Yuri Moskalenko
Jun 02, 2021
The main culprits of the Environmental Crises of Russia’s Far East

The profound and longstanding negligence which characterize Moscow’s attitude toward the Far East as Russia’s extractive colony and periphery is most clearly manifested in environmental disasters continuously ravishing the region.

In the past two centuries, the Far East has figured in the designs of the Russian government only in its role as a military outpost and a geostrategic junction. Indeed, almost all significant projects implemented in the Far East have been of a military or paramilitary nature, conducted at the expense of the needs of the local population and the region’s socio-economic development.       

During the Soviet era, when the Far East functioned as a military fortress, the economy of the region became heavily dependent on housing the Pacific Fleet and the economic activity generated by the Far Eastern Military District.[1]

While very little thought was given to the environmental situation at that time, without a doubt, environmental disasters plagued the region even then.

The most infamous of these incidents was the August 1985 radioactive pollution disaster involving the nuclear-powered submarine K-431 of the Pacific Fleet. This accident occurred at the Chazhma Bay naval facility in Primorsky Krai. A violation of tech protocols during a planned refueling of the two submarine reactors’ resulted in a spontaneous uranium fission reaction leading to a thermal explosion. This was followed by a fire resulting in the release of powerful radioactive dust and steam emissions. The disaster claimed the lives of ten naval personnel, and hundreds of people were harmed by the radiation.[2]

The water and the surrounding territory were contaminated with dangerous, long-lasting radiation. The incident, just one example of the incompetence of the Soviet Navy, was kept secret until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In total, there were ten known accidents that involved Soviet nuclear submarines.[3]

A similarly devastating military activity in the Russian Far East, was a routine planned disposal of radioactive waste by the Pacific Fleet into the Sea of Japan which continued until the mid-90s. The catastrophic effects of this radioactive discharge are still felt to this day.

The Russian government went to great lengths to cover up these military-caused environmental disasters. Military journalist Grigory Pasko, who published investigations about this and other environmental incidents stemming from the operation of the Pacific Fleet, was convicted of treason in the late 90s. He was the first and, for many years, the only Russian journalist convicted for disclosing state secrets.[4]

After the release of Pasko’s film High-Risk Zone depicting a Russian tanker dumping radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan, the Japanese government allocated money to sponsor the construction of a liquid radioactive waste disposal plant in Russia.[5] 

More recently, another major environmental disaster took place on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the autumn of 2020. In early October, the public learned of the mass death of sea creatures off the coast of Kamchatka Krai near the Avacha Bay’s beaches. Thousands of dead marine animals and invertebrates washed up on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Further, surfers reported eye pain and skin irritation after contact with the water.

Although the Russian Academy of Sciences has issued a public statement asserting that the cause of the environmental disaster in Kamchatka was a blooming of algae, the government decision to create the Center for the Study of the World Ocean in Kamchatka in 2021 points to severe human-made environmental threats to the entire region.[6]

The environmental disaster that occurred in Kamchatka likely resulted from the uncontrolled activities of the military on the peninsula. The most likely pollutants include rocket fuel, disposal of toxic chemicals in the sea, and other pollutants from Navy ships, or nuclear submarines. Indeed, containers with rocket fuel were stored just over 6 miles away from the contamination area, holding up to several hundred tons of toxic rocket fuel.[7]

This helps to demonstrate Kamchatka, like the entire Far East, is treated as one large military base. The military controls the area, and their activities are unregulated when it comes to the environment and the local population, often leading to disaster.

However, Russian militarization is not the only cause of environmental crisis in the region. Another serious problem in Russia’s Far East is the cross-border pollution of the Amur River by industrial production located in Northeast China. An example of this can be seen in 2005 when a large amount of a toxic fuel benzene flowed from the Amur’s Chinese tributary, the Songhua River, into the Russian Amur after explosions at a petrochemical plant in China’s Jilin province. It is important to note that Benzene is a potent carcinogen that is toxic to humans even in small quantities.[8]

The authorities of the Chinese province where the pollution originated attempted to conceal the catastrophic effect of toxic emissions spilled into the Songhua River from both Moscow and Beijing.

By the end of 2005, this pollution threatened the water supply of Khabarovsk and other cities and towns in the lower reaches of the Amur River. It also severely damaged the overall quality of the Amur’s water resources.

Another man-made accident with severe cross-border environmental consequences occurred in the Amur River basin (on China’s territory) in March 2020, fifteen      years later. Emergency disposal of waste from Heilongjian province molybdenum mine, owned by Yichun Luming Mining Co., Ltd. resulted in the contamination of the Yijimi River. 2.53 million cubic meters of tailings started a cross-border reaction as the waste flowed from the Yijimi River into the Hulan River, which in turn flowed into the Songhua River – China’s largest tributary of the Amur River.

The mine waste products contained, in addition to the molybdenum, various heavy metals, petroleum products, and chemicals used in the molybdenum mining process, many of which are toxic to humans.[9]     

China has to undertake significant mitigation activities to prevent further pollution of the Amur basin.

Deterioration of the Amur basin habitat has increased dramatically since the mid-1990s, due to both natural and man-made factors including repeated pollution of the water, abnormally low water levels in the early 2000s, the catastrophic floods of 2013 and 2019, industrial accidents in China, a significant rise of water level in the lake Khanka, accelerated soil erosion, degradation of riparian ecosystems, reducing fish stocks and many other processes and phenomena.

Industrial accidents, along with regular man-made pollution pose a dire threat to the water supply for the population of the Amur region, both in Chinese and Russian territory and in. It spans close to 1300 km and affects the vast water areas in the Amur Liman and the Sakhalin Gulf. The water quality studies conducted by the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences indicate that heavy metals and organochlorine compounds, which are particularly dangerous for the Amur river water ecosystems, mainly come from China.[10] 

This is not merely a problem of the past. Indeed, the year 2020 was marked by a number of severe environmental emergencies in Russia’s Far East, most notable among these were disasters in the Amur basin and Kamchatka, oil spills from the Okha—Komsomolsk-on-Amur main oil pipeline, catastrophic forest fires, etc.

Forest fires in Russia often provide a cover for illegal logging operations. Among all Russian regions, the illegal logging problem is most acute in the Far East. Specifically, it is the worst in Primorsky Krai.                

At the beginning of 2019, Yandex revealed the smuggling and exportation to China of valuable wood. 15 thousand cubic meters and 691.5 million rubles’ worth of Mongolian oak and Manchurian ash sawn timber had been exported to China.[11]

It should be pointed out that the real volume of logged wood products in the Far East is twice as large as the officially permitted amount. This is likely a result of low domestic demand for lumber products and growing interest from Asian countries, shifting the orientation of the Far East’s forest sector toward export. Indeed, up to 95% of the lumber logged in the region is exported.      

A related issue is illegal timber trafficking and export with valuable wood varieties (oak, beech, ash, cedar). According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half a million cubic meters of oak and ash are illegally logged in the Far East every year. Simultaneously, in the Primorsky and Khabarovsk Krai, the volume of illegal timber has been, on average, twice as high as permitted amount for decades.

Before 2000, the bulk of illegal timber entered the market due to unauthorized and undocumented logging. Today, the primary source of such wood is unsupervised logging (over-cutting) under the cover of an official license.

A significant part of rare wood appears on the market due to forest fires organized by “shadow” lumberjacks.[12]

The fires of recent years have pointed to the likely involvement of “shadow” lumberjacks in illegal activities.

“There are several possible options. The first one is that ‘shadow’ lumberjacks cover up the traces of illegal logging starting a fire; that is, it is not the forests that are burning, but what is left of them. The second option is that the interested parties deliberately set fire to the forests, while the tree trunks are almost not damaged. They need it to get a contract for the sanitary felling of ‘burned’ trees at a lower price, but in reality, they export the undamaged wood to China at the same price.”

Today, the logging industry in the Far East is under the near-complete control of Chinese corporations. They buy wood, oversee the logging, and perform quality control before sending it to the PRC. It is impossible to sell timber to China without intermediaries. The sale of round logs is the most profitable, even considering the dealers’ share. Hence, Chinese businesses have no incentive to develop deep processing of wood in Russia. Furthermore, China is not interested in buying processed products since border provinces have an abundance of enterprises to process round logs imported from Russia.[13]      

This has led experts to assert that Chinese business directly or indirectly controls Russian forest and wood processing enterprises.[14]      

However, the profit from the export of treated wood and raw timber to China is almost entirely received by large Moscow businesses represented by Russian billionaires. The residents of the eastern regions, left without forests, are increasingly at risk of catastrophic fires and floods and, what’s more, given no compensation for the destruction of their lands.

Among the owners of logging companies are the top Russian billionaires. Roman Abramovich, Alexander Abramov, and Alexander Frolov control RFP, the largest timber holding in the Far East; these billionaires own 58% of the company while the Russian-Chinese Investment Fund own the other 42% of the RFP Group. To these corporations and billionaires, the Far East is a raw materials colony.[15]

In recent years, environmental issues have led to many mass protest movements   in Russia. Indeed, environmental crises emerged as the driving force of demonstrations starting in 2018when the stubborn resistance to constructing the ‘Shies’ landfill in the Arkhangelsk region drew a wide response. The month-long confrontation, accompanied by attacks from security forces and retaliatory actions by activists, ended with the closure of the disputed facility.

Similarly in 2019, 482 environmental and city protection protests were reported in the Russian Federation (most associated with the protection of parks and squares). This is double the corresponding figure of environmental protests from 2018.[16]   

Dissatisfaction with the state of environmental protection and quality of air and water is the second reason for engaging in opposition activity by Russians, after the infringement of political and civil rights.

The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily made it impossible to hold protests, including environmental ones. However, with the weakening of the quarantine measures, the fight for a better environment has returned to the top of many activists’ agenda.

New hot spots have appeared in Bashkortostan and Kuzbass, where residents’ interests clashed with the plans of mining companies. Both conflicts have followed the ‘Shies’ pattern: the deployment of construction workers, the appearance of a protest camp, the mobilization of local and visiting volunteers, physical confrontation, and a detente when the head of the region comes up with a compromise between activists and the corporation. 

The decisive factor in Bashkortostan (Kushtau) was the willingness of the protesters for violent clashes.

In Kuzbass (Cheremza), there were not many protesters, and the confrontation was less acute. Still, protests united residents of many cities and villages who have their own issues with mining companies. 

It is possible that the escalation of the conflict in Kushtau led the local or federal authorities to eliminate that potentially dangerous hotbed of discontent in Kuzbass. The authorities’ responsiveness may also be explained by fears that environmental protests will escalate into internal unrest.

Local and national movements are emerging throughout Russia as local  populations are forced to defend their land from large companies. Locals often perceive these companies as greedy newcomers supported by Moscow.[17]      

The fact that the Kremlin is afraid of such trends is confirmed by the recent increasing penalties for separatist appeals. However, the policy of removing environmental barriers to business increases the potential for new hot spots to appear in the near future.[18]

Given the accumulated environmental problems in Russia’s Far East and the extremely high level of dissatisfaction with Moscow’s openly colonial and predatory policy, confirmed by the month-long protests in Khabarovsk, mass protests over environmental issues and anti-Moscow sentiments in the region are likely to escalate soon.

[1] Yuri Moskalenko, Why does the Far East need the Vostochny cosmodrome?, Novaya Gazeta, April 27, 2016, https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2016/04/27/68407-zachem-dalnemu-vostoku-kosmodrom-vostochnyy.

[2]Alexander Khrolenko, Secrets of the radiation accident in the Chazhma Bay, RIA Novosti, August 10, 2017, https://ria.ru/20170810/1500109220.html.

[3] Kyle Mizokami, In 1985, a Russian nuclear submarine exploded in an accident (radiation is still present). And its consequences are still felt, InoSMI, July 12, 2016, https://inosmi.ru/social/20161207/238353490.html.

[4] Maria Litvinova, I told you, and I did the right thing.” Russian journalist Grigory Pasko, who served time for treason, told Kommersant why he does not admit his guilt, Kommersant, September 7, 2020, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/4407980.

[5] The journalist publicized military secrets now he faces 20 years in prison, Kommersant, January 2, 1999, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/211529.

[6] The RAS said that the cause of the ecological catastrophe in Kamchatka was algal bloom, Tass, December 18, 2020, https://tass.ru/obschestvo/10294213; The Center for the Study of the World Ocean will be created in Kamchatka in 2021 with the participation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Tass, December 29, 2020, https://nauka.tass.ru/nauka/10382603.

[7] Nikolay Nelyubin,“This is definitely not oil. We need to look deeper. ” Scientist – about the disaster in Kamchatka, Fontanka, October 5, 2020, https://www.fontanka.ru/2020/10/05/69493179/.

[8] Irina Petrakova, Amur waves are poisoned, Bellona, November 24, 2005, https://bellona.ru/2005/11/24/amurskie-volny-otravleny/.

[9] A chemical slick approaches Amur after an accident at a mine in China, DVHAB, April 9, 2020, https://www.dvnovosti.ru/khab/2020/04/09/112956/.

[10] Alexey Makhinov, Cupid needs help, Far Eastern Scientist, December 12, 2019, http://debri-dv.com/article/23681/amur_nuzhdaetsya_v_pomoshchi.

[11] Daria Voznesenskaya, Fires provide cover for illegal logging in Siberia and the Far East, Novye Izvestia, September 9, 2020, https://newizv.ru/news/economy/09-09-2020/pozhary-sluzhat-prikrytiem-dlya-nezakonnyh-vyrubok-lesov-v-sibiri-i-na-dalnem-vostoke.

[12] Elena Berezina, Do you hear, they are chopping:The real volume of harvesting of valuable species of trees is twice the permitted, Rossiyskaya gazeta, September 5, 2017, https://rg.ru/2017/09/05/reg-dfo/eksportnye-poshliny-na-dalnevostochnyj-krugliak-mogut-podniat-v-2017-godu.html.

[13] Ivan Zuenko, Investment battles in the Far East. What’s happening with Chinese and other investments in the region, Carnegie Moscow Center, March, 13, 2020, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/81181.

[14] Stanislav Kuvaldin, Is China destroying the Russian taiga… Continuation of the cycle “What’s going on in the Russian forest”, Snob Media, August 6, 2019, https://snob.ru/entry/180933/.

[15] RFP is the largest timber industry holding in the Far East, RFP Group, https://www.rfpgroup.ru/holding; Krestova Darina Sergeevna, Who owns large forestry enterprises in Russia: what do the extracts from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities say?, Moneymaker Factory Magazine, June 8, 2019, https://moneymakerfactory.ru/spravochnik/lesopromyishlennyie-predpriyatiya-rossii.

[16] How do they protest Russians Monitoring results protest activity in the fourth quarter of 2019, Center for Social and Labor Rights, http://trudprava.ru/images/content/Monitoring_4_Quart_2019.pdf.

[17] This is the land of our ancestors – they stand and look at us Anti-garbage protests at the Shies station led to the rise of nationalists in the Komi Republic. They are unhappy with the “colonial policy”, Meduza, December 12, 2019, https://meduza.io/feature/2019/12/12/eto-zemlya-nashih-predkov-oni-stoyat-i-smotryat-na-nas; Andrey Kolesnikov, Politicization, regionalization, shiesization, vedomosti, April 10, 2019, https://www.vedomosti.ru/opinion/columns/2019/04/10/798740-politizatsiya-regionalizatsiya-shiesizatsiya

[18] Ivan Alexandrov, Russia: will the authorities’ eco-policy lead to an increase in the number of protests?, Eurasianet, August 31, 2020, https://russian.eurasianet.org/%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%81%D0%B8%D1%8F-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%B8%D0%B2%D0%B5%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%82-%D0%BB%D0%B8-%D1%8D%D0%BA%D0%BE%D0%BF%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%B8%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BA%D0%B0-%D0%B2%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%81%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%B9-%D0%BA-%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%83-%D1%87%D0%B8%D1%81%D0%BB%D0%B0-%D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%81%D1%82%D0%BE%D0%B2.