THE BLOG
08/09/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

Ignore the Stunts: Russian President Vladimir Putin is No Enviro Hero

By Kristen French, OnEarth

Vladimir Putin took off in a motorized hang glider last September wearing goggles and a white suit, on a mission to guide young Siberian cranes on their first migration. The publicity stunt wasn't the Russian president's first attempt to cultivate his image as an environmental hero. When wildfires raged through Russia's central region in 2010, he hopped on a plane and personally dumped water over two raging blazes. And a few weeks later he helped tag some endangered gray whales (for science) with a crossbow.

Despite the carefully constructed photo ops and He-Man antics, Putin's environmental record is far from heroic. In fact, for more than a decade, he has whittled away at Russia's environmental protection laws, tried to cover up the severity of some the country's problems (such as its forest fire epidemic), and generally failed to address mismanagement of the country's forests, waterways, and air quality.

To make matters worse, a year ago Putin began harassing and intimidating nonprofit groups--including major environmental organizations--requiring them to register as "foreign agents" under a new law, investigating their operations, and handing out fines for violations of that law. Some groups are fighting back with lawsuits; others may have to shut down or leave Russia. This morning, the White House announced that President Obama has officially scrapped plans to meet face-to-face with Putin during next month's G-20 economic summit in Russia, due to rising diplomatic tensions and human rights concerns.

These issues could receive more attention as the world's athletes prepare to compete in Sochi next February for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Until then, one activist who plans to stand her ground is Maria (Masha) Vorontsova, a biologist who has been toiling to protect Russia's environment and wildlife for decades. Vorontsova established the International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) Russian office in 1994 and has since led high-profile campaigns to protect bears, seals, and whales from hunting and habitat destruction. She has also worked closely with other environmental NGOs in the country to stop a major gas pipeline project from disrupting endangered gray whale feeding grounds.

She takes after her father, Nikolai Vorontsov, a biologist and environmentalist who served as the Soviet Union's last Minister of the Environment and Nature Protection under Mikhail Gorbachev. During his tenure, Vorontsov expanded the country's natural preserve network, helped defeat plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the Ob River, and opposed a controversial paper mill on Lake Baikal, the biggest deposit of freshwater in the world. For his daughter, many battles remain. Severe air and water pollution plagues Moscow and most of the country's major industrial areas. The Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and Lake Baikal are also heavily contaminated. Oil spills and natural gas leaks damage the country's tundra, while aggressive logging clears its boreal forests. OnEarth spoke to Vorontsova recently about Russia's current environmental strife, its peoples' love affair with nature, and its leader's curious way of addressing it all.

Russia has a long legacy of environmentalism. Can you talk about where this culture of environmentalism comes from?

Russia remained a mostly rural country well into the 20th century. It's full of forests that offer a bounty of wild honey, berries, and mushrooms. So Russian peasants were traditionally not just farmers but also foragers.

Most Russians are still nature lovers, even though the majority of the population now lives in cities. In September, thousands of Russians go to the forest to pick mushrooms. You can see cars parked along the roads near the forest--especially after the rain, when mushrooms tend to sprout. This tradition is centuries old. Today, Russians enjoy nature for recreation and get very upset when industrial projects encroach on the land they love.

And does Russia's current government continue this tradition of environmental stewardship?

No. These days, the biggest environmental problem is that the government is neglecting the conservation and protection of nature. In 2001, Putin shut down the Ministry of the Environment and Nature Protection. When Putin closed the department, people protested and called to have it restored. About a million signatures were collected, but it didn't happen. Then about three years ago, the government added the word "Environment" to the name of the Ministry of Natural Resources, the agency that is responsible for oil and gas development. These [conflicting priorities create] a serious problem. All of these changes have weakened environmental legislation.

Can you give some examples of environmental concerns that are now swept under the rug?

The pollution in Moscow is definitely an issue. It's the biggest city in the country, with a population of about 20 million--about 14 percent of the population of all of Russia. Development is highly concentrated, and parks are constantly bulldozed to make room for new buildings.

There is also the aggressive logging of our boreal forests for timber export, and forest fires have become a giant problem. Greenpeace figured out that the government reports only one third of the fires.

Poaching is, of course, a huge issue. There is an organized crime ring between Russia and China and nearly constant seizures of contraband, such as wild animal parts, at the border. In the Russian Far East, about 40 tigers are killed annually, out of a population of just 350 or 400 animals.

And the government is now attacking many of the country's environmental groups. Can you discuss Putin's crackdown on NGOs over the past year?

The Russian government and President Putin are very suspicious that foreign money circulating within the country will fund political activities that will result in something similar to the Rose Revolution­ in Georgia of 2003 or the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine of 2004.

A year ago, Parliament passed a law requiring all NGOs that get financial support from foreign sources to register as foreign agents--essentially foreign spies. Once you do that, who in the government will listen to you? Who in Russia will give money to you? It was like a death sentence. Nobody registered.

This spring inspectors from the FSB--the Federal Security Service, which is basically the new KGB--investigated over 600 NGOs. They asked for all kinds of documents, sometimes thousands of pages. Several weeks after the reviews, the groups started to get letters accusing them of violations of the new foreign agent law and fines of up to $20,000 (the equivalent of entire annual budgets for some of the smaller groups). A number of NGOs have filed lawsuits in response. We will see where that will lead them, but it probably means some groups will have to close or leave the country.

So what have conservation groups been able to accomplish in Russia?

Our first environmental NGOs arose just before the Soviet Union collapsed, and over the past 20 years, they have won some big victories. One of IFAW's major accomplishments was the banning of all import and export of harp seal skins, with an order from Putin in 2009. We have also begun to rehabilitate brown bear cubs, which are orphaned in great numbers every year due to the traditional Russian winter den hunt.

A coalition of NGOs was also able to force the relocation of a gas and oil pipeline being planned by Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi. The pipeline would have extracted gas from the waters off Sakhalin Island, which are the feeding grounds for endangered western gray whales. It cost the companies a half a billion dollars to reroute the pipeline, but they did it.

Check out the IFAW website for more about Masha, including blog posts from her recent field expeditions.

This story was originally published by OnEarth.