Russia’s ‘Green’ Agenda in the Arctic and the Far East: Words vs. Deeds
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 84
On May 17, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the concept of Moscow’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council (2021–2023) along with a plan of events. In particular, “the protection of the Arctic environment, including climate change,” was named as one of four high-priority goals during Russia’s tenure. From his side, Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic (Minvostokrazvitia) Alexei Chekunkov stressed his country’s determination to “touch upon global climate change, [and] the use of renewable energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” (Arctic.ru, May 17). Nonetheless, such statements and rhetoric coming from Moscow’s top officials bear little resemblance to reality.
Several days prior to Mushustin’s and Chekunkov’s remarks, on May 11, yet another ecological catastrophe involving an oil spill occurred in the northern Komi Republic (which borders the Nenets Autonomous District). As a result, parts of the Kolva River became heavily contaminated with oil from the Osha hydrocarbon deposit. Following the incident, the head of Komi Republic, Vladimir Uyba, accompanied by a high-level delegation, headed to the site of the incident (Rkomi.ru, May 13). Right from the start, the authorities’ response to the ecological disaster was marked by a lack of transparency and, apparently, lies from local officials. According to the press service of the company involved, Lukoil-Komi, the incident resulted in “merely” four tons of oil products being spilled (Rosbalt, May 16). However, the affected spill area stretches for 12,700 square kilometers; and unofficially, the volume of spilled petroleum is estimated at 90 tons. Moreover, local environmental activists accused Lukoil and the republican authorities of concealing information regarding the spill, alleging that the incident may have started not on May 11 but as early as March, and that during this entire time nothing was done to address the growing calamity. Aleksander Sladkoshtiev, the deputy director of the non-governmental organization Committee of Salvation of Pechora, asserted that hazardous materials contaminated not only the Kolva River but also spread to larger nearby rivers—the Usa and Pechora. His statement was corroborated by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which, based on satellite imagery, concluded that the first signs of uncontrolled seepage of petroleum into the surrounding environment date back to March. Local officials expressed doubt about the correctness of this information (Komionline.ru, May 16).
The Kolva River spill was not the only such case of ecological devastation affecting Russia’s vulnerable Arctic and Far East regions since the start of the year. For instance, in late April, parts of the Ob River (Yamal peninsula) were contaminated with more than 56 tons of spilled oil products as well as pollution from of an earlier massive wildfire. While an investigation was officially launched right away, no further information was revealed to date. And the culprit, SiburTumenGas, has remained silent on the matter (Rosbalt, April 27). According to local eco-activists, the aforementioned company was not the only party culpable for the damage. Rather, the environmental catastrophe was allowed to happen due to negligence—or more likely corruption (see EDM, June 7, 2020)—on the part of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), which, for some reason, chose to ignore mounting problems (Nash-surgut.ru, April 22).
Another petroleum spill (approximately 3,000 cubic meters of oil), occurred on May 14, on the territory of the Yamal Nenets Autonomous Okrug (YNAO), resulting in massive contamination of the local environment (Rosbalt, May 14). Reports also emerged, on May 17, of an oil leak in the Arctic town of Dudinka, in Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the territory of the Taimyr Fuel Company, owned by metals mining giant Nornickel; its consequences remain unknown (Rosbalt, May 17). Nornickel was notably involved in another massive ecological catastrophe last year, in the High North region of Norilsk (see EDM June 29, 2020 and July 7, 2020).
A still unexplained recent incident occurred in September–October 2020, in the Kamchatka area of the Russian Far East, which is also under the purview of Minvostokrazvitia. Namely, recovered marine species in the waters off the coast of the peninsula were found with traces of chemical burns. Initially, reports stated that collected seawater samples had traces of phenol; but Russian officials subsequently contended that the incident was likely caused by a specific sort of seaweed (Lenta, December 18, 2020). Local ecologists, including Dmitry Lisitsin, rejected such claims, pointing out that next to the location where the poisoned wildlife was discovered, there is a large military polygon that stockpiles up to 300 tons of toxic materials. Incidentally, he also noted that the authorities came late with their justification, since dead sea animals began to be observed much earlier than had first been declared (BBC News—Russian service, October 5, 2020).
In addition to directly anthropogenic disasters, the Russian Far East and High North also continue to face dramatic seasonal wildfires that incur huge ecological costs to the entire Arctic region well beyond Russia’s territory. Though natural phenomena, these wildfires are made worse by inadequate state resources and inept policies designed to combat them (see EDM, January 7, 2021). In 2019 alone, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Sakha Republic experienced out-of-control fires that affected areas exceeding the territory of Greece. The WWF argued the Russian authorities demonstrated complete unpreparedness and lack of strategy. Even though the government has spent large amounts of money on “ecology,” these wildfires demonstrated the ineffectiveness of those projects and the wastefulness of these state expenditures (Newsru.com, July 2, 2020).
It is important to understand that the ecological damage incurred by the Russian Arctic and Far East is not episodic: it is of a long-running systemic nature, with roots in the pre-1991 period. Moreover, while environmental catastrophes certainly happen in many countries, Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) have a lengthy and notorious track record of covering up and/or diminishing the real scale of the damage. In 2019 alone, out of 17,000 accidents in Russia’s fuel-energy sector, more than 10,500 involved oil facilities, the majority of which are located in the High North. This means that, on average, an accident took place every thirty minutes (Terra-ecology.ru, October 16, 2020). Nevertheless, only a handful of catastrophes ever become public knowledge—most are concealed by the authorities.
Despite this questionable environmental legacy, Russia is now consciously trying to attract the other Arctic Council members to sign on to its “green” agenda items for the region. Moscow believes that if it can play a leadership role on ecology, this will aid its larger goal of convincing the other Arctic states to accept Russia’s expansive geographic and security claims in the north (see EDM, April 22, May 13, 24). The other Arctic Council members will need to be conscious of this stratagem.