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  • Weaponizing WheatRussia's Next Weapon in Pandemic and Climate Eras
  • Clara Summers (bio) and Sherri Goodman (bio)

There is growing awareness that climate change will cause massive destabilization of social, economic, and political systems worldwide. As rising seas, desertification, disease, food and water insecurity, and extreme weather increase instability, some states may seek to capitalize on these effects of climate change for political and economic gain. Much of the coverage on climate change focuses on its direct environmental effects, but an unstable climate may pave the way for broader geopolitical destabilization, and that destabilization begins with an increasingly aggressive Russia.

In a warming Arctic, Russia is both expanding its military operations in the region and exploiting its prodigious oil and gas reserves. However, its investments in increased fossil fuel extraction are at risk both because of melting permafrost, which threatens infrastructure, and because Russia's key export markets, like the European Union, are decreasing reliance on fossil fu els. Energy has long been a major tool in Russia's hybrid warfare strategy. However, the impacts of climate change and decarbonization will eventually decrease Russia's ability to wield influence over other countries using its supply of oil and gas reserves, which will prompt it to seek other forms of resource leverage.

Another way in which Russia could exploit climate vulnerabilities is by harnessing its leverage in global food markets. The state is already the world's top wheat exporter, and climate change is expected to increase its extent of arable land. The state's past tendencies to cut off gas supplies as a form of political leverage is illustrative of how it could also manipulate grain markets for its own benefit, taking advantage of a world in which food insecurity will only become more prominent as climate change worsens.

By linking Russia's growing wheat capacity to its history of hybrid warfare, this article argues that a warming climate may provide Russia with increased opportunities to use food security as a weapon. It begins by detailing how Russia is already capitalizing on climate change to the detriment of other countries, with a focus on fossil fuels and the Arctic. It then shows how Russia has historically used its energy export markets as a tool to gain geopolitical power and how that power is threatened as reliance on fossil fuels and natural gas shrinks. Next, it explores Russia's role as a wheat superpower in a changing climate. Finally, the article closes with policy recommendations to prevent the weaponization of wheat. [End Page 62]

Russia and Climate Change: Increasing Opportunity, Increasing Danger

As the largest Arctic nation, Russia is disproportionately impacted by Arctic climatic changes. Almost 70 percent of Russia spans Arctic and subarctic regions, which are warming two times faster than the rest of the world.12 In these parts of the country, whose production accounts for approximately 20 percent of Russian GDP, most of the infrastructure is built on permafrost.3 As rising temperatures melt the permafrost, structures will become more vulnerable to collapse as sinkholes appear, and flooding around river systems will increase. The Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) in northeastern Siberia is especially vulnerable, as 85 percent of its structures are located on permafrost.4 The thawing ground also has serious implications for heavy industry.5 In 2016, 80 percent of natural gas and 15 percent of oil production occurred in these vulnerable Arctic regions. As the permafrost melts, production and pipeline infrastructure also becomes unstable, presenting a danger both to supply reliability and disaster prevention.6

Despite the risks to existing energy infrastructure, the Russian government has regarded climate change as an opportunity. Melting sea ice in the Arctic Ocean allows Russia to invest in previously inaccessible oil, gas, and fishery operations. Expanding liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports from the Yamal Peninsula have been accompanied by a marked increase in nuclearpowered icebreaker escorts,7 which increases risk for the entire region, as Russia has a decidedly mixed track record on nuclear safety. Climate change and melting ice present opportunities not just for economic expansion, but also for enhanced military presence. While the Arctic has historically been a place for international cooperation, climate change is reinvigorating the...