At its root, it’s about climate change. The media will never, ever tell you this.
I’ve been very quiet for the past few months, but a potentially momentous event is brewing right now (February 21, 2022): the Russian invasion of the remainder of Ukraine that Russia doesn’t already control. (Missing from most casual reporting on this conflict is the fact that it’s been going on for 8 years; Russia seized a significant part of the Ukraine in 2014 and has been fighting a low-level war in the Donbass region ever since). If Putin pulls the trigger and the invasion goes off, which it seems likely at this point that it will, the largest war on the European continent since 1945 will begin. In the next few days you’ll see lots of “explainers” in the news trying to make sense of how we got here. But I predict that the two most important words in the background of this conflict will be missing from most, if not all, of these explainers: climate change. That’s fundamentally at the root of what Putin’s latest war is about. The world media is so skewed and twisted, however, and so conditioned to ignore all but a very narrow category of news regarding global warming, that most mainstream news outlets will never, ever, under any circumstances, link the Russia-Ukraine conflict to climate change. This is why I’m speaking up today: because no one else will.
Before I explain how and why global warming lies behind this conflict, let me explain briefly a historical concept you need to understand. When we talk about wars in history, historians often distinguish between the cause of a conflict, and its trigger. They’re two separate things. (In law school they teach this same concept in torts class as the difference between “cause in fact” and “proximate cause”). The cause of the U.S. Civil War was slavery. The trigger was Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the secession of Southern states. The causes of World War I included imperialism, alliances, income inequality and the fundamental instability of European governments. The trigger of World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. See the difference?
Most public attention on the Russia-Ukraine conflict has focused very narrowly on the trigger. Does Putin want to bring Ukraine back into the Russian sphere of influence, where it had been in tsarist and later Soviet times? Yes. There has been a long chain of events, going back to 2013 and even farther back, involving the rocky relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and Putin’s broader ambitions to block, dilute or split NATO and the EU as checks to Russia’s influence. I talk about all of this, incidentally, in the online class I offer on my website about Vladimir Putin. So in the coming days, whether the Russian military buildup flares into a shooting war or not, you’ll see a lot of frothing about this kind of thing. It’s not wrong, but it misses the broader picture.
Putin is afraid of very little—but one thing, one of the only things, that deeply terrifies him is climate change, or specifically the world’s reaction to climate change. The large-scale abandonment of fossil fuels, which is absolutely necessary and inevitable, is his worst nightmare. The reason for this is simple: oil and natural gas is pretty much the sole basis of Russia’s economic power in Europe and the world. The largest and richest companies in Russia, with which Putin himself is deeply entwined, are oil and natural gas companies, like Rosneft. Those “oligarchs” you always hear talked about in connection with Putin, and with whom he has complicated deals going back to the 1990s—who are they? Mostly oil and natural gas barons. The importance of the fossil fuel sector to Russia’s economy cannot be overstated. Climate change, therefore, is an existential threat to Russia, and by extension to Putin’s own power.
Putin has done nothing about climate change. He is a climate change denier, or at least he professes to be; of course he’s smart enough to know that it’s really happening, but to admit that a changeover in the world economy from fossil fuels to renewables is necessary and inevitable would be to admit a weakness in his and Russia’s power and position. He’ll never do it. If Russia ever signs a climate change treaty, like the offensive toilet paper document that emerged from Glasgow last November (and which everyone has conveniently forgotten only three months later), it will never honor it. Putin will remain the leader of Russia for the rest of his natural life, and for all of that time he’ll defend oil and fossil fuel interests to his last breath. I absolutely guarantee this.
Ukraine is germane to Putin’s interests because it has traditionally been the breadbasket of Russia and the center of its economic gravity. If Russia is to maintain the fossil fuel order, it absolutely has to have Ukraine under its control. This is what Putin’s war is about! Whether he gains the rest of Ukraine in a Munich-style “peace in our time” surrender by Ukraine, NATO and Western powers, or whether he gains it by force of arms, he’s got to have it. Once he does have it, he’ll keep Ukraine dependent upon Russia by suckling it on Russian oil and natural gas pipelines. The wishes of the people of Ukraine mean nothing to him. They never did. He couldn’t care less about that.
There is a war coming—a world war—over climate change, eventually. Of this I have no doubt. On one side will be people and nations who recognize the necessity of a sudden and total change in the world’s economic basis as a means of saving humanity from impending climate catastrophe. On the other side will be people and nations like Putin and Russia, and others bought and paid for by fossil fuel interests, who will defend their fossil fuel wealth at all costs, including tens or even hundreds of millions of lives. This conflict will be the biggest war in history precisely because the stakes will be the highest in history: the survival, or the suicide, of the human race. While I continue to hope and pray that the issue of our collective response to climate change can and will be solved peacefully, if you read this blog you know that the historian in me has to conclude that the chances of this are slim and ever-diminishing. As time runs out to enact the change on the scale we need, the options to achieve that change narrow. Somebody will reach for a gun eventually, as people have done throughout the centuries when major societal-level issues are in play. I wish this wasn’t true, but as you know, I’m done with the sort of wishful thinking that suffuses the climate change movement like a noxious poison. We need clear-eyed understanding of the problems we face, and I believe that understanding comes from history.
I don’t know whether the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2022, if it goes off, will initiate that conflict. It seems a bit early; the sides haven’t crystallized into their final game-day form. But I do know that wars in history have a tendency to touch off other nascent conflicts in various places that seem, at first glance, unrelated to the trigger that starts them. World War II in Europe was triggered by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. World War II was about the territorial integrity of Poland—for about six weeks. After that, it became about something else. Similarly, the U.S. Civil War was, in its first year or so, about whether a state could secede from the Union. After September 1862, it became explicitly about the existence of slavery and the definition of freedom in America. So, whether the narrow issues of Russian-Ukrainian politics that are being bandied about in today’s “explainers” are resolved peacefully or by war, if it’s war, don’t expect the war to remain about Russian-Ukrainian politics for long.
War is an insane policy choice as well as a deep human tragedy. It’s also disastrous in environmental terms; military conflict is carbon-intensive and a protracted ground war in Europe will send CO2 emissions off the charts. I hope it does not happen. But if it does, you should understand what lies underneath the headlines you’ll be seeing in the press or on social media. Global warming is the dominating issue of our time. Nothing big that happens in the world is unrelated to it anymore.