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Wildfires rage across the republic of Sakha, Russia’s largest and coldest region also known as Yakutia. Large portions of the Russian Far East have been burning all summer, locals have been breathing smog, and the Kremlin has decided to send firefighting aircraft to Turkey.
According to reports, at least three Russian Be-200 firefighting planes, which can take on board 12 tons of water in 12-14 seconds, are helping the Turkish authorities extinguish forest fires in the south of the country. Such an action has caused anger in Russia, especially in Siberia where authorities cannot put out wildfires that broke out weeks ago. Responding to critics, Head of the State Parliament (Duma) Committee on Ecology and Environmental Protection Vladimir Burmatov said the reason Russia decided to help Turkey is because “there is a large number of Russian tourists in Turkey now.”
“Do you want one of our citizens to die there?” Burmatov asked in the Russian Parliament.
In wildfire-torn Siberia Russian citizens have already died, but the Kremlin seems to have different priorities. On July 31, Moscow dispatched five Il-76 aircraft and three Mi-8 helicopters to Turkey, and Ankara is reportedly paying $24 million for the service the three Russian Be-200 firefighting planes are providing. Indeed, Turkish wildfires seems to be more lucrative than the tragedy Yakutia – a region four times the size of Texas – is facing.
Last year, according to reports, wildfires in Russia scorched more than 60,000 square miles of forest and tundra, which is an area the size of Florida. The country’s Ministry of Emergency Situations is known for its actions aboard, but in Russia it is struggling to resolve the critical issue. The largest country in the world has seen its annual fire season become more ferocious in recent years, and the authorities are reportedly doing little to fight wildfires. Recently, Russian environmental activists asked Hollywood actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio for help. The movie star agreed to provide assistance, but Sakha’s Deputy Minister for the Environment, Natural Resource Management and Forestry Sergei Sivtsev politely rejected DiCaprio’s offer, saying that the situation in the republic is “under control”.
The Kremlin is undoubtedly trying to create an image of Russia as a strong country that does not need any help, and is always willing to assist others. In the case of Turkey’s wildfires, Moscow is demonstrating the readiness to further strengthen its “partnership” with Ankara, even though Turkish authorities never took part in extinguishing fires in Siberia in the past. Regardless of that, Russian media seem to pay more attention to wildfires in Turkey than to the ecological disaster in the Russian Far East.
This year around four million Russian tourists are expected to visit Turkey, and the Kremlin’s actions in this country aim to portray Russia as Ankara’s “reliable partner”, despite the fact that Turkey is supplying weapons to Ukraine, and has armed Azerbaijan against Russia’s ally Armenia during the 44-day war in 2020. Still, business interests often prevails over principles, and it remains to be seen how much money will Moscow spend on its operation in Turkey, and how exactly the funds will be distributed.
Turkish authorities, on the other hand, also faced increased criticism over their apparent poor response and inadequate preparedness for large-scale wildfires. And just like the Russians have rejected an offer by Leonardo DiCaprio to help tackle wildfires, Turkey’s officials have rejected help from Israel and Greece, claiming that “situation in the country is under control”. At the same time, Ankara asked Moscow to help put out fires near settlements and tourist areas, where a large number of Russian tourists now spend their summer vacations.
From the purely humanitarian perspective, in Turkey, where the population density is higher than in Siberia, the danger for people living in the wildfire-torn areas is much greater than in Yakutia. However, from the rational and political point of view, putting out fires in the Russian Federation should be a top priority for the Russian authorities. Moreover, there are fears that wildfires in Siberia may potentially accelerate climate change by releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases and destroying Russia’s vast boreal forests.
At this point, nobody dares estimate how long it will take crews to put the fires out. But, one thing is for sure – the Kremlin will attempt to politically benefit from its actions in Turkey. Parliamentary elections are coming, and that is one of the reasons why media in Russia tend to present Russian firefighters operating in Turkey as great humanitarians and lifesavers. However, the situation in Yakutia and in the Russian Far East in general could have an impact on the elections, although not enough to “punish” the ruling United Russia party. Finally, in the past, in his PR stunt, Russian President Vladimir Putin was filmed dropping water from a firefighting plane. It is not improbable that, in the coming days, he will try to make another similar public relations exercise to assure ordinary Russians that “the good tsar” is there to protect them from wildfires.
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