The War in Ukraine: An Environmental Perspective

By: John A. Lanier

A detailed look at Russia’s economy makes it clear how dependent it is on exports of fossil fuels. Its status as an energy supplier for Europe is one of several undercurrents of the conflict in Ukraine, and it may spur European countries to accelerate their shift toward a cleaner economy.

I have hesitated to write about the dominant news story of the past few weeks - the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mainly, that is because I have not felt informed enough about it, but I’ve been working to remedy that. The other reason is because it is not overtly environmental in nature. It is clearly geopolitical, militaristic, economic, and humanitarian, so maybe I’m at risk of straying from my lane here. But there is a genuine environmental angle here, and so I finally got the guts up to write about it.

How Russia Came to Invade Ukraine

First though, I want to start with the humanity piece of what is happening in Eastern Europe right now. Shame on Russia and shame on Vladimir Putin. The loss of life that we are witnessing as a result of their aggression is heartbreaking. Many soldiers have died, but the civilian casualties are not insignificant. Moreover, from the reporting we have, Russian armed forces have begun targeting civilian areas. What they are doing is tragic, unthinkable, and ethically wrong. I am heartened to see so many countries condemning and sanctioning Russia and working to aid Ukraine in ways that won’t escalate the scope of the war.

In many ways, it has been my emotional reaction of disgust to what is happening that has fueled my intellectual desire to understand why it is happening. Between lots of internet reading and several informative podcasts these past few weeks, I’ve come to a decent understanding of how this all came to be. From my perspective, it seems like there are several undercurrents to the conflict. One is the psyche of Putin himself, given that he has successfully consolidated power in Russia to become a true authoritarian. Perhaps the easiest explanation of the war is as simple as, “Because Putin wanted to.”

It’s more complicated than that, however. Another undercurrent is clearly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance that has encroached upon Russia’s sphere of influence these past 23 years. Another is Russia’s history, and it is more clear than ever that the lowering of the hammer and sickle flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day, 1991 did not signal a clean break from their Soviet past. But the undercurrent that I want to focus on is Russia’s petro-based global economic status.

Understanding Russia’s Economy

For this next part of the blog, I need you to do some clicking and scrolling. Start with the graph visualizing the United States’ historical gross domestic product per person (GDP per capita). Don’t worry about the numbers each year. Just look at the shape of the blue line - it goes up pretty steadily and smoothly, even accounting for 2008’s great recession and 2020’s pandemic.

Now look at the exact same graph, for China GDP per capita. The line looks a bit different, reflecting the fact that China only became a global economic superpower in the last few decades. But the trend is generally consistent. These are the two largest economies in the world, and both have steadily seen their economies grow on a per capita basis, even with the economic shocks of the past 15 years.

Then there is Russia’s GDP per capita. Admittedly, the scale is a bit different since the data for Russia on this site only goes back to 1988 (1960 for the US and China), but you can modify them to be consistent if you want. Regardless, the difference over the last 15 years is striking. The line does not trend anywhere close to the same way it does for the US and China.
If you compare Saudi Arabia’s graph to Russia’s and focus on the years since 2000, the trend lines are almost identical. Now one last metric: look at the historical price of a barrel of crude oil. This graph is a bit bouncier than the others, so let me focus your attention. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, there have been three times when the price of oil fell off a cliff - the middle of 2008, the middle of 2014, and the COVID crash at the beginning of 2020. Now go back and look at the shape of those lines for Russia, focusing on those three years. They tell a pretty clear picture. How Russia’s economy performs is highly correlated with the price of oil.

REPowerEU - How Environmentalism Factors Into Europeans’ Response to Russia

Despite any aspirations, Russia is simply not an economic superpower. It is, fundamentally, a petrostate. A massive portion of its budgeted revenue comes from oil and natural gas, with this BBC article from last November stating, “Overall in Russia, oil and gas provided 39% of the federal budget revenue and made up 60% of Russian exports in 2019.
It seems that part of their calculus in invading Ukraine was Russia’s assumption that their role as Europe’s energy supplier was a trump card. A significant portion of the natural gas that Europeans use to heat their homes and run their factories comes from Russia, and Europe is a big importer of Russian oil as well (China, it turns out, is the single biggest importer of Russian oil). “Europeans wouldn’t dare oppose or sanction us, because they need us for their energy,” was part of the thinking.
But Putin may, it appears, have overplayed his economic hand. Earlier this month, the European Union announced REPowerEU, a plan “to make Europe independent from Russian fossil fuels well before 2030, starting with gas, in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.” Admittedly, a big part of the plan relates to diversifying the supply chain of natural gas. As their factsheet makes clear, however, renewable energy sources feature prominently as well.
This is good news, and now the European Union must make it a reality. I bet if they could do it all over again, Europeans wish they had started making this transition years ago. Better late than never, I suppose. And if it helps the region accelerate the shift to clean energy, then all the better.
The whole thing reminds me of the old adage about the best time for planting a tree. The best time to reduce your dependency on fossil fuel imports from a militaristically aggressive authoritarian petrostate was 20 years ago. The second best time to reduce your dependency on fossil fuel imports from a militaristically aggressive authoritarian petrostate is today.