Russia’s Climate Problem and Opportunity

Temperatures in Russia are increasing at more than double the global average, according to scientists, proving that climate change and extreme weather doesn’t just affect U.S. national security as outlined in Cipher Brief Expert Admiral Jim Stavridis’ overview here.  It also affects U.S. allies and adversaries, creating new areas of instability and shifting power dynamics.  Russia’s more aggressive presence in the Arctic is a clear sign of the shift ahead. 

In our continuing series on climate change and its impact on national security, Climate Editor Kristin Wood takes a look at the impact climate change is having on Russia.

Climate change and extreme weather will offer Russia both substantial opportunities and fundamental challenges to Russians’ current way of life, a shift that is already underway. Russia’s opportunities will expand its abilities to challenge U.S. national security and the U.S. internationally, while its challenges will dampen and perhaps overwhelm Moscow’s ability to take advantage of these new opportunities.

As a relative late-comer and skeptic of the role humans play in climate change, President Putin’s Russia ratified the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement only in late 2019.  By January 2020, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev put forward a national climate adaption plan that outlined numerous “potentially positive” changes and ways Russia could “use the advantages” of climate change, including potential improved access to energy stores and increased agricultural output.  Yet temperatures in Russia are already increasing at more than double the global average, according to a Russian Natural Resources and Environment Ministry 2018 report, and the plan’s targets dismayed scientists and climate activists as they do little to create meaningful carbon reductions for the world’s fourth largest polluter.

Dr. John Holdren, the former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under President Obama, noted during an interview last month that despite waffling from Putin and the Russian leadership, the Russian scientific community is in overwhelming agreement about the massive problem that human-driven climate change poses to Russia. Because the Russian economy is driven by hydrocarbons, however, scientists’ voices are not likely to be heard and acted on for many years.

Melting Arctic Ocean

Taking advantage of the opportunities posed by the rapid melting of Arctic ice, Putin has made expanding Russia’s position in the Arctic a top priority.  Russia has developed the tools and infrastructure it needs to work in its harsh conditions, leaving Moscow with more than 400 military facilities and more than 40 icebreakers to support its presence in the region.

  • Russian dominance in the Arctic and its administrative control of traffic in newly passable northern shipping routes could increasingly restrict US ability to freely operate in the area or access the region, especially given the U.S.’ lack of its own fleet of icebreakers.
  • Beyond the region, the Arctic’s increased navigability has also opened a new, direct route from Russia and China to the United States and Canada, granting new access to North American shores for both commercial shipping and a new front for naval operations. The US military has to be able to operate in a “whole new ocean” and with new vulnerabilities on US’ northern borders. This risk is compounded by Chinese interests there as well as Beijing pursues a “Polar Silk Road” and strives to stablish itself as an Arctic power despite its physical distance from the region.
  • In addition to its military expansion in the Arctic, Russia seeks to solidify its claims and secure rights to territory there believed to be rich in oil and gas that have historically been locked beneath extensive northern ice. Russia’s Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic expected as of last December that Moscow would invest about $235 billion in the development of the Arctic by 2035 to expand its icebreaker fleet, ports, and oil and gas extraction and production. In its newly adopted Energy Strategy to 2035, Russia continues to focus on expanding its domestic production and consumption of fossil fuels, with a strong emphasis on expanding natural gas exports.
  • While Russia’s Arctic maneuverability has been increasing, due to melting ice and a growing icebreaker fleet, it has reportedly been testing Arctic-based weapons including hypersonic cruise missiles and nuclear-powered underwater drones. These developments also expose the US to growing Russian missile capabilities – both conventional and nuclear – in the Arctic.

Melting Permafrost

The benefits of a melting Arctic come with potentially devastating side effects that can’t be overlooked. In addition to flooding, permafrost thawing threatens infrastructure throughout Russia’s northern regions, as ports, roads, pipelines, buildings, nuclear stations and hazardous waste sites are destabilized by sinking, softening ground.

Rural northern regions account for about 75 percent of the country’s oil and 95 percent of its natural gas reserves, and infrastructure failures from melting permafrost may prompt severe disruptions to Russia’s energy production and export and consequently its economy as more than 20% of Russian GDP comes from its northern Arctic region’s energy sector.  There already are some 7,000 incidents annually on major oil and gas lines caused by permafrost melting. And in May 2020, an oil tank in the Arctic collapsed due to permafrost melt and caused a 135-square mile spill; such incidents are likely to be commonplace without a commitment to mitigation or stronger adaptation efforts. Requirements to shore up infrastructure and energy processes will be extensive, and they will have to compete with similar needs for other military and civil infrastructure.


Russia’s agricultural production, meanwhile, may be a winner. The general warming trend, a Russian governmental environment group notes, expands the area of the country that is suitable for agriculture, increases productivity, and lengthens the vegetation period in many regions of the country. As a result, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization projects that Russia — already the world’s top wheat exporter — could sustain 20 percent of the world’s wheat market by 2038. If Moscow can successfully move farmers and transportation assets to newly arable lands, Putin could achieve his goal of becoming an “agrarian superpower,” offering Moscow significant geopolitical leverage with increased climate-driven food insecurity expected across the globe.

The agriculture picture, like the Arctic, faces challenges, too. Russia faces increased climate-driven threats from extreme weather ranging from increased droughts and wildfires in some regions to heavy rainfall and flooding in others. Already such effects are being seen last year a prolonged heatwave in Siberia triggered forest fires covering more than seven million acres and releasing some 50 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Perhaps more significantly, droughts and intense heat are likely to be more severe and cover larger areas. Previous heatwaves and droughts caused major reductions in Russia’s grain production and even drove up global cereal prices. Just as the warming causes shifts in vegetation patterns, it also brings a movement of pests and crop disease.

While the US prepares to deal with the consequences of a warming world under President Biden, the complications from Russia’s strengthened position in the Arctic are front and center priorities. Despite doing so little to prepare for Russia’s own consequences, Putin may see advantages in the broader global destabilization expected if climate change is left unchecked. He has long aimed to undermine and disrupt other countries’ governments for Russian gain, something climate change does — and, as a bonus, also is likely to tie up Western financial and military resources with relief efforts — without Moscow having to put in any work. 

The author of this report is Kristin Wood, Senior Climate Editor for The Cipher Brief, a Cipher Brief expert, a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Intelligence Project, and a former senior CIA officer. 

Mary McMahon contributed research for this report.  McMahon is a former CIA analyst for climate change and global energy markets and is currently completing a Masters in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, focusing on energy and climate policy.

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