Photo by Guillaume Périgois via Unsplash]

Amongst the recommendations in the report were to intensify efforts to develop various communication channels on both governmental and sub-governmental levels to address military and other security differences. The EU and NATO were called upon to better clarify their regional interests, while the United States was singled out as requiring a rebalancing of its Arctic diplomacy to include climate change security, (unlikely in the short term, given the firm stance of the current government in Washington that climate change is a fiction). As well, rather than pursuing a policy of barring China from various regional deliberations, there was the argument that attempts should be made by Arctic governments to include Beijing in various security dialogues.

Another example of the push-and-pull between state-centric and individual-level approaches to Arctic security could be seen at the annual Russia Conference this month, held online by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo. Despite its title, this year’s event focused extensively on American and Chinese Arctic policies in addition to those of Russia, and a majority of the focus was on central government policies and state-to-state interactions as opposed to local concerns, including within the Russian Arctic itself, and human security.

The presentation [video] by one of the keynote speakers at the webinar, recently-appointed US Coordinator for the Arctic Region James DeHart, illustrated not only the state-focused approach to regional affairs which has been adapted by Washington in the past two years, but also the growing disconnect between the United States and its fellow Arctic governments. Mr DeHart detailed the developing ‘balanced approach’ to US regional engagement, including in the area of security, as well as stressing the need for deeper cooperation between the United States and the Arctic Council. Yet, this speech skirted the subject of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change in the Arctic, (described obliquely in his speech as ‘dramatic physical changes’).

It was American unwillingness to address (or acknowledge) regional climate change which drove a wedge between the US and the rest of the Arctic Council at the 2019 Senior Arctic Officials meeting in Rovaniemi, Finland, and continues to be a sore point in regional diplomacy. The ongoing detachment of the American government on the subject of climate change has been especially glaring this summer, given the intense storms which have hit the American South as well as the ongoing wildfires in the US West Coast which have been attributed to altered climate conditions.

Other ‘America First’-esque Arctic policies, including Washington’s singling out of Russia and China as challengers to regional security, at the expense of climate change threats, have also complicated multilateral cooperation. This situation is unlikely to improve when the chair of the Arctic Council is passed from Iceland to Russia in May of next year.

One other such example raised in Mr DeHart’s presentation was his answer to a question about the revival by Washington of the legal tussle between Canada and the US over the status of the Northwest Passage which Ottawa views as internal waters, a policy which US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denigrated as ‘illegitimate’ at the Rovaniemi meeting. Despite the outcome of this disagreement potentially having profound implications for Canadian Arctic sovereignty, the issue was downplayed by Mr DeHart in his NUPI presentation as ‘disagreements over some technical aspects,’ including ‘aspects of navigation’ of the Northwest Passage.

German Naval Corvette Erfurt (F 262) docked in Tromsø [Photo by Gunhild Hoogensen Gjørv]

Elsewhere in the Arctic, this month also saw signs of further military activities in and around the Nordic region. This included the controversial inclusion of a Norwegian Navy frigate, namely the KNM Thor Heyerdahl [in Norwegian] in a British-American-led operation in the Barents Sea, within Russia’s exclusive economic zone, the first such mission undertaken without the cooperation of the Russian Navy. (Norway had declined to join American and British vessels in a similar operation in May of this year). This sailing was described by the UK government as a ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise designed as a response to ‘the risk of states looking to militarise and monopolise international borders’.

Norway’s position as a frontline state in Arctic military developments was also illustrated recently by the unusual surfacing of an American Navy submarine, USS Seawolf, just outside of Tromsø, and the subsequent arrival [in Norwegian] of three German Naval vessels, in that city’s port. There has been the suggestion American and British military vessels may become a more common sight around Tromsø, but the city’s government recently declined a request to host US nuclear submarines at the municipal port.

These events will likely add fuel to discussions about militarization of the Arctic, including the reason behind these developments and whether these moves can be considered active or reactive, (or defensive versus offensive), in nature. The problem, however, is whether this talk will result in more obscurity around many other pressing areas of Arctic security, especially those on the individual level and related to so-called ‘non-traditional’ security concerns such as development, education, the environment, gender, and health, (including the effects of COVID-19), which are also affecting the region in the here and now. 

Arctic News Roundup: 31 August-6 September

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]

by Mingming Shi

1) As RÚV reported, this year the inhabitants of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago in southern Iceland have assisted over 5,000 pufflings in guiding the way to the sea. Young puffins tend to be misled by artificial lighting in towns, rather than making their way to the sea, and therefore, humans often have to intervene to help the avians find their way.

2) A two-part article, entitled Small and Non-Aligned: Sweden’s Strategic Posture in the Arctic was published by the Arctic Institute. The first part summarizes the background of Sweden’s foreign policy and the country’s primary interests and challenges in Arctic affairs, as well as how Sweden has been interacting with the three major regional players, namely Russia, China and the United States. The second part focuses on examining how Stockholm has coped with security concerns and threats, by presenting case studies such as how the country has cooperated with NATO.

3) According to the Barents Observer, an online petition, calling for the halting of mining activities in the region of northern Finland where Sámi peoples oversee reindeer husbandry, has accrued over 37,000 signatures. The campaigners believe that mining causes environmental damage in fragile areas, and threatens local animal herding.