The environmental side of Putin’s threatening speech, annotated by Bellona

Vladimir Putin shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun.
Vladimir Putin shooting a Siberian tiger with a tranquilizer gun.

Publish date: March 13, 2018

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Charles Digges

President Vladimir Putin’s address to parliament last week will be remembered for reigniting a Cold War with its threats of new invincible missiles, complete with graphics of his new weapons hitting various points within the United States.

President Vladimir Putin’s address to parliament last week will be remembered for reigniting a Cold War with its threats of new invincible missiles, complete with graphics of his new weapons hitting various points within the United States.

But closer to home his lengthy two-hour appearance was greeted as the closest thing to a campaign speech Putin can be expected to make in the days before Sunday’s presidential election, in which he will, of course, be the victor.

So what is Putin promising Russians now that he has been Russia’s leader for longer than Leonid Brezhnev? At a number of points in his speech, Putin alluded to of Russia’s ongoing environmental problems: Polluted cities, fouled drinking water, ancient industrial technology and retreating ice in the Russian Arctic.

But what does he propose to do about this, if anything, and is his grasp of the problems accurate? In what follows, our reporter Anna Kireeva zeroes in on those parts of his speech where Putin raises environmental alarm, and annotates his comments, sifting through the details to determine if what he’s promising is worth believing.

”Because of the smog, people do not see the sun for weeks, they drink water that does not meet the standards, and in large industrial cities there is black snow,” President Vladimir Putin noted in his annual address to Russia’s parliament.

Nikel header The town of Nikel. Credit: Courtest of Thomas Nilsen

The problems Putin mentions have existed for many years, but in his speech the President did not name any methods or terms for solving problems, who is responsible for solving them, or how these solutions will be financed.

It is difficult to talk about a long and healthy life if so far millions of people are forced to drink water that does not meet the standards, if black snow falls, as in Krasnoyarsk, and residents of large industrial centers can not see the sun for weeks because of smog, like in Cherepovets , Nizhny Tagil, Chelyabinsk, Novokuznetsk and some other cities,“ Putin told parliament.

Putin has not overlooked the transition to the best available technology (BAT).

”We have now tightened environmental requirements for enterprises, which, of course, will reduce industrial emissions. Beginning in 2019, 300 industrial enterprises, which have a significant negative impact on the environment, should switch to the most environmentally-friendly, best available technologies, and in 2021 all enterprises with a high environmental risk category should do this. We have approached this many times, and industry representatives have begged off referring to the difficulties they face. But there is no more ground to give up. I want everyone to know: there will be no more putting this off.

All of this, of course, is true. The government has been creating a catalogue of acceptable BAT for years. It is expected to be released in 2019. Companies and industries will need time to adapt, and this has been provided for . Of course, it will be interesting to see this catalogue, as well what the penalties will be for failure to fulfill what it requires. Russia even now has strict environmental legislation, but penalties for violating it are exceptionally mild.

nikel A view of Nikel from the air. Credit: Rosa Menkman

It will also be necessary to modernize thermal power plants, heating boiler facilities, utilities, by building detours to relieve cities from transit traffic flows, to use eco-friendly public transport. It is necessary to significantly improve the quality of drinking water. Today in Russia, public authorities, public figures have identified about 22,000 landfills. We need to solve this problem first and foremost, first of all, by at least removing and reclaiming landfills in cities.

And here again, everything is true. These problems have existed for many years, but nothing has changed radically. It is a pity that they are mentioned but one line and without any specificity. Take, for example, the problem of modernizing thermal electric heating and boiler facilities in cities. It has matured a very long time. But here it is important to answer the question what is meant by modernization. The transfer of fuel oil to thermal coal cannot be considered modernization, but it is in this way that similar projects are have been pursued in a number of regions of Russia.

2014_Sotsji_NB-l459 (3) Ski lifts at Gazprom's Laura Ski Resort, one of several - like Lunnaya Polyana - that were carved into nature preserves under false pretenses for the Sochi Olympics. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

”Projects will be implemented to preserve the unique natural ecosystems of Lake Baikal, Teletskoye Lake, and the entire Volga Basin, which will directly affect the quality of life of almost half of Russia’s population. There will be 24 new reserves and national parks. We must make them accessible for ecological tourism, which is important for the development of a careful, responsible attitude toward nature.”

The creation of a few new specially protected natural parks, especially a few dozen, is very good news if it the issue of their funding can be resolved. Currently the government is suggesting that federally protected areas be financed by fines and fees for damaging those that already exist. The logic is strange, as it is probably more urgent to create conditions in which the handing out of fines becomes less and less frequent. It’s also precarious to count on fines as a source of federal income.

Putin turned particular attention to the Arctic and the projects Moscow is undertaking in this region.

”The Northern Sea Route will be the key to the development of the Russian Arctic and regions of the Far East. By 2025, its cargo traffic will increase tenfold, to 80 million tons. Our task is to make it a truly global, competitive transport artery. Pay attention, the Soviet’s used it more actively than have we. But we will increase our activity and we will reach new frontiers. There is no doubt about it.

Of course, the development of mineral resources will undoubtedly lead to an increase in cargo traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) routes, but this doesn’t mean more transit traffic.  The president speaks of route as a “global, competitive transport artery,” but here we have to pause and weigh how popular the Northern Sea Route really is.

The fact is that according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, foreign vessels have the right to unfettered access to the Northern Sea Route, permission for which is provided on a declarative principle when ships comply with the conditions of navigation, even without icebreaker escorts. Russia can benefit economically only from providing these escorts, and the services of ice pilots – which is only a modest income for an entire country. It’s as if Putin thinks we’re not already watching foreign ships pass from the shores as they leave the environmental consequences of their passage to us.

Sibir_icebreaker The Sibir icebreaker at the Atomflot port. Credit: Anna Kireeva

”A number of large-scale industrial projects in the Arctic have already been launched. They meet the most stringent environmental standards. We are strengthening the scientific, transport, navigational and military infrastructure that will securely ensure the interests of Russia in this strategically important region. We are building modern nuclear icebreakers. Our Arctic fleet was, remains and will be the most powerful in the world.“

Regarding our most powerful nuclear icebreaking fleet, everything is clear: It really is the most powerful and most unique, because no other country in the world bothers to build nuclear icebreakers. There is nothing to compare. But there are a lot of questions about the environmental safety of Arctic projects. For example, what are the “most stringent environmental standards”? Are they the strictest in the world? Who defines them, and where in general can you read up on them?

We are apparently being asked to take his word for it that these standards are being observed. It would be lovely to believe that the oil and gas projects underway in the Arctic are being carefully monitored for their adherence to a strict environmental regime, but its also impossible. The oil industry has managed to cripple the environment in every other region of Russian its working in.