Climate change: Russia’s evolving stance

Although the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) climate summit may not be quite over, the shape of the Russian commitment seems clear. While it is by no means as much as many would expect, it is also much more than many feared. This reflects the intersection of pragmatism and diplomacy, with a demonstration of the way that countries can maintain pressure on those issues where they have very serious differences with Russia, yet also expand dialogue on others, where cooperation is both possible and necessary.

Considering the continued role in its economy of the oil and gas sectors, it is perhaps expected that Russia chose not to sign up to a commitment to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030 and instead advocate a ‘smoother’ – which means slower – transition. Nonetheless, it did join the pledge to end deforestation by 2030 (which matters to a country containing 20% of the world’s woodland cover) and has committed to be carbon neutral by 2060. Many will say this is not enough, but it does reflect a distinct shift in the Kremlin’s policy on the green agenda. 

Russia’s green road

Vladimir Putin’s Russia may be a relatively late and conditional convert to the cause of combating climate change, but it is a genuine one nevertheless. 

Back in 2003, it was the stuff of his jokes, as he wisecracked that

maybe climate change is not so bad in such a cold country as ours? Two to three degrees wouldn’t hurt — we’ll spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up. 

While his understanding of the nature of the problem, especially the scale of the challenge ahead for Russia, may still be questionable, he does appear to have been convinced now that, in his own words, ‘climate change and environmental degradation are so obvious that even the most careless people can no longer dismiss them… and something needs to be done.’ After all, the climate in Russia is on average warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world.

Although Putin himself did not come to Glasgow – he remains extraordinarily risk-averse in the Covid-19 age, and his trip to meet Joseph Biden, President of the United States (US), in June was the only foreign trip he has made since the start of the pandemic – Russia sent a large and heavyweight delegation. It was led by Alexei Overchuk, Deputy Prime Minister, accompanied by two ministers, Ruslan Edelgeriev, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Change, and Anatoly Chubais in his capacity as Special Envoy of the President of Russian Federation for Relations with International Organisations.

To a large extent, this is because of the powerful interest groups at home, from big business to the military, who have advanced pragmatic reasons why Moscow needs to be serious about climate change. After all, it risks being left with almost £1.7 trillion in worthless, ‘stranded’ hydrocarbon assets if it does not reform its own economy, and pollution and climate change are regarded by the Russian public as the first and fourth greatest threats facing humanity. However, it also reflects two aspects of diplomacy which came together to help crystallise this emerging political consensus in the Kremlin.

Green ‘discursive statecraft’

Although the primary drivers of Russian policy are practical and domestic, there is something of a consensus among Kremlinologists that it was also affected by a real risk that it could be painted as ‘an empire of climate evil’ in the words of Alexei Kokorin, the World Wildlife Fund’s Russia’s climate and energy head. After all, Russia is currently fourth in the world for annual carbon emissions and even though there is much more to its economy than hydrocarbons, it is widely associated with oil and gas.

This is, in effect, a form of ‘discursive statecraft’, positioning countries in a positive or negative way, so as to affect policy. At a time when the Kremlin feels blamed for every woe in the world – sometimes with good reason, to be sure, but by no means always – and appears genuinely concerned that so-called ‘Russophobia’ empowers those who would actively isolate Russia and undermine the regime, then there are sound policy reasons not to look like the spoiler at COP26. Furthermore, identifying and highlighting those areas of genuine progress by Russia helps encourage the Kremlin in a virtuous circle.

In this context, Biden’s public critique of the Russian position – at the eve-of-COP26 G20 summit in Rome, he lumped Putin and Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), together and complained that they ‘basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change’ – may prove to have been a misstep. First of all, any Western position that treats Beijing and Moscow as being within a single axis risks precisely pushing Russia further towards China. Secondly, it has long become clear that while Putin is willing to engage in robust disagreements in private, he bridles at public condemnation, and tends to push back on principle. Part of the reason why the Putin-Biden Geneva summit was a success was precisely that the American president reserved his tough words for the closed-door session.

Traditional diplomacy

At the same time, Russia’s position, and especially the scale and enthusiasm of its engagement with COP26, has been the subject of a sustained and successful campaign of direct diplomacy. It was striking that, when Edelgeriev spoke in October at a private event hosted by Deborah Bronnert, the British Ambassador to Russia, he noted that it was the very first time he had been on foreign diplomatic territory. 

Edelgeriev, a former police officer turned prime minister of the often-turbulent southern region of Chechnya, struck many as an usual candidate to be the Kremlin’s point man on climate change, but he does appear to be a convinced advocate. In July, he met with John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, but in other quarters there has been a fastidious reluctance to meet with, much less cultivate him, because of his affiliation with Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s brutal local leader.

Nonetheless, when it comes down to it, it is the hard men of the system – also including Nikolai Patrushev, Security Council Secretary, and Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff, both of whom have recently met with their US counterparts – who wield disproportionate influence at Putin’s court, even over matters which would not appear to be in their remits. 

The strength of traditional diplomacy, especially when combined with discursive statecraft, is most evident when, as over the COP26 discussions, it manages to combine toughness where necessary with dialogue where possible.

Dr Mark Galeotti is Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Director of Mayak Intelligence Ltd.

Embedded image credit: Hans Olav Lien (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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