Up until the last days before Russia’s invasion, the European Union did not believe that Putin was about to attack Ukraine. If the EU—an organization whose premise was based on “never again”—missed a war, what else could it be missing?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. For all the violence already unfolding in Ukraine, the war may actually be but a single fragment in a much larger puzzle that Russia has been piecing together through trial and error in the last few years.
In this puzzle, the war in Ukraine must be analyzed in parallel with Russian maneuvers in Africa, Central Asia, Latin America, and East Asia. It must also be analyzed in light of a transitioning world destabilized by climate disruptions and geoeconomic competition.
Russia has long been perceived as an actor making little of climate change. Russian President Vladimir Putin wavered between denying climate change, underplaying it, arguing that it will benefit Russia and then positing Russia as a climate-positive actor helping with carbon offsetting markets in more recent moves.
Putin’s confusing narratives about climate change and Russia’s systemic dependence on hydrocarbons hide a more nuanced reality about the president’s understanding of the risks and opportunities associated with the climate and digital transitions.
Russian national security documents reveal that Putin understood years ago that climate change and geopolitical disruptions would lead to radical changes in energy and commodity markets, therefore requiring Russia to diversify its economy.
On energy, two fundamental aspects defined the Russian outlook. One is that hydrocarbons would remain fundamental to the world’s economy and the biggest demand would emanate from Asia. Russia therefore needed to pivot efforts in the direction of new markets and partnerships.
The second is that Russia understood European efforts to move toward a renewable-based energy mix that relies on critical raw materials such as rare earths. Russia is rich in many such materials. Not just that: modern day Russia aims to recover the Soviet-era industrial and export power in terms of critical materials.
In Putin’s mind, recovering this ability is key to ensuring that Russia is able to tilt the global balance of power in its favor, compete with China, and undermine the transatlantic relationship.
In fact, the economic diversification strategy, the critical raw materials strategy, the national security one and the regional strategies all link back to a specific aim: enhancing Russian military and defense position, and ensuring geoeconomic relevance.
Russia’s aim requires three things: developing its industrial base at home; eyeing resource-rich countries which it can either control or cooperate closely with on its own terms; and creating partnerships with countries across the world that own resources complementary to those Russia can directly control.
Brazil, for example, falls into the latter basket, while Kazakhstan and the Arctic fall into the former.
Where does Ukraine fit in all this?
With an estimated mineral wealth of over €6.7 trillion ($7 trillion), Ukraine had struck a strategic partnership on raw materials with the EU in July 2021 to develop and diversify supply chains for critical materials.
The only other country the EU had turned to for such a partnership is Canada. That partnership was designed to support the EU’s decarbonization and deepen ties between the EU and Ukraine. Since a number of Ukraine’s minerals are located in the eastern part of the country, which Russia now occupies, the future of the partnership is unclear.
What is clear, however, is Russia’s intention to gain access to the resources that the EU needs in order to deliver on its climate law—a fundamental aspect of European social pacts under the Green Deal. The use of force and the instrumentalization of conflict and war are central to Russia’s strategy.
It is not only in Ukraine that such a pattern is observable. The Wagner Group—a mercenary company unofficially related to the Kremlin whose owner also directs extractive companies like Lobaye Invest—is now present in African countries with significant mineral resources, such as Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic, and Mali.
Even more strikingly, Russia is concluding more defense partnerships that include topographic and hydrological research, such as with Cameroon or Zimbabwe.
What does this all mean?
Putin is using the cloak of history to design Russia’s role in climate-disrupted futures. In Ukraine, it is about revising history to justify occupation and war. In Africa, it is about instrumentalizing the traumas of history—colonialism and imperialism—to undermine African-European relations.
Behind these narratives, Putin wants access to resources and spheres of influence. Among other objectives, his strategic intention is to play on various European dependencies, including future ones. He has understood something that the EU completely missed: the energy transition is a geostrategic matter.
If Europe is to meet the challenges of a world where actors instrumentalize instability and weaponize supply chains and decarbonization-crucial deposits to redesign the global balance of power, all at a time of climate and ecological breakdown, it must change its outlook on transitions. The change must be systemic, but it starts with a few steps.
Firstly, Europe must understand that energy security and climate security are one and the same.
Secondly, it must urgently recover an ability for intelligence analysis and strategic competency. With them, the EU and its member states must strive to understand the complex and dynamic ways in which security, geopolitics, attacks on open societies and democratic institutions as well as climate and ecological breakdown are shaping today’s world. If Europe fails on its climate transition, Europe will fail democratically, industrially, economically, technologically, and socially. If external actors are trying to undermine European transitions, then this is a matter of utmost urgency for defense and security actors.
Finally, Europeans must identify how to form qualitative partnerships that go beyond transactional exchange, and deliver on climate adaptation, climate mitigation, and on the construction of inter-resilience between Europe and its partners. Such partnerships are key to building climate-safe futures and a geopolitical Europe.
The difference between Russia and the EU is that the latter has understood that old geopolitical reflexes such as resource hoarding have no place in the Anthropocene. A new strategy to confront zero-sum game strategies is needed. It is high time the Green Deal finally endorsed a foreign policy strategy—one that is regenerative and just.