Exclusive: The Inside Story of How CERN Sanctioned Russia

“CERN was built as a force for peace. That has been thrown away. Peaceful scientific collaboration can now be terminated for political reasons.”

International Scientific Collaboration Survived the Cold War and Other Conflicts; Russia’s War on Ukraine Might Have Killed It

As this Saturday marks the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a G|O exclusive in the form of a long-read inside story on how, on December 15, 2023, science and politics collided when CERN’s Council decided to terminate its cooperation agreements with the Russian Federation and Belarus. The move affected hundreds of CERN scientists with Russian or Belarusian nationality. As you will read, it followed a highly sensitive and heated diplomatic discussion, its sensitivity in part explaining why it unfolded quietly until its conclusion. In the end, politics won, science lost. Targeted sanctions against the Russian Federation at WHO, the WTO, the ITU, the WIPO, and elsewhere did not profoundly change these organizations. But in CERN’s case, they strike at the heart of an illustrious European scientific organization of global significance, precisely founded on the very belief that international scientific cooperation was a driver for peace. It’s left CERN shaken to the soul. Science vs. politics is a debate of great public interest, and one that concerns us all. We have chosen to make our story about it freely accessible to all our readers.

“CERN was built as a force for peace. That has been thrown away. Peaceful scientific collaboration can now be terminated for political reasons.”

In 1954, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was founded on the belief that international scientific collaboration is a driver of international cooperation. “Science for peace” became the organization's unofficial motto. On December 15 of last year, that foundational idea was put to its most severe test since CERN’s creation 70 years ago—and, for some, was possibly irremediably shattered—when its Council, the scientific institution’s governing body, quietly voted to sanction Russia and its ally Belarus for the invasion of Ukraine. By choosing not to renew the international cooperation agreements CERN had with the two countries, the Council ended decades of close scientific relations with Russia, dating back to the days of the Soviet Union. The move has affected hundreds of CERN's scientists with Russian and Belarussian nationality.

The decision capped months of intense scientific diplomatic activity and behind-the-scenes discussions, often pitting a scientific community convinced that international scientific collaboration is a driver for peace even at times of great political tensions, against European governments united in the idea that Russia should be harshly sanctioned for its attack on Ukraine. Science lost: The majority in favor of the termination of CERN’s International Cooperation Agreement with the Russian Federation was overwhelming. The G|O can reveal that, in a secret ballot and with a two-thirds majority required, 17 Council members voted against continuing the cooperation agreements. Hungary, Israel, Italy, Serbia, Slovakia, and Switzerland abstained. France—which is, with Switzerland, CERN’s other host country—sided with the majority.

Today, a wide consensus seems to be emerging within the scientific community that the Council’s decision of December 15 may have marked the end of an era for CERN and made international scientific collaboration on large-scale particle-physics projects significantly more complicated. “CERN was built as a force for peace. That has been thrown away. Peaceful scientific collaboration can now be terminated for political reasons,” John Ellis, a leading particle physics scientist and professor at King’s College in London who worked at CERN for 38 years, told me. Even among those convinced that Russia’s aggression could not be left unpunished and that the international cooperation agreements ought to be terminated, the significance of what was happening was not lost. “Something is about to be broken, and it will be hard to repair,” a direct participant in the deliberations admitted to me in the fall of 2023.

This account of the process that led to the termination of CERN’s International Cooperation Agreements (ICA) with Russia and Belarus is based on research and conversations held over several months with more than a dozen sources privy to the decision-making process that led to last December’s vote. With the exception of some scientists, all the sources I spoke to requested anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the matter. As non-members of the CERN Council, Russia and Belarus told me they couldn’t comment, unaware of the contours and dynamics of the discussions. “At the moment, we can only confirm that Russian scientific groups continue to participate in experiments by CERN and to fulfill all their obligations,” the Russian Mission in Geneva messaged me a few weeks before the vote was finally held. By focusing on Russia’s “obligations,” the message indirectly stressed that, under a protocol dating back to the ‘90s, Moscow had financially contributed to the building of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC)—CERN’s crown jewel—and that some of its scientists work on ATLAS, CMS, ALICE and LHCb, the four largest experiments using the accelerator. The Russian message was yet another illustration of how unique the situation was, compared to the decisions made by other specialized agencies on temporary technical measures to restrict Russian participation in international organizations.

CERN repeatedly declined requests for comments until after the Council took its decision. By September of last year, it was becoming clear that most Member States had made their minds up. Individual members of the Council contacted by the G|O declined to comment, yet often hinted in their refusal that they would vote according to their government’s instructions. During the same period, using the opportunity of a side event at the Human Rights Council, I asked Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN, Yehveniia Filipenko, if she was confident about the outcome: “I have full confidence that the Europeans will abide by their promise to stand by Ukraine and sanction Russia,” she answered.

As the direction of the vote seemed, by then, to be in little doubt, “all that was left was discussing how best to mitigate the consequences of the decision,” an active participant in the conversations admitted.

In Geneva, Pressure to Sanction Russia

Immediately following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago this week, International Geneva started imposing sanctions on Moscow. Russia was de facto about to be frozen out of the UN system; its membership in the Human Rights Council was suspended and downgraded to observer status; WHO eventually closed its Moscow office and relocated it to Copenhagen; other specialized agencies barred Russian experts from technical meetings and took various measures to isolate Russia. These sanctions, diplomatic sources confirmed to me over many months, were taken when the prevailing consensus was that the conflict would be short. Some were symbolic, and many could be rescinded easily once the war over. “As Ukraine allies, we were always careful to take targeted sanctions. We were not trying to exclude Russia from the multilateral system,” a senior European diplomat told me at the time, recalling the first weeks following the invasion.

At CERN, the pressure to sanction Moscow was no less intense.

“CERN, as a leading European scientific laboratory, should terminate immediately any cooperation with Russian institutions. […] Otherwise, every crime and every injustice made by their government and their armed forces is seen as legitimate. […] We call on democratic society, on scientific society to stand with us against this tyrant,” an unnamed Ukrainian scientist from Kyiv collaborating with CERN told Science magazine.

Ukraine physicists at CERN were demanding the expulsion of Russia, a country with a long-standing historical relationship with the organization, dating back to the ‘50s when CERN scientists visited Soviet colleagues at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, near Moscow. The JINR, an international research center, was founded as a Soviet response to the creation of CERN, and its membership consists mostly of countries from the former Eastern Bloc. Any new collaborations between CERN and JINR were suspended in March 2022, and CERN has already announced a review of its agreement with the institute, not due to expire until January 2025, even though only six months notice is required for cancellation.

In Geneva, the deflagration provoked by Russia’s attack on Ukraine understandably created a strong desire to sanction Moscow for its acts of aggression. “But from the beginning, we knew that the consequences of CERN sanctioning Russia would be completely different than in the case of any other organization,” a senior Western diplomat told me. Yet, in the prevailing climate, these consequences “were not fully analyzed. It was sanction first and ask questions second.”

As early as March 2022, at the urging of Ukrainian physicists and Ukraine’s allies, the CERN Council decided to suspend all cooperation with the Russian Federation. Hoping for a quick end to the war, the Council insisted that it would closely monitor the situation. Mere hours after the invasion, a group of Russian scientists had condemned Moscow’s aggression in an online petition. (Their names were removed after Moscow started cracking down on dissent.) The war dragged on, and with time, the debate turned essentially political. “The voice of the scientific community was drowned out,” a prominent European scientist with international standing told me. “Our arguments were just not heard.” By March 2022, with Germany taking the lead, many CERN member states had already passed strong sanctions at home, shelving scientific cooperation with Russian labs and institutions. “When we raised objections about the sanctions with our hierarchy, there were no real discussions, and we were told that these were political decisions,” Sasha Glazov, a Russian scientist working in Germany, told me. “This war is a disaster, but boycotts and sanctions, scientific or others, do not work,” he told me last week.

This is a position shared by the Science4Peace Forum, an initiative created by scientists as a reaction to restrictions on scientific cooperation imposed due to the war in Ukraine. On May 1, 2022, Science4Peace launched a petition stating that “the sanctions imposed on scientists are counterproductive, they do not put pressure on the Russian government, but make communication among scientists difficult and in some cases impossible. They often affect colleagues who share our condemnation of the war and [who] have endangered their own welfare by expressing their opinions publicly. These sanctions will not help to achieve a ceasefire or resolve the conflict. On the contrary, these measures will isolate Russian and Belarusian scientists and decouple them from international discussions, in science and elsewhere.”

Until December 2023, CERN had only once before taken sanctions against a country—and that was over 30 years ago, when, following a resolution by the UN Security Council in 1992, it suspended cooperation with then Yugoslavia during the Bosnian war. Many in the scientific community point out that no sanctions were taken against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan or against American allies following the war in Iraq.

The discussions were made more difficult, sources familiar with the decision-making deliberations told me, because both scientists and diplomats were operating in a new environment: for diplomats, political and economic sanctions, not scientific ones, are the traditional tools of pressure, while scientists were often uneasy talking about geopolitical questions.

When asked about the scientific community’s opposition to sanctions and its belief that science and research should somehow be isolated from politics, a member of the Council was vehemently dismissive of the argument. “This is a red herring. Have you seen [the film] Oppenheimer? Do you think he was unconcerned by politics?” he answered.

Each of the 23 countries of the Council has two representatives, often public servants attached to their country’s science ministry. Some states are also represented by their ambassadors to the UN in Geneva. “The real discussions happened at the government and ministry levels,” a Geneva-based ambassador not on the Council told me. Professor Ellis used the example of the UK Government, saying, “I think that the political line was laid down at the very top of a British government very supportive of Ukraine, and of sanctions, and the Science minister had to toe the line. This is an unfortunate example where a decision was made against what I believe most scientists would have been comfortable with.”

As the decision-making process went on, the stakes were progressively revealing themselves in all their dimensions and complexity, and to all stakeholders: CERN, its Council, and its member states, unequal in weight and influence and each with simultaneously divergent and convergent interests. And for Europe’s most prestigious scientific institutions, the drama was being played out against the backdrop of growing scientific competition between the US, China, and Russia, all taking a keen interest in its unfolding.

To oust, or not? International Geneva was faced with a “wicked” and multidimensional problem, fiendishly difficult to frame—and, regardless of the solution, loaded with unknown potential consequences.

A Threat to European Scientific Supremacy—and Concerns about Russian Scientists Joining the Russian War Effort

During the summer, as they started to deal with the issue of the two ICAs up for renewal, CERN’s 23 Council members requested that the organization’s higher management share factual elements needed to make an informed decision. In August 2023, among the information confidentially shared by CERN and strictly restricted to the organization’s Council members, was a tabulation which illustrated the intricacies of the situation and shed a stark light on what a decision to oust Russia could mean. CERN’s fact sheet revealed that as of August 2023, about 850 Russian and Belarusian scientists were collaborating with the lab, down from about 1000 at the outset of the war, leading observers to speculate that some Russian and Belarusian scientists had already joined other Western scientific organizations. CERN was allowing them to change affiliation. (The Russian and Belarusian missions told me that they were not following the whereabouts of their citizens.)

But, according to sources, CERN also informed its members that 55 of these scientists were deemed “mission critical” for the operation of the Large Hadron Collider. CERN’s senior management was thus letting its members know that Europe’s largest and most successful scientific institution was at risk of seeing its scientific supremacy weakened should these scientists be forced to leave, as their residency in the region was predicated upon having a work contract with CERN.

A parallel concern of significance was that should the agreements be terminated, Russian scientists who might have criticized the war were potentially at risk of reprisals, and, conversely, some who might have been supportive of the war might join Russian or other institutes and end up contributing to the war effort. In the course of my research, I learned that CERN had identified about 100 situations that it described as potential “security problems.” The figures shared by CERN were confirmed to me by two sources, but they were not willing to discuss them in further detail, revealing neither how CERN had arrived at the 100 number nor what was meant by “security problems.”

In light of the complexity and sensitivity of the matter, particularly as it related to the personal status of the scientists that were going to be affected by the decision, the Council decided on October 6 to give itself more time to discuss the situation and pushed its decision to December 15—its last meeting of the year, and just a few days short of the six month notice due to Russia in the event of a cancellation of the agreement. On the morning of December 15, “the Council’s discussion didn’t take long,” a source with knowledge of the proceedings told me; “all the work and discussions had already taken place behind the scenes.”

By then, the number of Russian and Belarusian scientists had dwindled to about 500, a third of them permanent residents in the greater Geneva area. Post-decision, a CERN spokesperson explained to me that while the organization was facilitating the affected scientists’ relocation, the effort was mostly driven by the scientific community itself. “The particle physics community mobilized in solidarity,” Arnaud Marsollier told me. “The situation is very fluid and changes almost by the day, so it’s really impossible to give you an exact figure,” Marsollier told me, “but as of now (late December), there are about 20 scientists and their families who may not wish to return to Russia and are still looking for a new affiliation.”

Assessing the Full Consequences of the Decision

Two months after the Council’s decision, assessing its full impact remains extremely difficult, as it has modified the dynamics of the conversation on scientific cooperation. The scientific landscape might well have been transformed, with yet unforeseeable consequences. “About 12,000 Scientists from more than 110 countries collaborate with CERN, it is truly a global organization. But its Council is not representative of that global dimension, and in a sense, the decision was simply a reflection of the composition of a Council dominated by European countries,” analyses a leading scientist who followed the decision-making process closely, and considers the decision a shock, “even if it was expected.”

Others point to more immediate and concrete effects. “I am engaged in a personal scientific collaboration with the members of the CERN Atlas project,” explains John Ellis. “The analysis of the data includes scientists in ShanghaI, scientists affiliated with different institutions in Russia, and our understanding is that when the agreement expires, they will no longer have access to Atlas data, and their contribution to Atlas will be terminated,” he bemoans, noting a possible prejudice to his own research. “The elementary scientific morality is also in danger,” he stresses, explaining that “in the scientific tradition, if a scientific result is published, people have a right to sign it.” That, he says, may no longer be guaranteed. Does this episode mark the end of an era for CERN? Or does he believe that the situation will at some point revert to the previous status quo? “I am not sure, maybe younger scientists will see it, but I think it’s going to be long term.”

“Nothing is ever irreversible, but for us scientists, the decision was clearly a major setback,” another leading member of the international scientific community told me. “So what I and other colleagues are trying to do as much as possible is to mitigate the negative effects of the decision on the scientific community. For instance, we need to find ways to ensure that the dialogue with Russian and Belarusian [scientists] continues, that no scientist is prohibited from attending a scientific conference. We are looking at countries like South Africa, which don’t impose restrictions on scientists, to organize conferences. I also hope that CERN will not terminate its agreement with JINR. It is an international research institute. CERN is located in Switzerland, but CERN is not Switzerland. I would hope that the Council will be able to recognize that; likewise, JNIR is not Russia just because it is located near Moscow.”

In a position paper of February 4, 2024, the Science4Peace initiative considers the consequences of CERN’s decision “epochal.” “The decision of the CERN Council to stop further cooperation marks another significant failure of diplomacy-now science diplomacy,” its authors write. “The decision of the CERN Council,” they continue, “may also affect any international projects: will countries still invest a significant amount of financial and personal resources in projects, where they risk [being] excluded at some stage? Will countries like China, or from the Middle and Far East, from Africa and elsewhere still have trust in organizations like CERN? […] Even more dangerously, will there be more investment in military research instead of fundamental research?”

Faced with what they see as the new reality created by the Council’s decision, and “knowing that it is difficult and nearly impossible to change decisions of important scientific and political institutions,” Science4Peace calls on each scientist to individually “help and support the idea of universal, politically independent science,” and do so, among other actions, “by continuing scientific communication between individuals.”

For many observers I spoke to, the challenge will be significant at a moment of great world tensions and a fraying in the belief of multilateralism. It might have been perfectly summarized by Götz Neuneck, Co-Chair of the Federation of German Scientists, during a virtual panel held last year in April assessing the sanctions taken against Russian scientists:

“The scientific community should serve as a bridge across boundaries, as a spearhead of international understanding […] On the other hand, scientists should not be naive. Science is not only for international cooperation, but is also a competitive enterprise seeking glory, prestige and national funds.
In extreme cases scientific results can be misused for military purposes, exposing the ambivalence of science. The ambivalent nature of scientific knowledge will always exist and can only be mitigated by dialogue, preventive measures, technological assessment, and arms control talks. As many political documents show, the global scientific community is more and more challenged by a new geopolitical rivalry between the US, Russia, and China. One example is the emerging new arms race between these superpowers.”

CERN is now clearly at the epicenter of that debate.

Curious to know what Moscow, strongly critical of Switzerland’s “neutrality” since it decided to align itself with the EU’s sanctions, was making of the Swiss decision to abstain, I again contacted the Russian Mission. “Neutrality implies not joining the sanctions policy. Switzerland has not signaled to us that they will maintain an equal partnership in the field of science. Activities within the CERN Council are closed for us, and we cannot monitor which countries support the maintenance of scientific ties. Such signals come through bilateral channels,” a spokesperson answered me yesterday by WhatsApp.

-PHM. Editorial assistance and research, David Jenny

*Erratum: This story has been edited to reflect that scientists in Shanghai, not in Washington, were collaborating on a project related to the Atlas experiment.