Mark Galeotti Mark Galeotti

Putin is finally waking up to Russia’s climate change problem

Russian president Vladimir Putin, picture credit: Getty

The snow is falling in Moscow, but that is after the warmest autumn there on record. Meanwhile, perhaps reflecting that with the arrival of vaccines, there is at least the prospect of an end to the Covid-19 crisis, the climate change debate is rekindling – and with a particular geopolitical angle.

Much of the conventional wisdom is that it is a perverse boon to Russia. Representative of this perspective, for example, has been a recent study that led the New York Times to predict that Moscow will ‘win the climate crisis’ – while its partner, ProPublica, warned that ‘Russia could dominate a warming world.’

Stirring stuff, and no doubt music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. ‘Across Eastern Russia,’ we are told, ‘wild forests, swamps and grasslands are slowly being transformed into orderly grids of soybeans, corn and wheat.’ This is as nothing to what Russia can expect, as ‘more than two million square miles [in Siberia] could become available for farming by 2080, and its capacity to support potential climate migrants could jump ninefold in some places as a result.’

There is certainly much truth in all this. Chilly northern parts of Russia absolutely will become more amenable to farming, in line with Putin’s determination to make his country an agrarian superpower (it is already the world’s largest grain exporter).

As the Arctic ice breaks up, the waters of the High North are also opening to maritime trade (this will likely become a key shipping route from China to North America) and also potentially the exploitation of gas and oil fields and, more importantly, fishing stocks.

When something gets framed as a security problem is, after all, when Putin starts to pay attention

The trouble is that climate change takes at least as enthusiastically as it gives.

The same warming that is opening up new lands to farming will also turn existing breadbaskets into dustbowls.

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