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Putin’s War On Net Zero: Controlling ‘Europe’s Breadbasket’ to Prevent Russia’s Fossil Fuel Collapse

Russian Government-backed scientific studies suggest that the war in Ukraine is the world’s first rear-guard military attack on the global climate movement, reports Nafeez Ahmed

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Putin’s War On Net ZeroControlling ‘Europe’s Breadbasket’ to Prevent Russia’s Fossil Fuel Collapse

Russian Government-backed scientific studies suggest that the war in Ukraine is the world’s first rear-guard military attack on the global climate movement, reports Nafeez Ahmed

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Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine may be far more intimately related to climate change than previously assumed.

So far, the invasion has been been largely viewed as an ideologically-charged blunder by an erratic dictator, inspired by neo-fascist fantasies of a return to Soviet-era glory.

While this is not entirely off the mark, an exclusive Byline Times review of scientific studies funded by the Russian Government in recent years suggests that the war amounts to a full-frontal assault on the global food system – aimed at capturing fertile land that can bolster Russia’s “future agricultural power” as its fossil fuel export economy declines due to accelerating global climate action.

This is supported by new analysis by Chatham House, the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which in early April concluded that the global energy transition away from fossil fuels threatens to derail Russia’s economic and geopolitical power as the world’s number one oil and gas exporter.

With fossil fuels bound to become increasingly obsolete in the years ahead, as the report suggests, control of land as a “strategic asset” for the production of key food commodities seems to have played a prominent role in the Russian President’s war calculations in Ukraine.

The biggest existential threat to Russia through this lens comes from global net zero commitments on climate change. Now, Byline Times can reveal that this is corroborated by recent research papers tied to key Russian state institutions close to Putin.

One crucial paper in particular, which highlighted the direct risk posed by global climate action to Russia’s economy, was produced by a member of the elite Valdai Club founded in 2004 with Russian Government support.


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Net Zero: An Existential Threat

The Chatham House report connects global energy transformation directly to the war in Ukraine. It argues that Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian land grab may have been designed to compensate for Russia’s diminishing economic clout as its primary export commodities – oil and gas – experience unstoppable decline.

“For Russia, global efforts to realise more sustainable economies pose an existential threat to its own vision for economic growth,” it states. Net zero pledges by more than 130 countries together responsible for around 88% of global carbon emissions “signal an imminent decline in demand for Russian energy”.

With its fossil fuel leverage over Europe collapsing over the next decade, a war to control ‘Europe’s breadbasket’ could have been the answer – or at least, one answer to a range of geopolitical and ideological goals.

The report states: “As the world looks ahead to projected growth in demand for food, land is also becoming an increasingly strategic asset. Russia may well have factored Ukraine’s fertile land into its decision to invade as a means of bolstering its future agricultural power; other neighbouring allies, particularly Belarus and Kazakhstan – major exporters of potash and wheat, respectively – may further add to its sphere of influence if they choose to align with Russia in any future economic war.”

This analysis suggests that Putin’s goals in Ukraine are complex. While undoubtedly motivated by longstanding ambitions to reassert Russian power over former Soviet territories, the fundamental roles of energy, land and food are playing a larger role than previously assumed.

“In the face of the energy transition and declining fossil fuel export revenues, Russia will be looking with urgency for ways to maintain its economic and political power; the current situation shows that no strategy is off the table, whatever the consequences in terms of Russia’s ostracisation by the international community,” the report observes.

Food Instead of Energy

The idea of controlling land and food as a potential antidote to the demise of Russia’s fossil fuel economy can also be found in a research paper published two years earlier – the lead author of which is closely connected to one of the most powerful institutions in Russian politics: the Valdai Club.

The Kremlin-sponsored Valdai Club is an elite gathering hosted in Russia – widely described as the Russian ‘Davos’ – which regularly includes senior Russian Cabinet ministers, oligarchs, and industry leaders. Its annual meetings with members are attended every year by Putin himself.

The club includes many other influential figures in Russian politics and finance, including controversial figures such as Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese academic accused of being a go-between for the Trump campaign and the Russian Government during the 2016 US Presidential Election.

In his book Putin’s Propaganda Machine, Marcel Van Herpen – a Dutch security expert on Russia – describes the Valdai Club as a Kremlin soft power forum to “create a testing ground for the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives”.

The paper in question – published in the Climate Policy journal in 2020 – is authored by Dr Igor Makarov, head of the School of World Economy and Laboratory for Economics of Climate Change at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics (HSE). The HSE, which partly funded Dr Makarov’s paper, is one of the founding institutions of the Valdai Club Foundation, which runs the Valdai Club – and Dr Makarov himself is a contributing member of the club.

Dr Makarov’s study concluded that carbon emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement pose a direct threat to Russian economic growth to 2030, intensifying even more by 2050.

“Russia will not be able to sustain its current trajectory of fossil fuel export-based development due to climate policies worldwide,” the study states. This necessitates a “comprehensive development strategy” including economic diversification, with the largest areas for investment encompassing “manufacturing, services, agriculture and food production”.

In the study’s most stringent scenario of carbon emission reductions, “Russian fossil fuels exports would decrease dramatically for all categories of fossil fuels except oil products”.

The paper also points out that the fate of Russian oil exports will depend on the evolution of the world’s transport systems, noting the trend towards “tightening vehicle and fuel standards, development of public transportation and further progress in electric vehicles, especially in developed countries… would reduce their demand for crude oil and oil products”.

The study even flags up “progress in electric vehicles” as “the main factor” that could “result in additional risks for Russian oil exporters”.

Extraordinarily, this paper does not beat about the bush: Russia’s fossil fuel economy cannot survive the coming decades, it warns – and the only option is to rapidly diversify.

It states: “It is highly unlikely that Russia will be able to substantially expand its exports of fossil fuels that were the major driver of the country’s economic development in the 2000s. Restraints to exports that were previously observed on the supply side would shift to the demand side as the leading national economies tend to limit their consumption of fossil fuels.”

The way out suggested by this study is for the Russian Government to gently raise taxes on fossil fuel enterprises, while massively reinvesting in agriculture and food exports. But there is a problem: in recent years, Russia has faced mounting obstacles to further boosting its agricultural output.

Food as a National Security Tool

Other scientific papers commissioned and funded by the Russian Government reviewed by Byline Times throw new light on how Russian experts with state backing have perceived the inter-relationship between energy, land and food.

In 2010, Russia adopted its ‘Food Security Doctrine’ to achieve complete self-sufficiency in domestic food production. It made clear that Russian agriculture was integral to its wider national security strategy. By 2020, the doctrine was upgraded to achieve the goal of total independence from food imports.

But Russia’s food security strategy came at a cost – with domestic producers shielded from external competition, there was no drive to improve quality and reduce costs. As quality and competition declined – with the bulk of Russia’s food production controlled by a handful of oligarchs – the result was skyrocketing prices, exacerbated by the economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic. Putin openly complained about the price hikes and responded with price-caps policed with ever more heavy-handed state interventions. But this is only a short-term solution.

In December 2021, a scientific paper – partly funded by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation – warned that the “narrowness” of Russia’s remarkable agricultural recovery over the past 20 years, with a small number of producing regions accounting for the bulk of output, “fosters fragility, which suggests that a downturn in production among main producers may cause a spike in food insecurity”.

The study found that second-tier food producing regions in Russia “are not able to compensate for significant production declines in the top 10… The upshot is that Russia’s agricultural production base will remain narrow and fragile, a fact that impacts domestic food security and food security in its export markets”.

Just a few months before this paper was published, Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture had already slashed its official grain harvest estimate for 2021-2022 from 127 to 123 million tonnes. Its wheat crop harvest projection was slashed to 75 million tonnes, down from 85 million last in 2020.

The Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture had also projected an even smaller wheat harvest of 72.5 million tonnes, with Russian wheat exports expected to decline from 38.5 to 35 million tonnes. Unusually dry weather was identified as one culprit of the decline.

Climate Impacts – and the Lebensraum Solution

Climate change is likely to further destabilise Russia’s food system in the long-run, but Vladimir Putin has seen a potential opportunity in this development.

Another paper funded by the Russian Ministry of Science found “a significant and mostly positive influence of global climatic variables, such as the CO2 concentration, El Niño and La Niña events on both harvests and yields”.

These findings are broadly consistent with wider scientific literature showing how hotter temperatures could contribute to increased agricultural yields in certain northern regions.

Putin has long seized on such findings to trump the benefits of global heating. As early as 2003, he declared: “An increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up.”

But this is only part of the picture. Buried within the conclusions of the same 2022 Russian Government-backed paper is the following acknowledgement: “The other side of the global warming trend is droughts. The forecasted increase in climate aridity poses additional risks to crop yields. In our models, the July temperatures have a significant and strong negative influence on most of the specifications. The main risks to crop production in Russia are increased aridity in the southwestern regions, which are currently the main producers of agricultural products, and the increased negative impact of pests and crop pathogens, which may spread their habitat to other regions.”

An earlier paper funded by the Russian Government’s Foundation for Basic Research published in Studies in Russian Economic Development came to similar conclusions. It offered a somewhat familiar solution: increasing the land area subject to Russian agriculture.

This paper concluded that “the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity is estimated to be moderately negative (due to the fact that the main negative effects will be observed in the southern regions with the most developed agricultural production)”.

The hope was that this can be compensated by an increase in expected yields due to climate change in central and north-west regions of Russia. Even so, the study warned that “the negative impact of global warming on crop yields in the southern regions will hamper the development of agricultural exports”.

Grain exports from Russia’s southern regions due to deteriorating “agro-climatic conditions” could fall by four to five million tonnes before 2030, the paper warned presciently. Relying on Russian agriculture alone, then, as an antidote to the world’s declining appetite for Russian fossil fuel exports would be a major gamble.

“To overcome these negative consequences”, the paper said, “it is necessary to carry out certain structural and technological shifts” with state support. Among the shifts it identified were changing crop structures and tillage methods, but most crucially to “increase the area of reclaimed land”.

It also called for Russia to substantially increase its stocks of emergency grain reserves.

Yet with production falling from 2020 to 2021, it was unclear how either of these could happen. While the paper did not call for a land war, it set up the logic that might make this appear a rational option.

Thus, in the years prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russian experts connected to Government institutions were warning that the country’s fossil fuel export-dependent model of economic growth was bound to unravel in 2030 and beyond. The biggest driver of this, they anticipated, would be a combination of concerted, collective climate action and accelerating technology disruptions including electric vehicles – pinpointed as a particular risk to Russia’s oil hegemony.

One answer to the coming crisis was to massively ramp up other economic sectors, especially Russia’s other chief exports: food. But Russia was already in the midst of a domestic food system crisis.

Enter Ukraine.

Europe’s Breadbasket

These factors provide some indication of why Vladimir Putin may have decided to invade Ukraine at this time.

The suggestion is not that the Russian President personally read all of the studies documented in this article – but they surely reflect the tone of discussions going on at a high-level across the Russian Government.

Putin’s strategy is consistent with many of these analyses. All in all, they help to explain how the perception of an imminent convergence of energy, food and economic crises intersected with his ideological vision of an expanded Russia and a reshaped Europe – culminating in the decision to launch an invasion of Ukraine. If Putin had waited any longer, the chance to reassert Russian power would have evaporated.

According to historian Lizzie Collingham, author of Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food: “People of the West are amazingly unaware of the importance of Ukraine to Russia, not only as a strategic location on the map of Europe but as the main competitor and potential contributor to Russian grain production.”

Ukraine is the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union and today is among the top three grain exporters in the world – with the capacity to feed half a billion people if not more. The country is the world’s top sunflower and sunflower oil producer and exporter, the fourth-largest potato producer, the fourth-largest exporter of maize, and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat – as well as a major producer and exporter of barley, corn, rye, and soybeans.

With 42 million hectares of agricultural land consisting of some of the most fertile soils in the world, its agricultural growth potential is significant.

Together, therefore, Russia and Ukraine play critical roles in global energy, food and fertiliser markets – with their exports representing more than a tenth of all the food calories traded in the world.

According to the Chatham House report, Russia and Ukraine collectively account for just over one half of global trade in sunflower oil and seeds, around a quarter of all traded wheat and barley, and around a sixth of traded maize and rapeseed. They are also “critical suppliers to food-deficit countries across North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia”.

Russia itself is a major fertiliser supplier, accounting for “one-sixth of global trade in potassic fertilisers, more than one-tenth of nitrogenous fertilisers, and around one-sixth of mixed fertilisers”. Russia also dominates natural gas exports for the production of nitrogenous fertilisers across Europe.

“Who controls wheat supply can shape global politics,” Dimitris Dimitriadis and Iain Overton observed in these pages last month. “And if Putin’s end goal is to gain a dominance on global food markets – alongside reliable, year-round access to winter ports and key trading routes – Ukraine could well be the means”.

This appears to be a multi-pronged strategy: derail the clean energy transformation with a huge geopolitical, economic and raw materials supply shock; drive up fossil fuel prices indefinitely to facilitate immediate Russian energy firm profits but more importantly to make feasible the exploitation of expensive unconventional resources in Siberia; consolidate control of a strategic source of future agricultural power integral to both Europe’s and the entire world’s food system; allow continued climate change to increase northern agricultural yields to compensate for a brewing food crisis in the south, potentially buttressed by leveraging Ukraine’s agricultural potential for expanded food imports.

Given Russia’s ‘hybrid war’ approach, it is likely that we are witnessing a complex, shifting and not entirely consistent military, geopolitical and economic strategy for Russian resurgence – launched in response to intensifying warning signals of imminent decline. Central to that decline is the promise of accelerating global climate action on a scale never before contemplated.

Seen through this lens, Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine may well be, in effect, the world’s first organised state assault on the global climate movement. And it may not be the last.

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