Russia Rushing for Advantage in Climate Crisis

When climate change-skeptical Russia approves a national action plan to address the ravages of global warming, international security antennae should shoot up. Especially because the Russian government is not masking its desire to use the “advantages” of climate change for its benefit. This highlights the unexpected global security twists that now are emerging from what widely has been managed as an environmental problem.

In response to the second hottest year on record in 2019 as well as at the end of the steamiest decade, Russia faces domestic threats from the melting permafrost of its vast arctic regions. This is in addition to the public health, agricultural, and economic impacts of a warming planet that are affecting virtually every nation.
But Russia shrewdly is looking to turn negative climate effects into positive opportunities to enhance its energy intensive economy and advance its geostrategic objectives.

One canvas on which a part of this strategy is being applied is in Germany. The German government decided after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 to phase out all nuclear power. That made it more dependent on coal and natural gas. Natural gas is about 20% of its overall power production and roughly 60% of that amount is supplied by Russia. Coal comprises about 40% and renewables another 30% of the total. But the remaining 10% is provided by nuclear power production. This is scheduled to end by 2022 and coal is projected to phase completely out by 2038. That is a reduction in 50% of existing base load power generating sources in the next 18 years in the largest economy in Europe.

Germany is already behind on meeting its Paris climate agreement commitment to reduce its emissions by 40% and it is not clear if renewables can span the gap opened by these significant retirements. If not, natural gas likely will intensify as a workhorse fuel. This raises questions about the sustainability of the current German energy policy and the security implications of expanded Russian energy influence.
While Russia will willingly increase its supply of natural gas to Germany, it also is actively pursuing the export of its nuclear technology which can be used to reduce carbon emissions and take advantage of thawing arctic ice accelerated by warming temperatures.

The nuclear export effort is spearheaded by Rosatom, one of Russia’s largest state-owned corporations. It has the significant advantage of operating with government financial subsidization and is an effective buttress to Russian geopolitical objectives.

Remarkably, Russia has recovered from one of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe’s, Chernobyl, to lead in global nuclear exports just 30 years on. Russia currently supplies nuclear-related technology to 35 countries and is involved in 53% of international construction and operation agreements. Russia is the supplier in more nuclear technology agreements than the next four largest suppliers combined (France, U.S., Korea, and China).

While the primary focus of the Russian nuclear export strategy has been on the sale of large gigawatt scale reactors, it also is effectively angling for a dominant role in providing the next generation of small and advanced reactor technologies. These reactors have much lower power, and some are designed with exotic coolants that will allow for remote deployment away from water. These types of reactors may have significant applicability to developing economy nations with growing populations. Key regions with these characteristics include Africa, South East Asia, and the Middle East.

In 2018 Russia had contracts to build 22 nuclear reactors in nine countries over the next decade, including Bangladesh, China, India, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. Russia also is actively pursuing Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) for nuclear cooperation with a number of African nations, including Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia, and Ethiopia.

In the meantime, Russia has launched a floating nuclear reactor for operation near the arctic circle. While the goal of this plant is to power a remote domestic region, it signals another step in Russia’s geopolitical objective of exerting influence over the arctic and its natural resources as the ice cap melts.

The challenges posed by a warming planet are evolving in unexpected ways. The negative impacts of climate change may well offer new opportunities to Russia and other authoritarian nations to expand their economic, energy, and geopolitical boundaries. That will confront democratic nations with unique global security concerns that will require creative, collaborative policy making. Limiting climate change to the environmental problem silo is a major mistake. It has significant implications for global security, geopolitical competition, and nuclear expansion. Making and acting on those connections now can avoid more serious conflicts in the future. 

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security