Putin Pursues Path of Opportunistic Pragmatism as Russia's Climate Crisis Heats Up

ON 08/06/2021 AT 03:53 AM

President Vladimir Putin of Russia acknowledge to his cabinet that spiking temperatures, raging out-of-control wildfires, and heavy flooding have one singular cause: global heating.

Copernicus EMS Satellite image of Amur floods in July 2021

Radar image of the flooding in Svobodny, Amur Oblast Russia. This was taken on July 30, 2021. Photo: Copernicus EMS

The comments came connected with a planning session Putin held with his senior leadership team on August 5, 2021.

This year, high temperatures in Siberia at the southernmost extent of the Arctic combined with high drought conditions triggered wildfires such as the country has never seen before. Those wildfires have now destroyed over a million hectares of land and forest. The region of Yakutia, which covers a terrain just slighter smaller than all of India, has suffered the most in this tragedy.

The fires, some of which started in May, continue to burn even today. There has been some progress in putting out and slowing the blazes, but they are far from gone.

Last year Siberia’s most rural areas also suffered from uncontrollable wildfires for the same reason. Then the Russian government chose to let many of those fires burn, under the thinking that they were too distant to easily subdue and there were few residents whose homes and livelihoods might be threatened by them.

This year Putin ordered a full assault on the fires from the beginning. Where adult resources were short to fight the fires, local authorities even deployed children to help push back the blazes.

As with central Europe and Asia with flooding caused by extreme weather events also tied to the climate crisis, Russia has also been inundated with its own once-in-a-century torrential rains, which have created major demands on resources in its far eastern province of Amur. In that region, nestled next to the border with China, rushing waters have come in parallel with filling local reservoirs to record levels.

In these flooded regions, Russia is prioritizing people over property, as it has deployed special teams to protect the residents.

“The main task is to prevent the death of people,” said Ignore Smirnov, the head of the emergency rescue service there, “so that the passage of the flood through the territory of the region entails the least losses.”

Besides what it has done in these areas of high danger to its citizens, Russia has also been active in moving quickly to what it sees as one of the opportunities it has available because of the climate crisis. As the Siberian north has begun to heat up and the Arctic ice along its northern coast has melted, Russia has elected to build new railroad tracks, military bases, oil and gas exploration locations, and entirely new villages in places where it was impossible to place them before. The country has also launched multiple scientific expeditions to chart out possible future northern sea trade routes as the Arctic ice begins to disappear forever, at least during the summer.

President Putin has been mostly brusque as he speaks about the climate crisis, but at least one can give him credit for not trying to grandstand about how he is responding to global heating. Perhaps a phrase one could apply to what he is doing is opportunistic pragmatism. In the case of the fires and floods afflicting Russia, Putin has chosen more aggressive steps than in the past to deal with the harm it poses to people, property, and forests. In northern Siberia, he is embracing the climate crisis to take advantage of the positives it could offer his nation.