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Russia uses climate talks to vilify Ukraine

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BONN, Germany — Russia is retreating from the world — on track to be ejected or pull out of groupings like the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, the Council of Europe and world football — but in global climate talks it’s happy to stick around and cause havoc.

Russia’s Consul General Alexey Dronov took advantage of microphone access earlier this week and accused Ukraine of undermining the spirit of cooperation at the talks with its “unsubstantiated” accusations against Moscow. He called the invasion — or in his words a “military operation” — a justified response by Moscow against “war and terror” by Kyiv, and said the money spent arming Ukraine would be better used to combat climate change.

The comments sparked a walkout of multiple delegations. But for Dronov it was mission accomplished: Russia, he told POLITICO, was the victim and the rest were playing politics.

Standing with an empty coffee cup in the conference center a day after his incendiary speech, he said it was “especially dangerous” for the U.N. climate forum to be used for “solving geopolitical issues” and “as a means of oppression on specific countries.” He was concerned that this “politicized approach” might “endanger … the whole climate process.”

That hasn’t left him with many friends in the former West German capital, where delegations are preparing for November’s COP27 U.N. climate talks in Egypt.

But despite his piqued insistence that Russia is looking out for the fate of the climate while the West plays politics, Russia has never been above using the U.N. process to pursue its interests.

It claims credit for a rapid fall in emissions that are really the result of the collapse of the Soviet-era economy, it’s often played a spoiler to preserve its crucial fossil fuel exports, and it actively undermined the role that science plays in the negotiations.

Russia remains the fifth-largest greenhouse gas polluter in the U.N. | Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

Russia has no intention of quitting the global warming talks, Dronov stressed. It would hardly be in Moscow’s interest to give up a seat at the consensus-driven U.N. where everyone gets a vote. But Russia remains the fifth-largest greenhouse gas polluter and the second-largest producer of natural gas, so how Moscow responds to its new pariah status matters a great deal.

In Dronov’s eyes, Russia is the subject of Western aggression and colonialism. Even so, Moscow is willing to work with the West to address climate change in the “common interest of the whole [of] mankind,” he said.

If only the rest of the world could focus on the bigger picture instead of the invasion, Dronov lamented. “You have an option: Whether we have this frontline — enemies on one side, enemies on the other side — and have this confrontation. Or we solve together our global issues.” 

Pointing fingers

Others see it as their duty to call out Russia’s aggression while still pursuing cooperation on climate.

Australia’s Ambassador for the Environment Jamie Isbister noted “widespread reports of horrific acts such as torture, mass executions, rape and deportations, including of children.” Dronov denied those allegations and accused Ukrainian “Nazis” of committing atrocities against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. Australia is part of Russia’s old negotiating bloc at the climate talks, but Moscow was kicked out after the war began.

It seems unlikely that either side will back down. Russia won’t leave the Paris Agreement in protest, Dronov said. However, he added that Moscow’s efforts to cut emissions might be harmed — not least because the transfer of clean technology from European industry and universities has ceased.

“It’s not our intention to explode the process,” he said. “No way. Never, never. But surely we might have some difficulties in terms of, for example, enhancing our … contribution to the process.”

That’s because being inside the climate tent has always been better for Russia than being out. As one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel producers, Russia has joined with other big oil and gas countries like Saudi Arabia and the U.S. to go slow on efforts to cut emissions and close down the fossil fuel industry.

That’s linked to Russia’s “place on the fossil fuel markets and the extreme difficulty of decarbonizing particular sectors or regions like the far north,” said a former Russian climate negotiator who spoke on condition of anonymity, “which make it wary of the radicalism of some calls that are heard in the international climate process.”

Moscow has at times questioned or obstructed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.’s climate science panel.

It’s also used U.N. climate talks — and even carbon emissions — to play geopolitics.

Since its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, the carbon emitted on the peninsula has been officially reported to the U.N. climate process by two countries: Russia and Ukraine, as Moscow and Kyiv use emissions as a proxy for sovereignty. Here too, Russia has suggested that a “non-politicized” approach would be best, although what it really means is Ukraine giving up its territorial claim.

Moscow’s playbook

But Russia has not been purely a wrecker. It has often sided with Europe and the U.S. “to push for stronger action by all parties,” according to one long-time climate diplomat who spoke anonymously to be able to describe positions taken by Russia in private. 

That’s a matter of self-preservation. Under the U.N. climate convention, Russia is treated as a developed country alongside the EU and others, but it’s been overtaken by developing countries like China, which now has a higher GDP per capita. That prompts Moscow to work with wealthy countries to block any weaker rules for poorer countries that might give “an advantage to emerging countries that are often as wealthy as they are,” the diplomat said.

At the talks in Bonn, negotiators told POLITICO there was no sign of the public antipathy spilling into private rooms.

Instead, the biggest climate impact of Moscow’s isolation might be the chilling effect on fledgling reforms to green Russia’s economy. In recent years, Moscow has passed a tranche of legislation governing its emissions and industrial transition.

“All of that was done because there is general consensus in the industries that transforming the economy closer to what the global climate system can handle will be imperative to maintain a competitive advantage,” said the former Russian negotiator. 

But Dronov said the sanctions unleashed against Moscow mean “the West practically lost any possibilities to impact our policies … and it means that the Russian economy will be restructured, it will be modified and without participation of the West.”

This article has been updated.

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