A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 17, 2023

The Reason Ukraine Became the First Major Climate War

To a significant degree, climate has played a role in how Russia's Ukraine invasion has played out. 

First, Russia was concerned about Ukraine's efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian energy sources. When Russia invaded, it attempted to coerce other European countries into siding with it by reducing gas exports (which failed) and it has attacked Ukraine's energy infrastructure - which also failed. Finally, climate change has contributed to Russia's military failure because warmer winters made the ground wet and muddy, restricting mobility to roads so armor and support vehicles were more easily attacked. Climate-related considerations have impacted most aspects of this conflict. JL 

Peter Olandt reports in Daily Kos:

This is the first major war in which climate change is playing a real role, both on the battlefield and in the geopolitical context. A significant portion of Russia’s economy is tied to fossil fuels so low prices are a major threat to Russian wealth.  Ukraine is an electricity exporter to Europe, primarily from hydroelectric and nuclear, low emitters of greenhouse gasses. Russia attacked to reinforce Ukraine's dependence on Russian energy sources. Unseasonable winter temperatures impacted the military situation. March, 2022 was warm enough to thaw the ground creating mud and confining Russian advances to roads.  The winter of 22/23 was so warm it prevented a hard freeze, hampering the winter offensive.

It is my belief that the Russian invasion of Ukraine will go down as the first Climate War.  To be clear, climate change hasn’t caused this war, but this is the first major war in which climate change is playing a real role, both on the battlefield and in the geopolitical context.

Russia is a major fossil fuel exporting country, run by oligarchs, and stands to benefit from the arctic ice cap melting for a variety of reasons.  They attacked a fledgling democracy which was attempting to reduce its dependence upon Russian energy sources.  Fossil fuels and nuclear power (a relatively green energy) have had prominent roles throughout the conflict.  And finally, unseasonable winter temperatures have impacted the military situation.

The 20th century wars were frequently about oil.  Japan entered World War 2 in part to secure an oil supply after the US started an oil embargo.  Germany’s fortunes were related in part to their failure to secure the oil fields in the southern USSR.  The Gulf War featured the invasion and subsequent liberation of oil rich Kuwait.  The Iraq war was fomented in part by Dick Cheney and the Neo-cons vision of a US presence in Iraq securing Iraqi oil while destabilizing anti-US regimes in the area.  Tied to the cheap energy of fossil fuels these wars might be seen as the Pre-Climate Crisis Wars.  These were wars over the very commodities that were setting climate change in motion.  This is not to say these wars were solely about oil, nor were they primarily responsible for climate change.  Climate change would have happened regardless in a quickly industrializing world.  But we also shouldn’t ignore these connections.

Fossil fuels can be extracted from the ground in great quantities by a small number of individuals relative to the immense wealth they produce.  This allows a few individuals at the top to pay the few involved a good wage relative to the rest of the world while still keeping the vast majority of the profits for themselves.    This vast wealth able to be generated and concentrated by just a few people is a major factor in the rise of oligarchy around the world.  Oligarchy isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s no surprise that fossil fuels are connected to many of the worlds totalitarians, both current and aspiring.

And this dynamic of fossil fuels producing great wealth for a few while being a major cause of global warming is a key dynamic of the climate crisis.  We have the means to control the climate crisis, but we don’t have the political power to make it happen in the face of determined opposition by those few who benefit so greatly from fossil fuels.  See Manchin, Joe.  

The climate crisis can only be solved by collective action.  It’s not enough for some people to do the right thing.  We must force everyone to curtail CO2 emissions.  We clearly cannot rely on voluntary compliance.  It has not worked.  So we must pass laws to put limits on all green house gas emissions.  While an autocracy could theoretically participate in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, relying upon a benevolent despot is a bad plan.  Particularly when we look around the world and see that by no little coincidence, many of the autocrats have amassed their wealth through fossil fuels.  So the climate change crisis is also a crisis of autocracy versus democracy (collective action).

The invasion of Ukraine, first begun in 2014 as a “border dispute” and ramping up to a total war in 2022, is driven by the ego of one man, Vladimir Putin.  As a dictator of a major fossil fuel producing country, he and the Russian oligarchs are part of the global elite that are frequently behind much of the disinformation attacking democracies around the world.  I really don’t think Putin has sat down and said to himself, “gee, as a fossil fuel baron I should stomp out this neighboring democracy which threatens my oil business.”  But the background pressures are there.  

As some countries do reduce reliance on fossil fuels the price of crude oil does go down.  A significant portion of Russia’s economy is tied to fossil fuels and therefor low prices are a major threat to Russian stability and wealth (at least from the oligarch perspective).  Ukraine was (and occasionally still is between missile attacks) an electricity exporter to Europe.  This electricity comes primarily from hydroelectric and nuclear, both low emitters of greenhouse gasses.  Ukraine also controls a natural gas pipeline from Russia to the west and has large untapped fossil fuels resources of its own.

So has Russia successfully taken over Ukraine they would have secured green electrical production both for Russia and to sell to the West.  It would has have eaten one of the middle men of the gas pipelines securing more of the gas profit for itself.  It would have control over how, when and if those untapped fossil fuels would be developed helping Russia to maintain better price controls.

Russia’s diplomatic strategy regarding the war has been based upon it’s supply of fossil fuels to Europe.  Germany and others have been relying more upon Russian fossil fuels in the last couple of decades.  Putin wagered this reliance would temper European support for Ukraine for fear of Russia cutting off the gas supply.  Putin lost big time as Germany called the bluff and went on a crash course to expand LNG imports. In addition, the sanctions on Russian oil have significantly dropped Ural Crude and Russia has lost significant profits on their fossil fuel exports.  These pressures are also increasing European desire for wind and solar power.

Wind and solar power are anathema to fossil fuel autocrats.  Instead of a highly centralized production and usage of energy (drilling, wells, pipelines, refining, and natural gas electric plants) wind and solar are the epitome of collective democratic action.  Solar panels and wind turbines are manufactured by a variety of companies and are not inherently tied to being manufactured in any particular location.  Further, their energy production is greatly dispersed.  While some large scale industrial projects exist, anyone with enough cash can put solar up on their own house.  Wind turbines are a little more particular on where they can go up, but it still far more dispersed than fossil fuel infrastructure.  Democracies thrive on shared power (both electrical and political).  Democracies sicken and die when a few individuals get too much power.  And democracies with sufficient power threaten the profits of the fossil fuel autocrats.

Autocratic Russia really is threatened by Ukraine on multiple levels.  Ukraine is a target of opportunity that was rejecting Russian influence and corruption.  Furthermore, an economically robust Democratic Ukraine would be able to dwarf the Russian economy and eventually it could be Ukraine influencing Russia.  That is the threat to Russia.  The embarrassment of being surpassed by a former subject (under the USSR) would only add to the pain and humiliation.

And of course in the waging of this war itself, we have now seen two warm winters creating problems with mud.  March of 2022 was warm enough to thaw the ground creating massive amounts of mud and confining Russian advances to higher quality roads.  Then the winter of 22/23 was so warm as to prevent a hard freeze in enough locations to (possibly) prevent a winter Ukrainian offensive.  The Russians are stupid enough to attack in any ground conditions.  It’s possible Ukraine might have waited even if the ground froze firmly.  We won’t really know until the war is over and those details get released.  But at the very least it hampered Russia’s offensive and made it even easier to target vehicles forced to stick to roads.

I imagine we will see more climate wars.  As much as I wish for the end of war, I don’t think we are there yet.  As the climate changes and countries destabilize we will almost certainly see internal conflicts and civil wars.  We will see disputes over dwindling resources, water and in some cases we might even see fights over higher ground.  Some of this can be lessened if we work towards small closed loop economies based on solar and wind power where local communities can provide for themselves.  Wealth equality is critically important to keep the few bad actors from acquiring too much power to short circuit our collective action.


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