An estimated half a million soldiers have been killed or injured so far in Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, according to The New York Times. But the war has also made a victim of nature. Protected natural areas have become battlefields. A third of the country is mined. The hills surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which covered radioactive material, have been excavated and are once again a danger.
So far, very little has been done to demand accountability from those who commit environmental crimes in times of war.
Now Ukraine wants to put an end to impunity. At the beginning of the summer, it became known that the Swedish politician Margot Wallström will chair an international working group that Ukraine has established to focus on the environmental consequences of the Russian war of aggression. Soon afterwards, Wallström and Greta Thunberg were pictured in a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyj in Kyiv.
When Dagens ETC calls Wallström at the beginning of September, she tells us that the group is still getting started with its work.
“There is a lot we need to agree with the government of Ukraine, while they have a war to fight,” she says. “Sometimes it needs to take a little time to achieve good results.”
So far, a secretariat has been set up and three priorities have been established. The first is about charting the devastation that the Russian war of aggression has caused to the environment.
“We will not conduct any investigations ourselves,” explains Wallström. “Many others are already doing it, from Ukrainian researchers and environmental organizations that worked in this area even before the war, to the EU and the World Bank. Our task is to draw conclusions and give overall recommendations.”
“What is new about this war is that we can follow what is happening in real time,” she says. “There is research, and new digital tools to document the environmental damage, which allows evidence to be secured for future lawsuits.”
This leads to the second of the group's tasks: to identify ways to hold Russia accountable.
In recent years, more and more actors—from Pacific island nations, to non-profit organizations—have called for an end to impunity for large-scale and intentional environmental destruction. A kind of milestone in the work was reached in June 2021. That is when a group of top lawyers put forward a proposal that defines ecocide, making large-scale environmental destruction a crime of the same rank as genocide or crimes against humanity.
Wallström says she supports the criminalization of ecocide.
“I believe that we are heading in that direction,” she says. “There is now a definition, and a large number of countries that agree on this. It will take time, above all because the US is opposed to such a development due to its history. I think that has prevented other countries from taking a clear stand.”
The fact that Kyiv has now joined the campaign may be what finally makes the international community reconsider the Rome Statute, which determines which crimes are subject to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Wallström sees another challenge in the work towards accountability: “To bring those responsible to justice, and to make Russia pay for the massive damages.”
According to the Ukrainian government, Russia has so far caused environmental destruction at a cost equivalent to UAH 2,000,000,000,000 (US$54 billion). Restoring Ukrainian nature, and planning the country's green reconstruction, is the third task of Margot Wallström's international working group.
But Dagens ETC has spoken to Ukrainian scientists who worry that the reconstruction could lead to even greater damage to nature than the ongoing war.
“As soon as the war ends, Europe will pour money over our country,” says Oleksiy Vasyluk, Ukrainian environmental scientist and chairman of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group. “But this support will consist of money, not wood, stone or sand. We will have to extract all building materials from our own nature.”
Wallström highlights that Ukraine wants to become a member of the European Union (EU), which means that the country needs to adopt the EU's climate and environmental legislation.
She also predicts that the group may recommend a reconstruction based on the concept of planetary boundaries — a concept designed by the Swedish environmental scientist Johan Rockström, and which means that sustainable development takes place with regard to what the Earth can withstand.
Scientists and civil society
According to Wallström, Ukrainian cities pairing up with sustainable municipalities in other countries, in a form of twin towns, can be another way to spread knowledge about sustainable urban planning. She also wants to see close cooperation with Ukrainian scientists and civil society.
“It is a very important starting point for us,” she says. “They probably didn't have it so easy in Ukraine.”
How do you mean?
“There has been no great respect in Ukraine for [scientists’ and civil society groups’] work or the climate and environmental issues. We have the opportunity to show what important work they do, and we want to involve them in our work.”
However, the researchers and environmental organizations will not be formally part of the group.
“No, the arrangement has not been like that,” says Wallström. “It is the government of Ukraine that decides the composition of this group. I myself believe that scientists and organisations make the most important contribution if they have an independent position outside the group where they can criticize freely. I think it is important to distinguish the roles.”
What did you think when you were asked if you wanted to join and lead the group?
“That it felt like an incredibly meaningful and certainly many times difficult task. It's hard to think of anything that makes as much sense right now. It also felt very fun to come back to climate and environmental issues, which I have always been interested in.”
As you yourself pointed out, Ukrainian politicians have had no particular interest in climate and environmental issues. Have you ever been afraid that it might damage your reputation if it turns out that your group is just some kind of greenwashing initiative?
“No, I do not think so,” she says. “It has become clear to everyone that our lives depend on nature. So, if anyone believed that it is possible to ignore nature, they have now woken up.”
This story was produced with a grant from EJN’s Biodiversity Media Initiative. It was first published in Swedish by Dagens ETC on 9 September 2023. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. The Biodiversity Media Initiative is supported by Arcadia — a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
Banner image: Sweden’s former foreign minister Margot Wallström, Credit: UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré.