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Pragmatic Environmentalism in the Russian Arctic

This article is part of a series on Russian interests in the Arctic. Russia's Arctic policies and postures are often misunderstood, overblown, or underrated because they take place in a complex regional context and result from complex internal politics. Every second month, Morgane Fert-Malka contributes with an analysis, interview, or book review shedding light on this central Arctic player.

By Morgane Fert-Malka 

The international community is well aware of the countless environmental issues—ranging from theoretical risks to imminent disasters—that industrialization, infrastructure decay, and climate change have introduced in the Arctic region, and particularly in the Russian Arctic.  

Providing the visual backdrop for a narrative of unchecked environmental catastrophe in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation (AZRF) are spectacular images of giant industrial complexes in the icy immensity, oil spills and pollution clouds, craters formed by the explosion of methane bubbles released from thawing permafrost, and new bacteria decimating reindeer populations. But is Russia’s bad reputation regarding management and mitigation of environmental risk entirely deserved? What lies behind this reputation, and how is Russia actually approaching ecology in the Arctic? Maria Lagutina and Nadezhda Kharlampieva, two associate professors of world politics at Saint Petersburg State University who focus on cross-regional development in the Arctic, shared their thoughts on these questions.

Not the blackest sheep in the herd

If you are wondering whether the AZRF really is the part of the Arctic where environmental problems are the most acute, the answer is both yes and no. Because the Russian segment is the largest, most industrialized, and most populated, it is not surprising that such concerns are more salient there than in other Arctic regions. But Russia is by no means an isolated case or a black sheep among Arctic countries.

According to Lagutina, the problems manifested in the AZRF can be traced back to the industrial development of the region during Soviet times. In other Arctic countries, there is no comparable period of industrial activity, and the population is significantly smaller. “Consequently, the anthropogenic footprint and pollution levels in their Arctic ecosystems are lower,” she said, although no Arctic country is innocent when it comes to pollution. For Kharlampieva, it is unfair to compare the environmental situation in Russia with other Arctic countries, because it differs in scale and nature. “The size of the territories and their climatic characteristics are different, the level of exploration is different, the requirements for regional development are different,” she said. Kharlampieva also pointed out that Arctic environmental issues are regional, if not global, in nature, so their causes and effects should be studied as such.

Cleaning up the AZRF

The Russian approach to environmental risk is highly pragmatic. This strategy has its advantages and its downsides—on the one hand, when and where they do pay attention, Russian lawmakers tend to produce comprehensive legislation that address not only the symptoms, but also the causes of environmental degradation in the AZRF. But on the other hand, because the Arctic is perceived as the nexus of Russia’s future prosperity because of the resources it contains, transnational environmentalist efforts have little traction, and are sometimes suspected of being directed against Russia's economic and political interests. Their pragmatism means that Russian decision makers are seldom ready to make concessions at the expense of the economy, unless the cost of not doing so is both clear and immediate. It also means that they prefer to commit only to immediate solutions—such as clean-up operations—and neglect to take action to address complex, long-term issues, such as the link between a fossil fuel-based economy and climate change.

Russia is an active player in regional environmental cooperation, not least within the framework of the Arctic Council, where Russian representatives are well aware of Russia’s interest in mitigating transborder ecological risks. However, at the domestic level, quite unsurprisingly, the main focus is on pollution of the AZRF rather than broader issues related to climate change, which are perceived as more abstract and transnational.

“[Lately] Russia has taken serious measures to improve the situation, with several high-profile projects to clean the AZRF,” Lagutina said. In the last few years, for example, the country succeeded in reducing the number of “hot spots”—areas where pollution levels are strikingly higher than safety standards—in the northwest of Russia, including the Komi Republic. Since 2010, the Russian Geographical Society has supported a project that aims to clean up the fuels and lubricants, machinery, equipment, and garbage left on the coasts of the Arctic Ocean in the 1990s. Lagutina also noted that “in Russia, environmental issues are not a priority, but for the AZRF the situation is a little different.” Because the AZRF is considered a critical zone in geoeconomic terms, Moscow pays more attention to it. “Environmental questions of the Arctic are under the president’s personal control, which fosters greater efforts by the actors involved. Gazprom and Rosneft [a majority state-owned Russian natural gas company and a Russian state-owned oil company] support a number of ecological projects—even the military is involved in cleanup operations,” she said.

Old issues, new circumstances

Concerns about environmental degradation are as old as Soviet industrial development of the AZRF. But “the conditions for addressing them have changed,” noted Kharlampieva. “Now, private companies are involved, decision-making processes are more complex, [and] interministerial, governmental, and societal relations have transformed.”

The Soviet government had a wide breadth of experience in environmental policymaking, she added. Kharlampieva hopes that “this experience can continue to inform current and future government standards, in a new structural and economic context.” But to her, “the newest stage of development of the AZRF has hardly begun at a massive scale, so it is too early to evaluate the efficiency of the related environmental measures.”

To a great extent, the efficiency of top-down measures will depend on the willingness and the ability of regional, local, and commercial actors to implement them. Like many other areas of policy in Russia, there is an enormous discrepancy between the rules and practices of environmental policy. “Strict implementation of new legal norms will depend on improvements in legal awareness among the population, service providers, industrial actors, etc.” said Kharlampieva. At the same time, she does not believe local Arctic populations lack environmental awareness: “environmental risk caused by private companies’ development projects is the main discussion topic at the local level. The population constantly tries to raise these issues with regional and central governments.” The difficulty is that many companies in the field of natural resource exploitation are not legally based in the Arctic. “Therefore, the authority to sanction environmental violators is concentrated in the capitals, where the speed and efficiency of the litigation processes can be a problem,” she put diplomatically.

Still a long way to go

With the scale of the challenge in mind, is Russia heading in the right direction? As always, the truth lies in the nuances. “We are talking about huge territories with complex issues that cannot be solved in a heartbeat,” said Kharlampieva, calling for patience. She praised the experience, quality, and level of integration of the Russian scientific community, including those in natural and social sciences, which she described as moving toward a comprehensive approach to environmental and socio-economic issues of the AZRF. Both Kharlampieva and Lagutina also praised civil society organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund, which conducts awareness campaigns, cooperates with regional and local authorities, and works, in part, with the support of and subsidies from the Russian federal government.

Yet it must be noted that the environmental question is still framed in rather narrow terms in Russia. Environmental risk in the Arctic is mostly understood by decision-makers in terms of immediate pollution by local actors rather than in broader terms of climate change and transnational challenges. Environmental awareness among the Russian population at large is also limited. To Lagutina, this disconnect is logical. “Only in politically and economically stable countries do people care about ecology,” she said. “When you are [primarily] concerned with earning enough to get by, the environment does not make it to your priority list.” Notably, Russia has not yet ratified the 2016 Paris climate agreement, and President Vladimir Putin maintains a disquietingly ambiguous stance on climate change.

With the Kremlin focused on other issues in domestic and international affairs, a reassessment of the fossil fuel-based economy to emphasize sustainable energy production and consumption seems far away in Russia, as it does in many other parts of the world. In the meantime, environmental issues in the Russian Arctic will continue to be addressed assiduously, but in a manner driven by immediate needs and short-term solutions.

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Morgane Fert-Malka is a French Moscow-based political analyst. She focuses on Russian decision-making processes and on Russia's Arctic policies. She writes for various outlets such as Russia Direct (Moscow) and IFRI (Paris). She also co-founded WeBuildEurope.eu, a pan-European strategy think tank based in Vienna, where she heads a research project about the role of the European Union in the Arctic.

[Photo courtesy of President of Russia]

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