In the latest episode of Expert Opinions, a podcast from Eurasianet’s hosts at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Masha Udensiva-Brenner interviews Professor Kimberly Marten about her research on climate change in the Russian Arctic.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Today. You'll hear from Kimberly Marten, a political science professor at Barnard college and the Harriman Institute who specializes in international relations and international security with a focus on Russia. Recently, she started a project on climate change in the Arctic and the surrounding politics.
Udensiva-Brenner: Hi, Kim. Thanks so much for joining us today to talk about such an important topic.
Marten: My pleasure.
Udensiva-Brenner: This is a topic that is often on the margins of discourse about Russia, so I'm really happy that we get to discuss it today. Russia is warming two-and-a-half times faster than the rest of the planet and the country has had a really interesting relationship to climate change. There are very few political parties with clout that have environmental platforms. And those that do exist don't even really address climate change directly.
It's unclear whether the Kremlin sees climate change, which is making much of Russia's soil more arable, as a friend or a foe. I'm curious what your take is, do you think Russian officials see it as a net positive or negative for the country?
Marten: Well, it's a really interesting question that you've raised and the rhetoric coming from Putin and other people who are close to Putin has really just started changing in the past several months. And, the rhetoric is now recognizing that climate change is a threat. And in fact, the latest version of the Russian national security strategy that was just released in 2021, now, for the first time ever, does list climate change as being a threat to Russian security. But the response to it, rather than focusing on stopping climate change, has mostly been on adaptation to climate change and mitigation of the negative effects of climate change. So, you're right. Parts of Siberia and the far north in Russia are actually warming three times faster than the rest of the planet. Even more than two and a half times.
Siberia, many of the places where weather measurements are taken in Siberia and in the far north have been recording temperatures well above a hundred degrees Fahrenheit over the past couple of years, which is just stunning to people who lived in those areas their whole lives and don't have air conditioning.
We know that there are really bad problems that are happening in Russia because of it. One of the major ones is forest fires, and forest fires are really starting to consume more and more areas in Siberia. It is also something that is melting the permafrost and when the permafrost melts it's going to have terrible consequences for all kinds of forms of Russian infrastructure. For highways, for airports, for industrial structures, and most importantly, probably, for apartment buildings.
Russia is unique because it has these large cities that are built in the Arctic. And those were constructed starting in Stalinist times to try to ensure that there was a population center near where a lot of the raw materials were located, but also to try to ensure that these vast empty areas of Siberia and the Far North and Far East were populated so that they didn't become threats where other countries could invade the Soviet Union. … As a result, we have these very large cities in Russia that are much further north than any other country in the world has placed large cities. And they're really facing the real threat of their infrastructure and their construction falling apart with permafrost melt because they were never designed to be built in situations where permafrost would be under threat.
On the other hand, the most important thing that you have that's changing in Russia for the positive side of what Putin is considering is what's called the Northern Sea Route, the entire area of the Arctic Ocean and the coastal line that goes along northern Russia is becoming navigable year-round. … The Soviet Union used this route stemming from the 1930s, but they could only use it for parts of the year when the ice was thin enough that icebreakers could break it up. And now what's happening is that the ice is disappearing much faster than anybody thought it was going to happen. And so it's becoming navigable for the first time [year-round]. And so Putin is thinking that this is going to become an advantage for Russia, the Northern Sea Route.
He's talked a lot about agriculture. But the thing to keep in mind is that the southern part of Russia, where the agriculture is now concentrated is also being subjected to really high temperatures and more fires than used to be present. And so, Russia is losing agriculture. And then the question is where are they going to gain this agriculture? Are they going to gain this agriculture from melting permafrost in the tundra?
Udensiva-Brenner: Right because that land is much more arable once the permafrost melts, but it's actually not very good soil underneath. Plus, the melting of permafrost releases so much CO2 into the atmosphere.
Marten: Exactly. And they're finding both very interesting things like, the skeletons of woolly mammoths that were buried long ago, but it also has the danger that pathogens that have not been around that might affect human beings or animals that are necessary for human agriculture, for example, could affect people and animals that have not been subject to them for thousands of years. And they're appearing as the permafrost melts.
Udensiva-Brenner: That's a lot to unpack, but I'd like to zero in on the potential economic impact for Russia of an ice-free Northern Passage.
Marten: … Putin has been presenting this to the world as if it's a real alternative to the Suez Canal; you could just sort of see the delight in the Kremlin when that big ship got stuck in the Suez Canal earlier this year. And it was just sort of, “Well, see, the Suez Canal isn't always reliable, but the Northern Sea Route is a good alternative to it.” …
They're building all kinds of infrastructure that is attached to the Northern Sea Route. So partly this is oil. Rosneft, the big state-controlled Russian oil company, and it's leader Igor Sechin, who is an oligarch who's very close to Putin, are talking about building this big new piece of infrastructure on the Taymyr Peninsula. That's called the Vostok Oil project and what it is, it's not only building new places to look for oil and to develop oil. It's also 15 new, essentially industrial towns that are going to be associated with this that are being built on virgin tundra. And so, what's really ironic is that Sechin has said, “it's going to be a green development. This is going to be green oil.” And how in the world he gets to that conclusion, just doesn't make any sense given the reality of what's happening.
We see the same thing happening in LNG, in liquid natural gas. And so earlier this year, the Russian state put into place a huge new plan for liquid natural gas development that was really concentrating on the Arctic. And when you read the plan, it reads like something from the Soviet Union. They have this list of exactly which LNG locations are supposed to be developed by which company and when. And what you have is the minister of energy being told that that person has to go and report every year to the prime minister in Russia about how the plan is being fulfilled. And the language is actually there about fulfilling the plan, which I just find astonishing. And then the thing that is really striking is that there's new development in coal, again, associated with the Northern Sea Route at a time where most of the world energy experts believe that demand for coal is going to essentially plateau in 2025. There will still be demand. That's increasing right now coming from China and probably from India and some other places in the Far East. But the general understanding is that, there's not going to be this international global need for more coal supplies going forward. And, in fact, when they started doing this coal development along the Northern Sea Route, the companies that had originally contracted to do it pulled out of the deal because they said it wasn't economically viable.
So, what does Putin do? He convenes a huge meeting and says, “You've got to find alternative contractors. We have to develop this.” It's this huge Soviet-like project. And it was actually something that I encountered in the early 1990s when I was doing a project on the Russian defense industry and how it was reacting to the post-Soviet era. And you saw all these old Soviet defense enterprises having these advertisements come out about what they could produce for the civilian economy, but it wasn't based on market planning. It wasn't looking for where the demand was and saying, what can we do with the technology that we have to meet this demand? Instead, it was, here's the technology that we can use, please come and buy it.
It's essentially the same thing that's happening now, where Russia is saying we have these natural resources. We have this Northern Sea Route, please come and use it. And just a couple of weeks ago, there was an argument that appeared in the Russian press that was picked up in some Western press sources too, where the people who are responsible for the Northern Sea Route are saying, it's not going to be economically viable in the near future. And so, we’re going to need Russian state subsidization to make it be competitive with the Suez Canal and make it competitive with railroads—and by the way, Russia is also building new railroads over the tundra as part of this Northern Sea Route construction—so it's just this big state project.
And we know that Putin loves state projects, right? I mean, he had state projects in Sochi for the Olympics, he had the big state project of building the bridge that goes to Crimea from the Russian mainland. So, he loves these big state projects and he's pushing it [the Northern Sea Route] not because anybody believes it's going to be profitable immediately—and there are real doubts about whether it's going to be profitable in the long run. But this gets me to the problem of what's called stranded assets. This idea that the world is moving away—Europe faster than anybody else—but it's really starting to become a global investment trend of all the big investment houses of not continuing to invest in fossil fuels and not continuing to invest in companies that are not cognizant of their carbon contribution. And especially with this report that came out from the International Energy Agency this summer about the necessity to not have any new carbon-based fuel development now, if we are going to stop an absolute calamity from happening by 2050. The world is moving away from carbon. But Russia is not. And there doesn't seem to be any recognition that this is going to have negative effects long-term not merely for the Russian climate, but for the Russian investment climate and for the ability of Russia to make money. The rest of the world is turning away from this. And Russia is not.
Udensiva-Brenner: Do you think that this is due to the endemic corruption and kind of the tension between Putin having to keep the elite happy and keeping society happy, and since he's already lost the battle with society, he's now zeroing in on the elite?
Marten: I think that makes a lot of sense. And, you know, we don't have the real evidence to prove that this is happening, but it does seem like he offers contracts that are based on state support to his friends. And they make a lot of money off those contracts by taking their little bit of, you know, spare change off the top. Some people have said it's not even a little bit, it used to be 15 or 20 percent. Now, sometimes it's 80 percent to 90 percent of the value of the contract that's going into the pockets of the oligarchs and any other friends of Putin that he's put in positions of state power. And so that, that could certainly be what's going on.
It's also possible that what's going on is that this is just an idea that Putin has in his head. And that's an argument that's been made by Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institution, who was the person who did the most to uncover a dissertation that Putin had quote, unquote, written—a lot of it is plagiarized, but it was a dissertation that he wrote early in his career. He probably didn't actually write it, but he seems to believe in it—where he talked about the importance of state influence over the direction of the economy and that state-controlled economies were how you made things right for the country. So I think it's also completely possible that Putin actually believes in all of this, that he believes that if you provide state support for these things, that if you build it, they will come. … We'll see what happens. I mean, China, India, there may be other countries that are still demanding these kinds of things going forward, and maybe it will make some money for Russia, but it does not seem to be the direction that the rest of the world is moving in.
Udensiva-Brenner: You mentioned adaptation to climate change earlier. Do you think Russia has the economic strength and capacity to implement a green vision that would take advantage of climate change?
Marten: What's really interesting about how Russia is seeming to go in this direction right now is adaptation through the development of new technologies. And if you sort of look at what we were talking about earlier, what are new technologies, especially new technologies that may be subsidized by the state? They are opportunities for those who are close to Putin to gain new contracts. And so, one example of this is a giant new wind farm that is being built in Teriberka, Teriberka, this little town in the Russian Far North that many people may recognize because it was the place where the Russian film Leviathan was filmed and the film is all about corruption and about how corruption is keeping this little town functioning, and how there's no way for the people to take on the state when the state decides to pursue its corrupt activities. And so, it's kind of ironic that it's Teriberka where this is happening. But, you know, independent analysts have determined that there's no particular need for more electrical power to be generated in this Far North area of Russia. It's not going to be economically viable in any kind of short- to medium-term to get this wind power that's being generated here to places that actually need it. This area of Murmansk, in northern Russia, already has plenty of electricity, including from sustainable sources like nuclear power and hydro power, but it [the wind farm] is being built as a showpiece and Putin loves showpieces. And in this case, he's doing it with support of an Italian state-owned firm.
Udensiva-Brenner: You're currently working on a research project about climate change in Russia. Can you talk a bit about what prompted your interest in the topic?
Marten: In the past, all of my work on Russia has really focused on more standard elements of security studies. And the reason that I got the idea to do this, is because of a comment that was made by an undergraduate student in my international politics class. I teach international politics every year and I always have one session on climate change. And so, it was how I ended the semester, trying to get across to the students that we should not be completely pessimistic because I do have faith in the ability of entrepreneurial humans to figure out solutions. So, I try to end it on an optimistic note, despite all of the despair that many of us are feeling about the effects of climate change.
But I talk in this class about how, going forward, this may be the most important security problem that is facing humanity. And I had one student in the class sort of pipe up and say, “Professor Marten, you tell us that this is the most important security problem going forward. So, what are you doing in your own research to address this?”
It sort of shocked me that the student asked this and I sort of said, “Well, um, you know, there are people who look at the politics of climate change, but that's not what I do.” And I think that sort of satisfied the student, but it didn't satisfy me. And I kept on hearing this voice in my head that said, “But Professor Marten, you, what are you doing about climate change?”
And so, I thought about it and I sort of said to myself, well, what are your strengths? You can read Russian press sources and you know a lot about Russia. So maybe Russia is someplace you want to focus on. And, what's really interesting about Russia and climate change? Well, you could do, you know, sort of the traditional security stuff that you've done and look at the Russian military in the Arctic, but the problem is there are already so many people doing that, I'm not sure that I would have the ability to make much of a difference in that discussion.
Then I thought back to this work that I had done on the Russian defense industry that I mentioned earlier, and I realized when I was doing that work on the Russian defense industry, I loved looking at ownership structures and at how it was responding to a really catastrophic change in its situation, namely the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. And that was my second book looking at how Russian defense, industrial managers were responding to this situation.
From that, I got this idea of what would be really interesting is to look at how big private enterprises in the Russian extractive centers, in other words enterprises that are dealing with energy and with mining, how they are reacting to climate change and to this push for net zero. And to the possibility of stranded assets. And so, I've chosen three enterprises that are all privately owned, rather than state-controlled. They're all traded on the London Stock Exchange, but in each case, oligarchs that are relatively close to Putin have a controlling stake in the enterprises. And the question that I'm asking is, all of these enterprises have some significant partnership with Western firms, with European firms in particular, and we know that Europe is really being sort of wrenched toward net-zero thinking and toward stranded assets thinking: do we see any evidence that these Western partnerships are convincing these oligarchs who are close to Putin to make a change in how they approach their industrial development going forward and their future plans?
The ultimate question that I'm asking is: can the Western partnerships of Arctic extractive firms in Russia turn the Kremlin green? So, we'll see if any of it is real, or if it's just greenwashing. I'm just starting the research, but that's what I'm looking at right now.
Udensiva-Brenner: One of the firms you're studying is Norilsk Nickel, but it's one of the dirtiest companies out there.
Marten: Yeah. It got internationally famous in 2020 when it had a major leak from one of its fuel storage tanks that turned the river just outside of where the fuel tank was located bright red. That was actually the second time in recent years that Norilsk Nickel turned the river bright red, just outside of the city of Norilsk in the Russian Arctic.
The first time was in 2016, but this spill was much, much larger. It completely damaged a lake that was nearby and, many people who have studied it believe it probably got to the Arctic Ocean. And it is generally thought by experts to be the worst environmental disaster that has ever happened in the Arctic.
Also, Norilsk Nickel, known as Nornickel, has really made contributions to acid rain, both in Russia itself and then over the border in Norway, in Finland. It's also affected areas outside of Norilsk that are over in the Kola Peninsula, near the border with Norway and Finland and Russia. And it had terrible emissions over many, many decades, of SO2 [sulfur dioxide], which is the major contributor to acid rain. And there have been complaints for many, many years about this, both coming from Russian citizens themselves and coming from the Norwegians and the Finns.
And so we wouldn't think that is a place that is particularly environmentally friendly. And the oligarch who has been controlling it all along, he's had fights with other oligarchs that have come and gone, but his name is Vladimir Potanin. He's one of the holdovers from the Yeltsin era, but one of the, you know, top billionaires in Russia and appears on the Fortune list of billionaires every year.
We wouldn't think of him as being particularly, concerned about the environment. But over the last several years, he's really started talking about being environmentally friendly and about the need to focus on environmental issues to get investors to be willing to invest in Nornickel.
Udensiva-Brenner: How did you start hearing about this? What made you look into it?
Marten: There were a couple of things. One is that after they had this terrible disaster in 2020, Nornickel actually hired an independent Western firm based in London to do an analysis of what went wrong and what caused the accident.
And I don't think there was any pressure from the Russian state for them to do it. They did it on their own. And the report that came back was pretty harsh. And it said the problem was that the fuel tank that was doing the storage, had pilings on it that were not long enough. They were not as long as what the design had originally called for. And so, they ended up, instead of being buried in the rock that they were supposed to be buried in, they were buried in permafrost, that everybody knew that this was not climate-change-related permafrost melting. The permafrost in parts of Russia has come and gone and melted every spring and every summer.
And everybody knew that the permafrost here was a problem. And yet the tank was built into the permafrost rather than into the bedrock. And that caused the tank to collapse because there was too much stress put on the few pilings. … It [the report] said that there was an inspection in 2018 that brought this to the attention of Nornickel and Nornickel did nothing about it.
So, first I thought this is really interesting that they're doing this. And then I started looking at how Nornickel is reaching out to the indigenous community nearby. And, when you're looking at it, it turns out that it might be because that indigenous community really complained about this 2020 environmental disaster, and also sent an open letter to Elon Musk, who develops electronic vehicles, electric cars, the Tesla electric cars, and said, don't invest in the nickel and cobalt that's coming from Nornickel because Nornickel is not environmentally friendly.
That might've been this extra push on Nornickel to start paying attention to what they were doing. And so, they actually gave a lot of money to development of the indigenous communities nearby. They gave them payoffs for the damage to their fishing and hunting that had happened because of the accident. And then the other thing that happened even before the accident is that Nornickel has progressively shut down three of the worst polluting smelters. … I just wanted to look at all of this and try to figure out: Is this being done in order to respond to the environmental concerns of Western companies, including a big German company called BASF that has an electric vehicle battery operation with Nornickel that's happening in Finland right now? Is this what's having an impact on Nornickel or is there something else going on here?
Udensiva-Brenner: Even though these companies are very close to the Kremlin, you're thinking that because they do still operate somewhat independently, the economic pressures might actually be working.
Marten: We know that there are other examples of big Russian enterprises, even state-owned enterprises, pushing back against the Kremlin. One example is Rosneft not wanting to continue to invest in Venezuela when things were going bad in Venezuela. And we know that Rosneft managed to pull out of Venezuela and the Russian state created this new company to instead manage Russian oil wells in Venezuela. So sometimes, even state-controlled companies can push back against the Kremlin.
Udensiva-Brenner: What about Novatek? You're also focusing on that and isn’t increasing their natural gas production part of Putin's big plans for the Arctic Northern Sea Route?
Marten: It is. And the reason that I decided to look at Novatek is partly because they have significant ownership by a French partially state-owned firm, Total.
But also partly because they are pushing back on one particular natural gas field in the area of Ob, again on the coastal offshore area of the Russian Arctic, and saying that rather than using that to develop natural gas, even though the Kremlin would like them to do that, instead what they want to do is develop it for ammonia and green hydrogen.
And the reason that they're saying that is that they don't think it's economically viable to develop it for natural gas. They're going to do things that are in more demand in the West that are not incompatible with a push towards net zero. And so, there's a lot of bargaining back and forth that's going on, the case isn't over yet, but we'll see, I will see whether that also is a case of Novatek pushing back against the Kremlin because of the push coming from the West for more green investments.
Udensiva-Brenner: You're so early on in your research, but do you have an overarching sense of the direction in which it’s heading?
Marten: I started out kind of hopeful. I'm getting more cynical with time.
Udensiva-Brenner: Why is that?
Marten: Because with time it looks more and more like, even though there are some things that are happening that look like they are environmentally friendly and driven by environmental concerns, there are also things that are continuing to happen in all of these firms that look like they're being driven by Putin's overall push towards infrastructure development and more and more extractive development in the very fragile Russian Arctic. … I think even for these private firms, even if they are facing, you know, sort of internal discussions about which direction to go, I'm having less and less faith as time goes on that they're going to succeed in pushing back against the Kremlin.
Udensiva-Brenner: Interesting. Just to wrap up, since so much of your research does focus on military and defense issues, I can't help but ask what security implications there might be for Russia related to climate change?
Marten: Right, so, we see more and more Russian military installations going up in the Arctic. Although my understanding is that it is moving less quickly than Putin would like it to move, I know that there has been a sense from the United States and from some NATO countries, not all NATO countries, that this might be a threat to Western security interests.
A couple things we've got to keep in mind though. One is that this is happening on Russian territory, so, Russia has every right to build up these installations if it wishes to do so, it's still a lot less developed than it was in Soviet times in the Arctic. And another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of it is for clearly defensive or deterrent purposes. It’s for maintaining the defense of the Russian strategic nuclear deterrent.
The concern is that some of the buildup could be hitting at a particular geographical gap that NATO is facing in its communications across the North Sea. And that it could be something where Russia is taking up the ability to prevent NATO from supplying one NATO country to another across this gap. So, we'll see if that ends up being a concern.
Another concern is whether it could be something where China moves in to have a stronger alliance relationship with Russia. And we see China using this Russian military development for its own ends because many people see China as being the real military threat much more than Russia is.
There is some pushback from a lot of people who specialize in Russia-China relations. I'm just pointing out that there is also a lot of tension between Russia and China. And Russia has a very strong incentive to maintain its own role in the Arctic and not allow China to come in and take over.
And then another thing that sort of touches on the Arctic region, is the development of Russia to come in and potentially cut communication cables, internet cables, that link North America to British regions and to the northern regions of Europe. And we saw a ship that had that capability starting to be used by Russia, but then the ship had a major explosion.
I think that was also in 2020. … We'll have to see whether Russia continues with that development. That’s sort of where the Arctic is kind of incidental to everything that's happening.
Udensiva-Brenner: What about security implications for Russia?
Marten: That's a really important point that you're bringing up and it goes along with the idea that Russia sees this as being a defensive concern. I think Russia is still thinking about NATO and the United States as being its major concern. But as the ice is opening up, it's essentially saying to Russia, hey, you have this new navigable border and so, you know, maybe you have to be concerned about defending this border against efforts by the West to take advantage of that border in ways that are detrimental to Russia. And, you know, probably that's not a very realistic concern. It's kind of almost paranoid on Russia's part to be thinking that that is a major security concern. But it’s sort of the duty of military officers and military commanders to be paranoid. That's part of what military officers and commanders are all about is to imagine scenarios where something might become a liability in the future.
And so, I think you're right, that that helps explain what Russia is doing in the Arctic militarily. One just really interesting side note that I wanted to add: Chechnya is very much involved in the Russian development of the Arctic, both in these military questions and also in Nornickel. And you know, why in the world is Chechnya interested in the Arctic? Chechnya is not at all an Arctic region of Russia. So that's just something interesting to keep our eyes on that I think right now is not really very easily explainable.
Udensiva-Brenner: Fascinating. Thank you. I learned so much from this interview. I'm really glad to have you on.
Marten: My pleasure. Thank you very much. And my gratitude to the Harriman Institute for supporting my research.
Udensiva-Brenner: Thanks so much for listening to Expert Opinions - Russia, Eurasia. This episode is the first in a two-part series on climate change in the region. Stay tuned for the next installment, which is going to focus on climate change and security issues in Central Asia.
I'm Masha Udensiva-Brenner. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and leave a review. They really help.
Kimberly Marten is a Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, and a faculty member of Columbia's Harriman Institute for Russian and East-Central European Studies, and Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. Her most recent published research focuses on a variety of Russian security and foreign policy issues. Her books include Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States (Cornell University Press, 2012), Engaging the Enemy: Organization Theory and Soviet Military Innovation (Princeton, 1993), which received the Marshall Shulman Prize; Weapons, Culture, and Self-Interest: Soviet Defense Managers in the New Russia (Columbia, 1997); and Enforcing the Peace: Learning from the Imperial Past (Columbia, 2004)
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is print and digital media manager at the Harriman Institute. She’s a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and her reporting has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, among other places.
Any opinions expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Harriman Institute or Eurasianet.