Home / Articles / Russia’s Arctic Development Poses Risks for Combating Climate Change in the Baltics
While this year’s snowless winter may have changed things, Lithuanians haven’t seemed particularly concerned with climate change in their country. According to Standard Eurobarometer 90, only 3% of Lithuanians in November 2018 believed climate change and energy issues to be the most important problem facing their country. Moreover, Lithuanians have been decreasingly worried about the global importance of climate change: In 2011 June, every fifth Lithuanian said climate change was the single most serious problem facing the world as a whole; in 2019 April, only every seventh agreed with that statement.
According to Green Match — an online service providing information about renewable energy products — Lithuania, Latvia and Finland are the countries currently most affected by climate change in Europe. Their recent study, based on data from the European Environment Agency and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), measured climate change according to four simple indicators — sea levels, sea temperature, surface temperature and precipitation.
But Lithuanians, together with other Balts, are more preoccupied with rising prices, inflation, taxes and social security system problems, like pensions and healthcare, according to Eurobarometer 90 country reports for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Baltic experts quote changing dynamics in Euro-Atlantic integration and cooperation as something to be concerned about: including the 2014 annexation of Crimea, war in Eastern Ukraine, growing antagonism between Russia, the US and NATO, as well as China’s growing influence in Europe. On the NATO border with Russia, these changes overshadow the perceived impact of climate change. Until recently climate change-related policy issues reached the Baltic states through European Union agenda and leadership, but with growing Russian presence in the Arctic these the Baltic states must take a more proactive role.
The EU is hoping to curb effects of climate change by implementing the European Green Deal — a policy package aimed at reaching a carbon-neutral economy by 2050 and decoupling economic growth from depleting natural resources. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation hopes to benefit from a warming planet as it looks to boost its maritime economic activities and increase its military presence in the Arctic. Using warm temperature periods, which get longer every year, Russia hopes to enhance the navigability of the Northern Sea Route and explore and exploit natural resources covered by layers of ice and snow. Last December the then-acting head of government, Dmitry Medvedev, issued a plan to develop infrastructure in the Northern Sea Route by 2035. This is the first plan of such detail to foresee the construction of at least 40 arctic vessels (including new nuclear icebreakers), the renewal of airports and ports, the building of new railways, and commissioning helicopters and planes adapted to the harsh Arctic conditions.
A shipping-ready Northern Sea Route could cut up the maritime journey from Asia to Europe by up to two weeks. For example, cargo shipments from Tokyo to Hamburg currently take 48 days through the Suez Canal — using a Northern Sea Route, the same journey would take only 35 days. Russia also plans to increase the volumes of shipped goods through the Northern Sea Route. The cargo volumes through NSR have been steadily increasing, from 9.7 million tons in 2017, to 18 million tons in 2018, to 31.5 million tons in 2019. A 2018 decree from Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated plans to increase these numbers to 80 million tons by 2024. At the 2019 Arctic Forum, Rosatom CEO Alexey Likhachev was even more optimistic, quoting 96.2 million tons to be shipped through NSR by 2024.
While Lithuania, along with other EU countries, is preparing for the European Green Deal and reaching a carbon neutral economy by 2050, Russia is headed in the opposite direction. Industrialisation and vessel traffic in the Arctic will without doubt contribute to more CO2 emissions. Nuclear waste in the Arctic also poses ecological challenges. Moreover, Russia’s exploration and exploitation of non-renewable energy resources is very likely to pose competition for renewable energy resources towards which the EU is heading. According to various estimates, renewables should constitute from 50 to 100 percent of overall EU energy consumption by 2050. The EU binding goal for 2030 is that 32 percent of overall energy consumption should be from renewable energy sources.
The non-renewable energy sources that Russia is exploring and plans to exploit could provide a cheaper alternative for EU countries struggling economically. EU climate law is currently being drafted, so it is unclear what kind of measures will be applied if member states fail to adhere to EU benchmarks. According to the draft, greenhouse emission targets set are irreversible and legally binding to all member states. However, it is possible that Russia’s cheaper non-renewable energy alternatives might, in the next 30 years, seem like a more viable alternative for economically struggling member states, thus impeding the implementation of the European Green Deal and drawing a wedge between wealthier and poorer EU countries. If the EU does not strengthen its proposed compensation mechanisms, such as the Just Transition Fund (a support mechanism aimed at compensating for economic diversity in the territories most affected by transition and the retraining of workers), it could further incite Euroscepticism in countries that are dependent on sectors of the economy that produce energy from non-renewable sources, such as coal mining. Euractiv — a media network focusing on EU policy — has already reported that regions in Poland fear that compensation will be distributed to countries, not to regions, and will not reach stakeholders that are directly involved in the coal mining industry. Workers and labor unions are working to ensure compensation reaches workers who do day to day work. The Baltic regions dependent on non-renewable energy face similar problems. For example, the oil shale industry in Estonia produces about 80 percent of electricity used in Estonia. If the EU mechanisms of compensation are faulty in the Baltics, the option of cheap Russian energy could become attractive.
The Russian claim of ownership of the Northern Sea Route could also set a dangerous precedent for the Baltic region. Russia bases its continental shelf ambitions in the Arctic and waterway ambitions in the Bering Strait on historical legacy arguments, undermining the rule-based global order. Russia claims that seas stretching well beyond it’s exclusive economic zone towards the Arctic were historically Russian territories, as is the Northern Sea Route. Adopting continental shelf claims based on historical legacy and not on international agreements are not in the interest of the Baltics, because this sets a dangerous precedent for territorial sovereignty. Following similar principles, land grabs could be justified on historical legacy arguments. Moreover, contestation of the waterways and territories of the Arctic are very likely to affect the Baltic states through NATO defence alliance, as five members of the Arctic Council are NATO members. If there were to be a military conflict between any of those states and Russia, this would automatically involve the Baltic States. Although such a scenario is unlikely, the more likely possibility, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, is that NATO conflict with Russia in another part of the world could be transferred to the Arctic.
Russia’s military presence in the Arctic has ramped up in recent years. Since 2012, numerous military bases and airfields have been constructed, reconstructed and opened in the Arctic. In addition to Severomorsk Naval base — a home base for the Northern Fleet and naval leg of Russia’s nuclear triad — Russia has been constructing, renewing and opening it’s military bases and airfields across the Arctic over the last decade. At least six locations throughout the NSR have received critical updates. Modular military bases and upgraded airfields were opened on Wrangler Island and Cape Shmidt in 2014. Larger air bases were upgraded and reopened, such as “Northern Clover” on Kotelny Island, which was opened in 2015, and “Arctic Shamrock” in Franz Josef Land, which was upgraded in 2017. Following the infrastructural boost, Russia stepped up weaponry and monitoring. At some of these bases along the Northern Sea Route, Russia has stationed or is in the process of stationing it’s s400 anti-aircraft missile systems. Various sources have reported that Nagurskoye and Rogachevo airfield runways are capable of facilitating MiG-31 interceptors — supersonic aircrafts with the ability to carry missiles with a range of more than 2,000 km. By heavily militarising the Arctic, Russia hopes to ensure the control of the Northern Sea Route, other resources such as oil, gas and mineral, as well as its large investments. According to the statement by Putin, one tenth of Russia’s economic investment are destined for the Arctic.
Russia has demonstrated interest and stakes in the Arctic and is dedicated to defend them by policy, deterrence and force. For the Baltic countries’, policy landscape developments in the Arctic are only beginning. Currently the Baltics have no legal outlets to influence the situation in the region, which will only grow in importance in the next decades. It is in the interest of the Baltic countries to find such outlets. Observer status in the Arctic Council could be one option; seeking EU membership in the Arctic Council could be another. While Tallinn is the closest Baltic capital to the Arctic, Latvia and Lithuania should also engage not only due to territorial proximity, but also because of their interest in climate change and supporting a green transition. The Baltic States are warming quicker than all other countries in Europe, and climate change further fostered by activities in the Arctic will be detrimental for the implementation of the EU Green Deal and a carbon neutral economy. Given this and NATO’s preoccupation with the increased Russian militarization of the Arctic, the Baltic states might find themselves more and more worried about the issues of the Arctic region.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.