Will Climate Change create a brand-new trajectory for Russia?

by Nabaraj Mahanta



A soybean farm in early November. As the planet continues to warm, vast new stretches of Russia will become suitable for agriculture. - The NewYork Times Magazine


Kremlin’s growing authoritarian governance and cracking down of the opposition, including the alleged poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the most prominent of all the opposition leaders, have received a gigantic share of attention in recent days. Putin has been intrepid with all the questions pertaining to election rigging, cybercriminals, or be it the interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Yet, somehow, the way climate change is silently reshaping Russia’s position at the global front triggers an unending series of questions that cannot be kept in obscurity.


Since the mid-1970s, Russia has been warming on an average of 0.47 degrees Celsius over ten years, which is 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world. A significant portion of Russia is extremely vulnerable to the ravages of Climate Change, and it can have hard-hitting consequences on the overall health, welfare, and socio-economic development of the country. Apart from rising temperatures, scientists and climatologists have predicted extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, wildfires, permafrost melting, unpredictable precipitation patterns, etc. This brings us to a variety of questions that may not necessarily have an answer but, it certainly entails a lot for the strategic future of the largest nation on Earth. In early 2020, the former Prime Minister of Russia - Dmitry Medvedev, with all optimism, highlighted the potential benefits of a warming temperature through a “National Action Plan for the first stage of adaptation to climate change,” which chalks out the trajectory until 2022. The highlighted benefits of the unexpected outcomes of Climate Change are as follows:


1) Decrease in the consumption of oil and other energy resources during the heating season

2) Easier navigation of the Arctic Ocean with the increased melting of ice and overall improvement of ice conditions

3) Greater access to the continental shelf in the Northern boundary

4) Increased area for farming with reduced permafrost

5) Increased efficiency of animal husbandry

6) Improvement of the productivity of the boreal forests





In short, the Kremlin is planning to capitalize on the whole climate crisis to its advantage. The primary advantages that Russia can take from the whole crisis are the navigation through the Arctic Ocean and expansion of the extent of agriculture to the Far East. As the Arctic melts, there is every possibility for the opening of new shipping lanes that has the potential to cut the traveling time between Europe and South Asia by up to 40%. The steady melting of Arctic ice also means that there will be reduced transit time to the United States. This gives Russia the ultimate edge of controlling the route between the East Asian countries including China and the West. Moreover, most of the important cities and, the military locations of Russia are located far from the sea, thus, there will be the far lesser impact of rising sea level on Russia as a whole, especially when we compare it to its contender during the Cold War Era – the United States which has several large cities and military bases near the coast. Considering the global nature of Climate Change, it will be interesting to see if Russia and the United States join hands for cooperation in the Arctic region, or will it turn into a new zone of conflict, reshaping the global order?


Approximately, two-thirds of Russia is covered with permafrost, mostly located towards the east of the Ural Mountains. Growing temperatures and the consequent melting of ice may not necessarily be a curse for all nations. Unlike the US, Europe, India, and China, Russia is uniquely positioned to heavily benefit from the clearance of permafrost. Research by Nadezhda Tchebakova, a renowned Russian climatologist and ecologist, suggests that warming temperatures can transform one-third of the permafrost of Russia from “absolute extreme” to “fairly favourable” for civilization by 2080. This can be a boost for the agricultural economy of the country as there will be a longer growing season for the crops and Russia’s dominance in wheat, sugar beet, cereals, potatoes, soy, and canola seeds can transform the nation into a food powerhouse of the world. Food holds a significant position in this climate era. In 2010, when Putin banned the export of wheat due to calamitous droughts and wildfires, the global wheat price almost tripled. This gave rise to a series of responses such as an increase in poverty and hunger in Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and Indonesia. It also added extra fuel to the already intensifying Arab Spring uprisings which resulted in an unprecedented migration of refugees to the safer haven in Europe.


Numerous other arguments make predictions that Russia will have a much greater economic growth than the other major economic giants due to Climate Change. Russia is also positioned to effectively benefit from the in-migration from the neighbouring nations of Central Asia which have been suffering from climate-induced problems such as water shortage. And, yet many researchers, scientists, and climate experts believe that all such optimistic possibilities are a hoax as the impact of the climate crisis on Russia will be immense.


On one hand, Russia seems to be benefitting from the melting of permafrost but, at the same time, it poses a serious threat to the pipelines which are integral for an oil and gas-based economy of Russia. It also threatens the existence of urban and industrial centers and transportation facilities in the northern part which is susceptible to warming temperatures leading to erratic precipitation patterns and even water scarcity. 2020 recorded the highest temperatures in several regions of Russia leading to flash floods in Siberia – displacing hundreds and thousands of inhabitants and wildfires in the Sakha region of Siberia – burning an area almost of the size of Greece.


Despite the two opposing sides, what will interest many scientists and climatologists is the way Russia’s response to climate change. Anatol Lieven, a professor at Georgetown University Qatar claims that “the greatest threat to Russia’s economy and the stability of its political system is not climate change but action against climate change.” With the decrease in the oil demand, it may be a huge shake to Russia’s export and revenues but, what Russia can utilize for its advantage is the exploitation of natural gas as its demand is unlikely to reduce in the coming years owing to its production of relatively lesser greenhouse emissions.


It is unlikely that any nation will be forgiven by the catastrophe of climate change. Russia occupies a unique position. Putin’s joining of the Paris Agreement was a huge step ahead for Russia but at the same time, he denied that climate change is human-induced. The first step every nation can undertake is fast-tracking the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Despite the existence of non-governmental organizations, the authoritarian nature of the Russian government often muffles the voices of the concerned. What the future holds for Russia will depend on the government’s decision to provide a space for researchers, scientists, activists, and the public to set forth their grievances. Russia is already better equipped than most nations in the world to deal with climate change. It has excellent facilities for analysis, forecasting, and emergency response. It has a robust industrial and urban infrastructure that is more resilient to climate change than many other regions. But what lies ahead for Russia will be determined by its preparedness and plan of action to respond to the calamities of climate change – which can shatter the ambitions of Putin or recreate a new order for Russia, even mightier and tougher than the Soviet Union.


About the Author

Nabaraj Mahanta is a research intern at Ytharth.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.




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