How Vladimir Putin’s Regime Uses the Climate Crisis to Get Rich

The Russian president and his business allies are exploiting the warming Arctic to amass natural resources, wealth, and power

The Arctic is the sort of place that warms Vladimir Putin’s heart. The Russian president sees the high north’s icy harshness as one of his country’s greatest strengths, a vision he inherited from a long line of authoritarian rulers, running through Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin all the way back to the imperial czars. Unforgiving and yet endowed with abundant natural gifts to be exploited, the Arctic is the perfect backdrop for the image Putin loves to project: a leader who rallies patriots to conquer a cruel frontier and promises untold riches.

But these riches are only for those with the unrelenting strength to seize them—even if the stirring enterprise is really a black hole for massive state subsidies that help fuel the corruption choking Russia’s economy. After nineteen years in power, with four years as prime minister, the widely popular president has kept millions of Russians mired in poverty to benefit himself and his cronies, Progress Party leader Alexei Navalny told CNN. “The Putin regime is built on corruption,” charged Navalny, who was banned from the March 2018 elections. “According to official data, over 20 percent of our population lives below the poverty line. And people link the obvious. Why are we so poor? Because they steal so much.” The next day, Russian police manhandled Navalny at a Moscow rally—one of about 100 cities across the country calling for an election boycott—and hauled him off to a cell.

Navalny was seen as a minor irritant to a seemingly unstoppable autocrat frequently likened to a modern czar—and as a a dissident, he could have ended up in a frozen labour camp. For centuries, the Russian Arctic and remote Siberia have been notorious places of punishment, where perceived enemies of the state were banished as criminals to work the mines and build the cities that expanded the state’s power. Under Putin, the lands of exile and their resources now enrich some of Russia’s most crooked business people, magnates who help the president maintain his grip.

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