Russia often securitises the environment – but only on its own terms

Nina Lesikhina and Doug Weir

International attention on environmental security has increased markedly during the last decade, especially within the UN’s Security Council, General Assembly and its Environment Assembly. Yet in spite of the increasing number of statements and resolutions that have accepted the importance of the environment throughout the cycle of conflicts, a number of states remain reluctant to support measures to address its implications for peace and security. Of these, Russia is perhaps the most vocal.

We wanted to understand the roots of this position, and to learn more about Russia’s long-standing objections to the securitisation of the environment in international fora and policy debates. Is it just a case of Russia setting itself in opposition to the Western governments that have advocated around environmental and climate security in recent years, or are there other reasons behind it?

Our recently published report – How Russia approaches environmental security –  finds that the position seems to be rooted, in part, in the history of environmental governance in Russia, as well as in its domestic perception of environmental security.

Understanding domestic environmental policy

To explore the potential drivers of Russian environmental security policy we began by examining the history of environmental governance in Russia. Russia’s environmental legislation has developed since the early 1920s and has been, from the 1970s onwards, broadly in line with that of the wider international community.

Russia is a huge country, rich in natural resources. Because of its resource abundance, Russia’s approach to environmental protection is often highly responsive, rather than preventative. For example, pollution is mainly addressed through fines, with few incentives to introduce clean technologies or prevention strategies, and its domestic climate policy only emerged when melting permafrost started to threaten oil and gas infrastructure.

While many countries’ environmental policies can be reactive at times, the pattern in Russia appears to be more pronounced than might usually be the case. Russia does have extensive environmental legislation, the most recent of which appears quite progressive at the strategic level; enforcement, however, remains poor.

Since the Soviet era, and due to the Cold War, Western sanctions and now underfunding, Russian science has at times developed in isolation from the international community. This has contributed to a lack of awareness and expertise in addressing environmental problems on a global scale.

Historically, Russian environmental NGOs and their Western partners proposed and actively promoted expertise sharing. However, the Russian government later began treating this as Western intervention in the economic development of the country. This resulted in legislation to restrict public participation in decision-making and the suppression of civil society. Critically, it also sowed the ground for the increased “politicisation” of environmental issues, which have always been classified primarily as economic problems.

Searching for clues in conflicts

We then looked at Russian environmental practice during armed conflicts, focusing on Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria and Ukraine. In common with many armed conflicts, natural resources played a role in each of the four cases. We found that Russia actively used natural resource management and environmental cooperation in each. For example, in Syria, Russia has used them to enhance pre-existing economic interests; in Chechnya they were used to hasten the economic recovery of the region, while in Ukraine they have been used to promote political influence.

Tactically, Russia has sometimes conducted scorched-earth policies – in Afghanistan, for instance – and has deliberately attacked environmentally risky oil and water infrastructure in Syria. Acts like his reflect Russian views in international fora, which can be interpreted as a largely fatalistic approach to environmental protection during armed conflicts, while arguing that the existing legal framework providing protection is sufficient and that damage is inevitable.

The Russian concept of environmental security

While Russia has objected to international measures to address environmental security, environmental security nevertheless features in its current environmental protection, security and foreign policies.

The notion of environmental security first emerged in the USSR in the early 1980s in an article by Mikhail Gorbachev entitled, The Reality and Guarantee of a Secure World, where he argued that it was an ‘organic part and a key element of the international security system’. Russia’s Environmental Protection Law would later conceptually frame it as a “state of security” with no reference to the need for prevention, or the role of human responsibility.

In Russian, one word (безопасность) is used for both safety and security, and traditionally the first meaning dominated health and environmental narratives, which were often connected. In the context of national security, it is primarily the security of the national environment that is the concern, not the security implications of environmental issues.

Nevertheless, the concept is now commonplace in Russian legislation and policies. All recently developed or updated strategies on socio-economic development in Russia, and regional cooperation programmes, refer to elements of environmental security. The most dominant environmental security narratives in domestic and foreign policies focus on technological solutions for addressing pollution and resource-efficiency.

The Russian Security Council has established special commissions on environmental security and climate change. Moreover, Russia’s National Security Strategy, its Water Strategy and its Policy Framework on Arctic Development feature environmental cooperation among their priority objectives.

The Russian Climate Doctrine calls for the consideration of climate change as one of the critical factors affecting national security, including in its defence capacity. Nevertheless, climate change is still widely recognised in contemporary Russian strategies primarily as a threat to economic development.

How environmental security is addressed in Russia’s international relations

Our analysis of Russian legal and policy frameworks demonstrated that measures to address a wide range of environmental security threats to the Russian state are well developed. Our final question was whether this domestic acceptance was reflected in Russia’s international relations.

We examined Russia’s stance on environmental security issues in statements before regional and international fora, in policy initiatives, cooperation programmes and in multilateral agreements in which Russia participates.

Russia is party to the main multilateral environmental agreements but prefers to maintain the status quo. At a global level, Russia could be viewed as using such agreements primarily as platforms to ensure its presence, and enhance business interests, rather than as tools to protect the environment.

This may partly explain Russia’s use of the environmental agenda in fragile and post-conflict areas, promoting international cooperation in natural resource management, transboundary environmental monitoring and development aid, for example in Central Asia and Syria. Similarly, climate change is communicated as an economic opportunity in the international context, for example, improved Arctic transport routes.

Russia’s perception of environmental issues as economic problems that can be solved exclusively by technologies and investments – but not sanctions or interventions – comes from the history of environmental governance in Russia. We argue that this contributes to Russia’s opposition to the mainstreaming of environmental security themes within the UN Security Council.

Moreover, Western support for Russia’s environmental movement, and Western economic and political sanctions, including on environmental cooperation and technical assistance, have contributed to Russian policymakers viewing the global environmental agenda as a threat to national sovereignty. Russia regularly takes the opportunity to criticise Western governments’ interventionist policies based on the environmental harm they have caused. No mention is made of the harm caused by Russia’s military activities during conflicts.

Russia’s approach to environmental security issues in its regional back yard contrasts notably with its positions in international fora. In Central Asia, water and food security problems exacerbated by climate change, and transboundary pollution risks, have triggered opportunistic environmental cooperation between Russia and its neighbourhood countries. However, regional political initiatives like the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Economic Union typically address environmental issues through economic incentives, environmental monitoring and technology development, while affirming state sovereignty over natural resources.

Taking stock and moving forward

Our analysis of Russia’s approach to environmental security found that Russia may oppose the securitisation of the environment because it contradicts its historical perception of environmental issues – as economic problems that can be solved by technologies and investments.

Moreover, a lack of expertise, the perceived politicisation of Russia’s environmental movement and Western sanctions have made Russian policy-makers feel politically insecure when it comes to the international environmental agenda. Russia might also perceive its further politicisation under the UN Security Council, in particular as another attempt to challenge its resource sovereignty.

Nevertheless, and somewhat counterintuitively, Russia has adopted the concept of environmental security domestically and in its foreign and security policies. This acceptance can perhaps open up some avenues for future Western cooperation with Russia on international environmental security issues.

Nina Lesikhina is the author of How Russia approaches environmental security. She has worked with environmental NGOs in Russia for more than 15 years, with five years at Greenpeace Russia.

Doug Weir is the Research and Policy Director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, and a Visiting Research Fellow at King’s Department of Geography.

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