Putin’s Destruction of Forest Service in 2007 Behind Russia’s Current Fire Disaster


No one denies that the abnormal heat wave in Russia is responsible for the outbreak of nearly a thousand fires across that country, but Moscow scholars and analysts are now arguing that then-President Vladimir Putin’s dismantling of the country’s forest service in 2007 left the Russia vulnerable to exactly the kind of disaster unfolding now.

In an essay posted online today, Sergey Robaten, Vadim Tatur, and Maksim Kalashnikov argue that the fires and the inability of the powers that be to contain and extinguish them is the result not of the drought and hot weather but “the inaction of bureaucrats” and the earlier destruction of the all-Russia fire service (forum-msk.org/material/economic/3803305.html).

After Putin eliminated the national fire service and transferred responsibility for fighting fires to those renting state property and the subjects of the federation, the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences warned that “the first dry year after the liquidation of the system of forest protection would become a catastrophe” for Russia.

The assumption of those responsible for what has happened, the three Moscow commentators say, was that owners or renters would spend the money necessary to prevent forest fires, an assumption that might be true in other countries like Sweden but that did not reflect Russian realities where companies were seeking to make quick profits.

Moreover, the three report, the Keldysh Institute scholars three years ago concluded that “if Russia raised the effectiveness of its system of combating forest fires to the level of the Canadian, then the area of fires and the losses of them could be reduced more than ten times.” But they ask, then what would the Emergency Situations Ministry have to do?

The Russian system of protecting forests from fires, which existed until January 1, 2007, was inherited from Soviet times. And its operations, the three commentators say, were based on the longstanding principle that “the earlier a fire is discovered, the smaller the resources needed to put it out.”

It had a national monitoring system of people on the ground, one that was extremely effective but cost “tens” or even “hundreds” of times less than the satellite and aerial monitoring the new system required. Not surprisingly, officials interested in gaining access to budget funds preferred the latter, despite the dangers the new system entailed.

Among those, the three point out, is that the new system often fails to detect small fires early on, and then these fires spread, the situation is often out of control. But Moscow’s misplaced confidence in those exploiting the forces and in the power of new technology also had the effect of leading the regime to ignore new fire-fighting technologies.

As a result, they say, at present, “subdivisions of the Emergency Situations Ministry are not prepared for an effective and rapid extinguishing of forest fires because they do not have either adequate means of monitoring or knowledge or the necessary techniques and technology” even these are widely known among Russian as well as foreign specialists.

A tragic example of this is the current effort to extinguish peat fires with water, something Putin has been pushing with his suggestion that perhaps these areas should be flooded. But that approach, they note, is “not very effective” because “up to 25 percent” of the peat is bitumen coal” which retains the water and the fires continue.

Russian bureaucrats, the three commentators sway, have “known for a long time about the catastrophe and means of preventing it.” But now, “the catastrophe has taken place.” And the best these officials can do is to talk about the need for increasing their budgets, even though they have demonstrated that they do not know what to do with the funds.

“How long are we going to put up with such people?” the three ask. “How long will they tell us about the struggle with corruption and about modernization? How many citizens, houses, and forests must burn before we finally will understand the necessity of an active civic position?”

“What must be done today?” they ask rhetorically. The powers that be are drowning in their own greed. “They do not know what has been created by builders, investigators, and innovators [in Russia itself].” Indeed, they recall Soviet leader Yury Andropov’s comment in June 1983: “We do not know the country in which we are living.”

His words, the three Moscow commentators argue, “are more than important today when fires have become a threat to national security.” The country’s fire fighting system must be rebuilt on the basis of domestic expertise and the current bureaucrats must be replaced by others capable of doing things “more inexpensively and more effectively.”

Russians, the three commentators conclude, “should act in precisely the same way toward those at the very top” of the political system of their country.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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