Exclusive: Inside Russia's environmental influence operation targeting the Baltic Sea

How the Kremlin is using ecological ruin to press for the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stands, with a hesitant expression, in front of a burning red taper.
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In the first few days of October 2022, a group of Russians and Belarusians gathered in the Kaliningrad resort town of Svetlogorsk. The politicians, academics and activists discussed how the two countries, “truly striving for stability across the planet,” might resist the suite of international sanctions hitting both Russia and Belarus after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

One of the Svetlogorsk event’s most authoritative speakers was Alexander Dynkin, president of the prestigious Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), based in Moscow. Dynkin debated how, in the face of Finland’s and Sweden’s prospective NATO accession, the Baltic Sea would be dominated by Russia’s foes. Dynkin proposed the creation of a new discussion forum under the “conditional name” of the Baltic Platform.

Three months later, IMEMO, together with the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), a prestigious Russian university, produced a detailed action plan for the Baltic Platform and presented it to the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin’s executive office. Yahoo News obtained a copy of the plan.

Vladimir Putin seen from the end of an extremely long, shiny table, with two flags beside him and a gold, double-headed eagle on a crimson background on the wall above him.
Putin at a videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on April 19. (Gavriil Grigorov/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Yahoo News revealed the Russian Presidential Administration’s separate agenda, drafted in 2021, for undermining the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, all NATO and EU members. But that strategy appears largely toothless and impractical after Russia’s Ukraine invasion, which has united Europe against Moscow’s influence.

The new documents’ operation, with a focus on the environment, would appear to be another route for Russia to counter NATO in the Baltic Sea, a militarily strategic region for both sides. The Baltic Platform represents documentary evidence of how pro-Russian actors, in league with the Kremlin, are looking to instrumentalize issues like climate change and biodiversity to pressure Baltic nations to dial down their military and naval footprints in the region.

Among other actions, the authors advocated that the pro-Kremlin press in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave and the country’s only ice-free Baltic port, start “peddling catastrophic forecasts of the unstoppable growth of threats to the Baltic Sea and the Baltic ecosystem.”

As with the Baltic strategy documents published Tuesday, Yahoo News obtained this stealth plan of action together with a consortium of partners in the international media: Delfi Estonia, Sweden’s Expressen, London-based Dossier Center, Latvia’s Re:Baltica, Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT, Süddeutsche Zeitung, German public broadcaster networks WDR and NDR, the Kyiv Independent, Poland’s FrontStory and Central European media outlet VSquare.

Putin and the assembled dignitaries sit around a vast circular table under four enormous chandeliers in an ornate gilded hall with inlaid mosaic floor and 14 flags in a row, with a series of photographers taking pictures of the scene with cameras mounted on tripods.
Putin (top center) with leaders from Tajikistan, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan at the Kremlin in May 2022. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)

The new plan was submitted as recently as January of this year to the Kremlin’s Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation. This is the same organization, staffed with Russian intelligence operatives, that drafted the earlier Baltic strategy, according to the source who leaked it.

The introductory section of the new material describes how Russia and its client state of Belarus must stand up to the “storm of sanctions” imposed on them by the West. It goes on to describe the Baltic Platform, aligned with the purpose of achieving “a more effective fulfillment of the foreign policy objectives set by President Vladimir Putin.”

According to the platform, a main goal is to “identify problematic (non-political) areas of interaction that require joint efforts in connection with the changed international situation and increased threats to the Baltic macroregion.” The most “immediate and urgent challenges” are “the anthropogenic and climate-related threats to the Baltic Sea, the environmental degradation of the Baltic Sea ecosystem and the need to reduce the consequences of the militarization of the region.”

Although the language is seemingly apolitical and academic, the Kremlin has a rich history of using such projects as Trojan horses to slowly insinuate a pro-Russian agenda, Latvia’s Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB), which is responsible for the country’s foreign intelligence and counterintelligence, told Yahoo News. “Climate and environmental policy issues, which Russia can position as a mutually beneficial direction of cooperation, are one of these potential points of contact,” the SAB noted in a statement.

Anti-war demonstrators, mostly women wearing head coverings, hold a blue and yellow banner saying Freedom, Ukraine! A variety of flags, including Ukraine's, are held aloft by the crowd behind them.
Demonstrators in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Feb. 24 march against Russia's war on Ukraine on the first anniversary of the invasion. (Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)

Marius Laurinavičius, a Lithuanian security analyst, described the Baltic Platform activities as “fishing” expeditions for people from foreign countries who fall outside of the political and business establishments. “They’re interested in getting in touch with scientists and climate change or environmental activists to understand their way of thinking and then make decisions as to which of them could be used for Russian influence operations, if not recruited as Russian agents.”

In 2021, the Daily Beast reported on a similar project, even similarly named “the Baltic Sea Region Strategic Dialogue,” to target the same European countries. That one was financed by serially sanctioned Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Wagner Group mercenaries play a vanguard role in Russia’s battles against Ukraine.

According to Aleksander Toots, the deputy head of the Estonian Internal Security Service, the use of environmental issues and similar indirect approaches is an old method that helps Russia build elaborate cover stories for their contacts. “Russia is trying to make use of topics that regular people care about. Climate and environmental issues are a good example of it,” he told Yahoo News.

“Using this approach, they can collect information under a specific cover in different countries. Later on, the intelligence service will decide when and how to make the most efficient use of it,” Toots said.

“In the new political conditions, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus face the most complex challenges,” states the Baltic Platform, which was written by IMEMO Director Feodor Voitolovsky and MGIMO Institute of International Studies Director Maxim Suchkov. “The Western world, primarily the Anglo-Saxon part of it, has brought the international order into a state of deep crisis.” (Voitolovsky and Suchkov did not reply to requests for comment.)

Yevgeny Prigozhin in formal white shirt and black suit.
Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin in 2017. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool via AP, File)

The authors acknowledge a grim reality: the unfortunate state of the Baltic Sea, caused by a large layer of hydrogen sulfide that makes life at lower levels of the water impossible due to a lack of oxygen. They also refer to excess levels of nitrogen and phosphorus entering the shallow areas through the rivers and oil pollution originating from the abundant cargo ships operating in the area.

“There are 85 million people in the combined catchment area. It’s a huge land area that drains into the Baltic Sea and then the water takes with it what it finds on the way, which can be nutrients and environmental toxins, and which then end up in this shallow little tub,” Tina Elfwing, the director of the Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University, told Yahoo News.

The Baltic Platform document points out that environmental issues can be exaggerated — the “hyperbolization of individual problems and creating new ones, modeling catastrophic scenarios in order to call for a dialogue.”

While in its inaugural phase, the Baltic Platform may address these somewhat mundane ecological issues, the action plan describes “a progressive transition from the discussion of non-political topics to current political topics, with a gradual increase in the complexity and severity of the issues raised.”

This piecemeal approach is characteristic of Russian influence operations, particularly those designed to draw in noteworthy figures who would otherwise be averse to participating in anything with Moscow’s direct fingerprints on it.

The greatest potential for dialogue, according to the platform, is “preserving biological diversity in the Baltic Sea and the problem of its industrial and other anthropogenic pollution.” Revealingly, the paper names organizations it sees as sympathetic or cooperative with such an endeavor, including the Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University in Sweden and the Helsinki Commission, which was set up specifically to protect the Baltic Sea in 1974. Neither of those institutions are known for their pro-Russian tilt.

Birds look for fish on a beach at low tide, looking over to the spires of Tallinn.
Birds on the coast of the Baltic Sea at sunset in Tallinn, Estonia, on April 19. (Pavel Golovkin/AP Photo)

Elfwing, director of the Baltic Sea Center, told Yahoo News that her organization had not been approached with any proposal or invitation to collaborate with Voitolovsky or Suchkov. “It is so damn upsetting and unpleasant to be listed in such a document,” Elfwing said. “At the same time, I think that if you want to launch something called the Baltic Platform to deal with the Baltic Sea and the environment, then it is logical to approach our center.”

At the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Helsinki Commission declared a “strategic pause” on any and all cooperation with Russia, which had formally acceded to the convention on which the commission was founded in 1974. In a written reply to Yahoo News, the commission confirmed that this moratorium continues to the present day.

The document written by Voitolovsky and Suchkov is accompanied by a timetable for setting up the Baltic Platform. From January to March of this year, it would set up “the organizing committee,” finding suitable opinion leaders and drafting key documents. “When forming the initiative groups of the organizing committee, the formulation of goals should focus on the ‘old’ Europe,” the paper states, citing the “German-Scandinavian part” of the Baltic region in contrast to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were seen as more hostile to Russia.

The document also puts emphasis on “Baltic Russians,” meaning ethnic Russian minorities living in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, who are clearly identified as potential Kremlin loyalists despite their citizenship in NATO countries opposed to Moscow’s ambitions. Baltic Russians, according to the paper, would “bring together nonpolitical, scientific and cultural interest and create a common platform to ‘rescue’ the Greater Baltic region from growing climatic and man-made threats, including the growing militarization of the region.” The use of “rescue” in scare quotes only underscores the political aims of the document.

A soldier in a camouflage helmet from the Royal Welsh Battlegroup kneels in a green wood and looks through the scope of his rifle.
A soldier from the Royal Welsh Battlegroup takes part in maneuvers during a NATO exercise on the Estonian-Latvian border in May 2022. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Just a week ago, the Moscow-friendly website Baltija published a “debate video” in which three representatives of Estonia’s pro-Russia Together movement suggested that the expansion of military fields would lead to industrial accidents and ecological disasters. One volunteered with no evidence that weapons would pollute Lake Ülemiste, which provides the Estonian capital, Tallinn, with its drinking water. “Do you understand what we are going to drink? And what diseases are we going to get?”

Latvia’s State Security Service told Yahoo News that a major Russian propaganda point in the Baltic Sea region is a sham green agenda: “Russia’s plan could be to convince environmental organizations and activists, as well as various experts in Western countries, of the need to ‘save’ the Baltic Sea in order to put pressure on Western politicians and promote the adoption of decisions that serve Russian interests.”

In March, the Baltic Platform was set to debut to the wider public, with representatives attending a series of “scientific hands-on events” at St. Petersburg State University, MGIMO and IMEMO, and the Russian Academy of Sciences. True to the fact, there was such an event in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, which lies on the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. The forum was constructed around “Baltic Sea Day,” held in St. Petersburg from March 22 to 24, and according to the event’s website, the main goal was “to promote and introduce innovative environmental protection equipment and technologies that help conserve natural resources, strengthen environmental safety and improve the quality of life in large cities.”

The “main task” of these events, as stipulated by the Baltic Platform, was to demonstrate that “the Russians are against the militarization of the Baltics and in favor of a peaceful, good-neighborly and mutually beneficial solution to the region’s problems.”

Belgian troops in camouflage with green and blue berets and green paint on their faces at ease with their machine guns.
Belgian troops participate in NATO military exercises in Pabrade, Lithuania, in October 2022. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Two sources with knowledge of the Baltic Platform, one of them a European intelligence officer, confirmed that the Russian Presidential Administration sought to invite multiple Western participants to these events. Two were Henrik Sven Hirdman, the former Swedish ambassador to Russia from 1994 to 2004, and Markku Kangaspuro, the director of the Aleksanteri Institute at the University of Helsinki. Both Sweden and Finland declared their intent to join NATO in May 2022.

The year Hirdman left the ambassadorship, he received the Order of Friendship from Putin for his contribution to developing Russian-Swedish relations. For five years thereafter he also sat on the board of MGIMO University in Moscow, which is linked to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But Hirdman told Yahoo News he was never contacted by anyone affiliated with the project. “No, I have never heard of that particular project,” he said.

Kangaspuro chairs the board of the Finnish Peace Defenders movement. In May 2022, the same month Finland announced its ultimately successful membership bid to join the military alliance — another unexpected consequence of the war in Ukraine — Kangaspuro spoke at a Helsinki rally organized by the Finnish Peace Defenders called “No to NATO, Yes to Peace.” He too denied knowing anything about the Baltic Platform and suggested that perhaps his long-standing ties to Russians at St. Petersburg State University put his name on the platform’s radar.

Since March, Russian state media has been churning out a lot of critical — if not alarmist stories — on the declining environmental state of the Baltic Sea. The state news agency TASS reported that the revitalization of the Baltic Sea could become part of Russia’s national program by 2025. A municipality-owned regional media outlet, GTN Pravda in St. Petersburg, wrote that Russia’s western regions would jointly start to save the ecology of the Baltic Sea’s water system.

John Kerry involved in a discussion.
John Kerry, U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, on March 7. (F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This flurry of activity is all despite the fact that the Kremlin is not exactly known for its bold environmentalism. (In 2019, Putin said at a press conference that “no one knows the true cause of climate change.”) But scientific and environmental cooperation is something that many Westerners view as too important to let geopolitical rivalries get in the way. “We even have to find a way, ultimately, if we can resolve the war in Ukraine, to work with Russia, because Russia is a huge emitter,” John Kerry, President Biden’s climate czar, told Yahoo News in March.

Russia is undoubtedly aware of its crucial role in such issues.

Darius Jauniškis, director of Lithuania’s State Security Department, said that Russia is looking for experts, scientists and nongovernmental organizations from Western countries to “promote the idea that cooperation with Russia is necessary regardless of its aggression in Ukraine and that the isolation and sanctions are harmful to European countries.”