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Nature of war. How Russia sacrificed its environment for a military economy

After the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia lowered its domestic environmental standards and squeezed out international environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Their departure left Russia’s nature vulnerable to the government's predatory policies, which include laws authorizing timber cutting and real estate development in nature reserves. Industrial emissions are on the rise, and overall pollution levels are soaring — resulting in disease fatality rates that are comparable to battlefield losses.

  • Polluted data

  • Playing eco-defense

  • Lowering standards and growing risks

  • Environmental impact on health

  • How Russia squeezes out environmental organizations

  • Resistance is not futile


Polluted data

In late November 2023, Vladimir Putin adopted a new Climate Doctrine. The document cites climate change as a major challenge of the 21st century — one that poses a threat to Russia’s national security. Unsurprisingly, the document addresses the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. Paradoxically, it calls for Russia to increase them.

Officially, of course, the increase is presented as a reduction. Back in November 2020, Putin signed a decree setting the target to reduce Russia’s greenhouse gas emissions to 70% of their 1990 levels (2162.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent). However, in 2020, the country’s emissions were already much lower than they had been in 1990: 1,482.2 million tons, or 48% of what they had been thirty years before. Today, Russia intends to “reduce” its emissions to 1,673 million tons of CO2 equivalent (54% of the 1990 levels) by 2030, meaning that the volume of emissions is set to increase.

Russia's approach to emissions monitoring raises many questions, ecologist Vasily Yablokov says. The procedures for tracking and data collection are unspecified. For one, the emissions from the catastrophic fires of 2010 and 2018 were not accounted for in any way, even though there are estimates suggesting they were comparable to industrial discharge.

In 2018, forest fires in Russia affected an area of 3 million hectares
In 2018, forest fires in Russia affected an area of 3 million hectares

Russia ranks fourth in the world in carbon emissions — behind China, the United States, and India — and while Russian officials frequently “reaffirm their commitment” to climate action and reducing emissions, they are not putting their money where their mouth is. Instead, they blame the West and its sanctions. According to Yablokov:

“Everyone is trying to shirk responsibility, saying they are facing immense obstacles on the path to the green transition and decarbonization needed to fight climate change due to sanctions imposed by former partners. Ostensibly, sanctions are a great impediment to Russia’s climate action. It is as though nothing were happening, as though sanctions had appeared out of nowhere specifically to prevent Russia from fighting global warming.”

The new climate doctrine lists environmental risks caused by other countries’ actions that are contrary to Russia's interests, as well as reputational risks for Russia if it fails to take sufficient measures against climate change.

Playing eco-defense

The Russian state is exploiting the environmental agenda both nationally and internationally. Russia has not withdrawn from international agreements, but its motivation for officially supporting the fight against climate change appears to be less than noble. Vitaly Servetnik, coordinator of the Environmental Crisis Group, explains:

“Some of my colleagues believe that the environmental agenda is a platform Russia can use to remain integrated into global international processes. Despite calls for Russia’s complete boycott and isolation on various international fora, the country remains an essential element in tackling global warming, Arctic problems, and other planetary issues.”

On the domestic level, the Russian government limits its activities to expressing concern about environmental issues before relegating them to the sub-national level, Servetnik continues:

Federal authorities would hate to see any environmental problems escalated to their level, as was the case with the Kushtau Shihan, [a large chalk hill in Bashkortostan, which activists sought to protect from industrial mining]. Such situations necessitate big decisions like firing the governor or nationalizing the company. There was also the case of Poltavskaya, a village in Krasnodar Territory. A group of local activists protested against a landfill, and it wasn't until recently that the decision was made to recultivate the area.” [The Insider's note: In 2022, the group leader committed suicide after a fine of $347,000 was imposed on his company.]

Following the environmental protests against the Shiyes landfill, the governors of the Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic were replaced prior to elections lest the Kremlin’s unpopular candidates suffer defeat at the polls. Even among political movements, how many can boast of having deposed two governors as a result of their actions?

Servetnik suggests that the federal authorities are sending a clear message: local issues must be addressed at the local level because otherwise they turn into political ones. Grassroots activists usually start with simple slogans like “Don't cut down our forest” or “Don't pollute our land.” If the authorities turn a deaf ear to their demands, people may see that the whole system is flawed and does not protect their interests. They may begin to ask more profound questions, such as “whether this government is in our interests,” the expert explains: “Environmental issues turn residents into citizens.”

It is not possible to convince people that the desire to live in a healthy, safe environment is a Western value, and so the officials must choose a different approach. For instance, they could set up organizations that pretend to solve environmental problems or serve as outlets of public concern, Servetnik says:

“People get a place where they can bring their grievances, but the dialog quickly degrades into a your-call-is-very-important-to-us swamp. A few years ago, the government created a coordination council for environmental well-being as a platform where environmental NGOs could raise their issues under the supervision of the Public Chamber and the Presidential Administration instead of launching independent public campaigns.”
It is not possible to convince people that the desire to live in a healthy, safe environment is a Western value

According to Servetnik, such structures are created to accumulate and absorb ecologists’ concerns — as well as control them and keep track of the domestic environmental agenda.

Lowering standards and growing risks

Russia's new environmental plans also suggest reducing oversight of environmental compliance. Thus, in 2022 and 2023, the Russian government suspended ecological inspections for businesses. This moratorium was imposed in early March 2022, almost immediately after the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine. The intervention was officially justified by the need to ease the pressure on businesses under sanctions.

Less than a year later, deputies of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly asked Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin to lift the moratorium. In their opinion, the abolition of inspections could result in both financial losses on the national level and significant environmental damage. In addition, the moratorium could create additional costs for the very businesses it was supposed to benefit because of the “increased frequency of man-made accidents.” Nevertheless, the moratorium continued into 2023.

Due to its outdated and poorly maintained infrastructure, Russia suffers from a high occurrence of accidents in its oil and gas industry. Some are catastrophic in magnitude, Yablokov says:

“Fines for environmental crimes are negligible and provide no incentive for businesses to modernize infrastructure or switch to cleaner technologies. Lately, we have seen an exacerbation of this trend. There haven’t been any positive developments.”

According to the expert, several major disasters and hundreds of minor incidents happen every year. The use of fossil fuels is fraught with accidents with very serious consequences. Pipeline ruptures are the most frequent because pipelines make up most of Russia's oil and gas infrastructure and are largely outdated. Accidents at oil refining facilities are another pitfall of the industry.

The diesel fuel spill in Norilsk, 2020
The diesel fuel spill in Norilsk, 2020

Furthermore, the government is lowering environmental standards for the construction and manufacturing industries. Around the same time as the moratorium on inspections appeared, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin introduced another temporary ban: on the preparation of negative conclusions of the state expert review of design documentation and engineering survey results. This document abolished many restrictions on construction in designated conservation areas of sub-national significance.

Marat Khusnullin abolished many restrictions on construction in designated conservation areas of sub-national significance

In March 2022, the Russian parliament took less than two weeks to pass a law postponing multiple environmental initiatives, again using the official explanation that the move was being taken due to “external sanctions pressure.” In particular, the deadline for achieving the aims set out in the country’s 2020 Clean Air Project, an experimental quota scheme aimed at reducing by 20% emissions in twelve Russian cities — including Krasnoyarsk, Chelyabinsk, and Norilsk — was pushed back from 2024 to 2026.

So far, air quality has deteriorated in five out of the 12 participating cities. Bratsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Novokuznetsk have moved from “high” to “very high” pollution levels, while Chelyabinsk's “elevated” levels became “high.” In Nizhny Tagil, air pollution levels are six to ten times above the threshold level.

In terms of public health, this trend portends an increase in cancer, chronic diseases, and therefore, premature mortality. The Clean Air Project is among the national environmental initiatives the state had yet to abandon, but it has seen major funding cuts each year despite limited or non-existent progress, Yablokov said.

Similarly, the new law provided a two-year extension in the submission of applications for comprehensive environmental permits from 300 major polluters responsible for at least 60% of emissions nationwide. These permits require that companies set quotas for possible emissions, justify waste generation limits, and submit a draft program of industrial environmental control. Businesses can now delay their submissions until Dec. 31, 2024.

Last spring, the Russian business community received further lenience from the government when the State Duma passed a law to support the construction industry in the face of sanctions. The document removed several environmental restrictions, including on development at Lake Baikal for the purposes of increasing railroad capacity.

In addition, the law authorized the construction of trunk infrastructure facilities in designated conservation areas of federal significance without an environmental impact assessment. And July 2023 saw yet another attempt to offer up the Baikal area to developers when the State Duma passed in the first reading a bill authorizing “clear sanitary felling” of trees in the lake's central conservation zone, opening it for construction.

The Russian parliament passed a law that permits development at Lake Baikal

The weakening of Russia’s environmental laws started as early as the 2000s, Servetnik says. As he explains, this kind of systematic, progressive weakening of environmental legislation is commonly referred to as de-ecologization:

“We've been tracking it since 2000 or so, when it became clear who had come to power. One of [Putin's] first decrees was a document abolishing the State Committee on Ecology, an independent environmental protection body that had been efficiently carrying out its mandate, according to many colleagues. Distributing its functions among multiple agencies effectively destroyed Russia’s integrated nature protection framework.”

In Servetnik's estimation, Russia sacrificed its environment for economic benefit every time it went through times of hardship: in the 2008 crisis, following the 2014 sanctions, and in the time of COVID-19 restrictions. The year 2022 saw another legislative relaxation — one that is likely to continue for as long as Russia’s war in Ukraine lasts. The ongoing crisis only intensified the processes that have been taking place since 2000.

Yablokov agrees that Russia’s legislation is de-ecologizing with each passing year:

“The government is offering relief measures for businesses to bolster the economy. In a crisis, the environment is no longer a top priority. We saw this during the pandemic when the business community kept pushing the state for more lenient policies that could help companies survive the ‘corona crisis’.”

As the expert points out, during the pandemic environmental organizations succeeded in blocking some of the relaxation initiatives by raising public awareness. Today, those groups are no longer around.

Nationwide conservation, fire prevention, and environmental control efforts require extensive funding, qualified human resources, and state-of-the-art lab equipment. In Russia, this domain is plagued with chronic understaffing and flawed legislation, Yablokov notes.

Environmental impact on health

Environmental damage reduces a country's potential for economic and social growth due to its negative impact on human capital. In 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Russia third in such losses, assessing its damage at $447.6 billion, or 12.5% of GDP. Only China and India are ahead of Russia in this rating.

A 2009 World Bank report noted a decline of 12 million people in Russia's population over the past 15 years. The organization attributed the high mortality rate to public health problems, citing air pollution as one of the root causes. Russia’s consumer rights watchdog Rospotrebnadzor estimates that in 2021 — even before the full-scale invasion — air pollution was responsible for nearly 7,000 deaths and over 1 million cases of respiratory, digestive, and nervous system disorders annually. Whether these data are comprehensive and whether the numbers will increase now that the standards have been lowered remains to be seen, but in any case, they only exacerbate a situation in which Russia continues to suffer heavy military losses in Ukraine.

Chelyabinsk is among Russia's most polluted cities
Chelyabinsk is among Russia's most polluted cities

As Servetnik points out, it is difficult to establish a direct link between environmental pollution and disease in Russia because the state is reluctant to admit the connection. Even if one succeeds at linking industrial emissions to pollution levels, the correlation between pollution and poor health remains hard to prove: “You can always tell people they are sick because they smoke or drink.”

In 2021, Russia’s air pollution was responsible for over 1 million cases of respiratory, digestive, and nervous system disorders

Experts believe Russia is already going through an environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions. “We don't notice it the way we would notice a house collapse, but people die all the time [because of pollution]. Another example of Russia’s environmental disaster is the landfill problem. The catastrophe at Shiyes has been averted, but people are still acutely aware of the threat,” Yablokov said.

And the effects of climate change are already tangible for those living off the land and interacting with nature, such as farmers. Last year, the ECHR received a climate lawsuit against Russia from a group of activists demanding a review of its national greenhouse gas emission targets. The list of plaintiffs includes representatives of Northern Russian indigenous peoples who assert they are already suffering from the effects of climate change.

How Russia squeezes out environmental organizations

In 2023, for the first time since 2009, Russia did not participate in the annual international environmental campaign “Earth Hour.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov explained the decision by saying that the organizer of the action, the World Wildlife Fund, had been labeled a “foreign agent” in Russia.

Shortly thereafter, Russia's Prosecutor General's Office recognized WWF and Greenpeace as “undesirable” organizations. The same status was assigned to the Norwegian Bellona. The list of Russia’s “foreign-agent” environmental associations was soon expanded to include the Sakhalin Ecological Watch, the Center for the Preservation and Study of Salmonid Fish Species and their Habitats, and Friends of the Baltic.

Russian authorities are using the “foreign agent” law to curb or at least suppress the activities of organizations that oppose state-approved development projects, raise concerns about state environmental policies, and petition authorities to release imprisoned environmental activists, Human Rights Watch warned back in 2017.

“Russia's Ministry of Justice has used the status of ‘foreign agent’ to silence some of the nation's most effective, rigorous, and dedicated environmental groups,” states Richard Pearshouse, the director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. As Pearshouse notes, these environmental organizations had undertaken a variety of efforts to defend Russians’ right to a healthy environment by assessing the environmental impact of new projects, raising public awareness of environmental issues, campaigning against environmental corruption, and providing legal advice to people affected by industrial and nuclear accidents.

Commenting on its “undesirable” status in Russia, Greenpeace looked back on some of its projects in the country over the last three decades. In 1995, the Virgin Komi Forests became the first site in Russia to be protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The Russian branch of Greenpeace also curbed more than ten attempts to start gold mining in the area. Overall, more than 30 sites in Russia were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List during the period of Greenpeace's work. Among them were the volcanoes of Kamchatka and Lake Baikal, which the organization sought to protect from poachers, deforestation, and pollution. Greenpeace opposed enterprises that dumped toxic waste into LakeBaikal and protested the laying of an oil pipeline less than a kilometer from the lake. Greenpeace also detected oil spills in Russia and assessed their consequences, including the damage caused by the accident at Nornickel's facility in Norilsk in 2020.

Greenpeace samples water at Lake Baikal, 2022
Greenpeace samples water at Lake Baikal, 2022

Russia’s nature conservation crisis predates the full-scale war against Ukraine. The government started encroaching upon the activities of environmental groups a long time ago, but the pressure has never been higher than it is now. Yablokov says:

“After two highly influential environmental organizations, Greenpeace and WWF, ceased their activities [in Russia], there have been fewer deterrent mechanisms for officials. This leads to long-term negative consequences and social tension, for instance, in the form of local protests against projects that are harmful to the environment.”

The remaining environmental organizations may not be aware of all potentially harmful initiatives because their opportunities to discover them have been greatly reduced, the expert explains. Keeping track of all government initiatives and laws and following up on them is a major effort that fewer and fewer people can fully dedicate themselves to. “Today, the beneficiaries and lobbyists of such projects no longer meet strong resistance and find it easier to further their initiatives.”

As for pressure on environmental activists, Servetnik identifies two parallel trends. The first one is common for environmental, political, and human rights activists: the shrinking space for civil society inside Russia, which began with Putin's rise to power. This trend is illustrated by the consistent tightening of legislation on public protests. The other trend is in the relaxation of Russia’s environmental laws.

Resistance is not futile

Against all odds, Russia's environmental movement is doing all it can to survive. According to Yablokov:

“People are staying in Russia — not everyone can leave, after all — and they care about the place they live in. Past initiatives can still help people who care about conservation in the future. It would be an overstatement to say Russia's environmental movement is gone without a trace. This agenda has lost much of its visibility, of course, because the public's attention is focused elsewhere.”

The space for activism and human rights advocacy in Russia is shrinking, and this field is becoming more and more challenging and risky. Yet Yablokov is optimistic: “I think people's desire to protect nature will prevail under any circumstances, and people will find ways to fight for it.”

The closure of large organizations has certainly been a major blow. As a result, raising environmental problems at the level of federal legislation has become all but impossible. However, Servetnik believes that opportunities for local and sub-national activism have expanded.

Spontaneous environmental protests still pop up in various regions: “People are often more scared of having no air to breathe than getting detained by the police. They aren't defending some abstract polar bear floating on a piece of ice somewhere far away. They are fighting for their territory and their health. And this lays a sort of foundation for political action.”

People are often more scared of having no air to breathe than getting detained by the police

Due to the entanglement of government and business in Russia, pressure on activists is mainly exerted by authorities, while the beneficiaries of detrimental processes are driven by economic considerations. The two categories often overlap, with mayors or governors acting as developers in the region or major businessmen getting the green light to begin mining operations in a given location, Servetnik adds.

He predicts a global increase in demand for a wide range of natural resources — and with it, an accompanying trend for environmentally motivated conflicts in numerous locations. Therefore, neither environmental activism (and the issues) nor pressure on activists is going anywhere: “In any case, the authorities will not be able to discard the environmental agenda altogether. They will have to maneuver somehow. And in that, we see hope.”

Servetnik is confident that resistance is not futile. The Environmental Crisis Group has compiled 50 environmental victories for 2022, a sign that the fight continues. Nevertheless, the expert warns that environmental victories are hardly ever final: you may have fended off one enterprise, but you may face another in a couple of years. Protecting one's territory from real estate developers and subsoil plunderers is a constant struggle. In addition to the victories, the group also lists cases of environmental activists successfully defending their own rights.

And local activism can still have a global effect, Servetnik says:

“This explains the importance of people protesting against a local landfill without any consideration for global processes — simply because they want to breathe normally and have a nice forest for walks. Whether they realize it or not, they are still part of a big process, a large movement of guardians of the global ecosystem and, of course, their territories and their rights.»

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