After years of wavering, the Kremlin announced Thursday it will throw Russia's decisive vote behind the 1997 Kyoto climate change treaty, making it likely that its tough curbs on carbon dioxide emissions - which the US has decried as a brake on economic growth - could become global law within months.
"The fate of the Kyoto Protocol rests upon Russia," Deputy Foreign Minister Yury Fedotov told the cabinet meeting that decided to send the pact to the State Duma for ratification by year's end. "If we rejected its ratification, we would become the ones to blame," he said.
Under the deal, industrialized countries responsible for 55 percent of the world's carbon dioxide pollution - caused by burning fossil fuels in industries, power stations, and automobiles - must reduce their emissions by just over 5 percent by 2012.
So far 124 countries representing 44 percent of emissions have ratified the deal, while the US and a few other growth-first states have refused to join. That left Russia, accounting for 17 percent of the world's carbon pollution in Kyoto's base year of 1990, holding the power to make or break the deal.
The Russian move has been applauded by environmentalists, who regard Kyoto as essential to efforts to reverse global warming. "This is a very good step, and we welcome it," says Ivan Blokov, a spokesman for Greenpeace-Russia. "We already see very clear signs of climate change occurring, and the problem is becoming more urgent every day."
Russian oil companies launched a major public relations drive last year to dissuade the Kremlin from backing Kyoto, and the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences issued a report arguing that the treaty would hamper Russia's plans for post-Soviet economic revival.
Opponents of Kyoto complain the treaty discriminates against economically depressed post-Soviet Russia by treating it as the industrially developed USSR in 1990, while rapidly growing China, as a developing country, is subject to no emission restraints at all.
Russia's carbon emissions plunged by over 30 percent during the 1990s, but have been rising amid brisk economic expansion during the past five years. The Kremlin's own economic adviser, Andrei Illaryonov, has warned that President Vladimir Putin's goal of doubling Russia's gross domestic product by 2010 might prove unattainable should Kyoto come into force.
But a sweeping trade deal inked between Mr. Putin and leaders of the European Union last May implicitly linked European support for Russia's ascension to the World Trade Organization to Moscow's willingness to ratify Kyoto.
Pro-Kyoto nations such as Canada, Japan, and the countries of the EU, have expressed hopes that bringing Russia into the scheme may put pressure on the Bush administration to reconsider its opposition to emission curbs.
Even though Russia is close to ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, Mr. Putin's choice is unlikely to sway the US from opposing the treaty, says Warwick J. McKibbin, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and co-director of their Climate Change Program. "It'll have some impact on the American debate, but not much," he says.
However, if Americans begin to link climate change with such events as the high number of hurricanes this year, then maybe there will begin to be a shift in attitude about the environment, he says. But "the general consensus in the US is that this type of [agreement] is not a good idea."
The EU accounts for over 50 percent of Russia's foreign trade. By contrast, commerce with the anti-Kyoto US adds up to barely 4 percent of Russia's international trade turnover. In interviews Mr. Illaryonov has suggested that Russia's need to please the pro-Kyoto EU - rather than any indigenous economic, political, or environmental concerns - may have driven the Kremlin's decision to join the treaty.
"It was a forced decision, not one we are making with any pleasure," Illaryonov told the independent Interfax agency Thursday.
The issue now will be placed before the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, "within a few weeks." The pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which has never opposed a Putin-backed initiative, controls a two-thirds Duma majority. The Kyoto Protocol will become international law 90 days after Russia submits notification of ratification to the United Nations.