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The climate, ‘pirates’ and Russia’s international image


In September 2013 Greenpeace activists attempted to board a Russian oil platform in protest at the exploitation of Arctic natural resources. Subsequently, 30 activists (including 2 journalists) were arrested by the Russian authorities on charges of ‘piracy’. In this blog entry I look at what relation these environmental ‘pirates’ have with Russia’s climate policy and how this issue may have impacted on Russia’s international image.

Historically, Russian climate policy has not been particularly positive. As the world’s fourth largest GHG emitter, mostly due to its extremely carbon-intensive economy, Russia has persistently demonstrated its lack of commitment to climate mitigation policies. To name a few examples: Russia was partly responsible for slowing down the Kyoto ratification process; has exploited its leading position in carbon emissions to gain political benefits; has refused to commit to stricter carbon reduction plans; has not been implementing climate mitigating policies at the domestic level and so on. It is therefore paradoxical that in the speeches of various Russian state leaders as reported in the media, Russia is often referred to as an environmental leader that is about to save the world from the next Armageddon. Hence, it could be argued that at this point, whether intentionally or not, Russia has adopted the technique of ‘green washing’, a strategy often exploited by large corporations in order ‘to seem green’.

In the last few years, however, the situation has begun to change. Russia has adopted its own Climate Doctrine, a presidential advisor on climate change has been appointed, a number of laws and decrees on improving energy efficiency or developing renewable energy sources have been accepted, and the media have started to talk more about the problem (leading to increased awareness among the general public). As a continuation of this positive trend, Russia’s performance during the last UN conference on climate change in Warsaw in 2013 (COP-19) was rather ‘unproblematic’. In his official statement at the conference, Alexander Bedritsky, the current climate advisor to President Putin, stated that climate change is a ‘global challenge’ which demands an ‘adequate response’. Outlining Russia’s position on some key issues (such as an appeal for equal responsibilities or the strengthening of international scientific collaboration in managing the climate-regulating functions of terrestrial ecosystems) the statement underlines Russia’s recent commitment towards Kyoto Protocol obligations – including not exceeding 1990 level GHG emissions. Even though Russia left the Kyoto-2, it was noted that at the end of September 2013 President Putin signed a decree on national goals to reduce GHG emissions by 25% by 2020 (with 1990 taken as the baseline year).

It has been argued that one of the most important variables that defines Russia’s environmental policy is its economic well-being. Russia is either more or less environmentally-minded depending on how beneficial or damaging this position is perceived as being for its economic development (Russia is most certainly not alone in this regard). Russia’s recent GHG emission reduction plans are quite realistic considering Russia’s capabilities in improving its energy efficiency and eventually reducing the carbon-intensity of its economy (for example, according to Bedritsky’s statement in the period 1998-2011 Russian GDP doubled whilst its carbon-intensity halved). Indeed, as I found in my recently completed PhD thesis on the communication of anthropogenic climate change in Russia, recently we can observe that the Russian government has started to come to the realisation that its climate policy is full of ‘low hanging fruits’. Russia no longer has to pretend that it is a leader in the world’s climate change mitigation policy by using the unintended collapse in carbon emissions after the Soviet Union disintegrated, but instead it can actually purposefully cut its emissions and at the same time develop its economy through the implementation of energy efficiency plans.

It seems that Russia has reached a stage when it can actively popularise and underline its positive environmental image as supported by real deeds – even if it has not become a true environmental leader. But unfortunately September 2013 saw Russia once again enter the ‘black list’ of the world’s environmentalists for something which was not quite expected – the arrest and detention of the 30 Greenpeace activists. By boarding a Russian offshore oil platform, activists ‘trespassed’ onto ‘shaky ground’ where Russia’s economic interests will always be somewhat ahead of every other concern. In this case the exploitation of Arctic fossil fuel reserves appears to be above environmental concerns for the Russian government. Hence, during the COP-19 in Warsaw, Russia was not awarded the ‘fossil of the day award’ but instead it became the focus of a silent protest in support of the 30 detained (at that time) activists. However, speaking economically and leaving legal issues aside, the question which puzzles me is: was it really worth it? Was it really worth imprisoning 28 environmental activists and 2 journalists and creating an outrage among the international community in order to protect another territorial claim in the Arctic?

In December 2013 the Russian government included the Greenpeace activists in an amnesty bill (dedicated to the anniversary of the Russian Constitution), which stopped all legal proceedings against the activists. However, it remains unclear exactly what was achieved by Russia’s ‘black-washing’ technique.


Marianna Poberezhskaya is a Postdoctoral Lecturing Fellow at the University of East Anglia (School of Political, Social and International studies). She holds a PhD in Politics and International Relations from the University of Nottingham (2013). Before embarking on her doctoral studies, Marianna worked as a journalist at the ‘Agency for Social Information’ in Russia for several years and as a PR specialist for ‘Young Altay Journalists’ – a regional NGO in Russia. Marianna has extensive research interests within the broader disciplines of International Relations (theory and practice), Political Communication, and Environmental Security. Her current research focuses on climate change discourse and the role of the state in influencing media coverage of this issue in Russia.

Published inInternational RelationsRussia

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