Ukrainian environmentalists track possible Russian environmental crimes

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered millions of lives, but environmental activists also fear the ecological damage to their country may be irreversible.

“It’s actually a huge risk for the whole world,” said Evgenia Zasiadko, who leads the environmental crimes team at EcoAction, a Kyiv-based nongovernmental organization that lobbies for green policy in Ukraine.

Zasiadko fled Ukraine, finding a route from Kharkiv to safety in a country she does not disclose due to security concerns after enduring days of heavy shelling and airstrikes.

She is watching from afar, determined to hold Russia accountable for environmental damage in Ukraine.

From her temporary home, she and a network of 15 people scattered across Eastern Europe are keeping a close eye on what they say are Russian environmental crimes, which they define as anything that causes pollution. severe and damage to the ecosystem and to people.

So far, they have recorded 144 alleged environmental crimes using open source intelligence, verified videos and witness reports. Zasiadko says that in eastern Ukraine she expects there will be many more incidents that are not yet on their radar.

Evgenia Zasiadko, who fled Ukraine, leads a team of investigators from EcoAction, based in Kyiv, documenting possible environmental crimes committed by Russia. (Radio Canada)

For example, Zasiadko pointed to numerous videos and images collected by fuel depot investigators belching black plumes of smoke into the air after they were allegedly hit by missiles or set on fire.

“It’s damage to industrial buildings. It’s energy security and nuclear security. It’s damage to ecosystems and damage to the marine ecosystem because there were a few ships that were bombed,” she said.

Contamination can last for decades

According to a report of Defense Research and Development Canada.

“We collect the number of tanks, the number of bombs and everything that happens in Ukraine as a result of military actions,” she said.

The large number of military contaminants and possible environmental repercussions is another reason why Zasiadko says Ukraine needs the war to end as soon as possible, and not just for the good of his country, but also for the neighboring Russia.

“Do they understand enough what kind of harm this could cause not only Ukraine, but also Russia?” she says.

Zasiadko fears the environmental impacts of the war will displace a second wave of refugees into Ukraine due to contaminated soil and water.

“The territory would not be possible to live there, to use their water, to grow plants or vegetables because it would be a high risk for their long-term health,” she said.

Soil contamination from munitions can persist for decades, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Little published information exists due to restrictions on military information, the organization notes, but it has been documented in parts of Scotland and Germany.

Images from the Luhansk Regional State Administration of an alleged Russian strike on an oil depot, school and homes on March 30-31:

Few precedents

Even if EcoAction has the evidence, it would be difficult to hold Russia to account, said Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the Conflict and Environment Observatory.

“There are very few precedents where states have been held liable for environmental damage and conflict,” Weir said from his home in West Yorkshire, England.

“The most famous is the United Nations Compensation Commission, which was created after the 1991 Gulf War, but the circumstances were quite unusual and quite specific in that Iraq had caused a lot of damage by burning oil wells in Kuwait.”

The UN Security Council set up a claims commission, of which environmental claims were only a small part, Weir said. The UN was able to impose compensation because Iraq was not on the Security Council and had no veto power.

“Could you replicate something like that in the case of Ukraine right now? Probably not through the same route with Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power,” Weir said.

Rescuers work in a residential building damaged during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the southern port city of Mariupol on April 19. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

“But there are other potential avenues to set up an independent tribunal, which would likely look at reparations for a range of damages caused by Russia.”

Weir worries that some of the damage caused by the toxic weapons in Ukraine may be permanent, but he also worries about what they might trigger when they hit their targets.

“Maybe things like asbestos…and all of that turns into particles, which we know PM2.5 [fine particulate matter] for example, is very bad for public health,” he said.

“We know there are potentially a lot of environmental contaminants that could affect people in these areas.”

“War worsens global warming”

At the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont., doctoral candidate Tamara Lorincz worries about the repercussions of Canada’s contribution to the conflict, including the munitions it supplied to Ukraine.

“All the weapons that Canada sends to Ukraine have negative effects on the environment,” she said.

There’s also the carbon footprint of war machines to consider, Lorincz said.

“Fighter planes, warships, tanks consume an exorbitant amount of petroleum products and release carbon emissions into the atmosphere,” she said. “War makes global warming worse.”

Tamara Lorincz studies the impact of conflict on climate at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. She says war makes climate change worse. (Tina MacKenzie/CBC)

Military emissions are excluded from most national plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Lorincz said.

“These are huge, heavy-duty vehicles that have very limited range. And they’re fuel inefficient. They use excessive amounts of diesel. And again, they contaminate the ground and release carbon emissions that make the climate change,” she said.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of National Defense said it was “working to transition to zero-carbon and climate-resilient operations, while reducing environmental impacts beyond carbon, including on waste, water and biodiversity”.

It claims to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 38% compared to 2005 levels thanks to its Defense Energy and Environmental Strategy — but that figure does not include the military’s “national safety and security fleets,” which include large emitters such as planes and ships.

A local resident stands next to unexploded mortar shells left over from the Russian invasion, in the village of Yahidne, Ukraine, April 20. Although there is little published research on munitions contamination, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that the First and Second World Wars contaminated the soils of some parts of the Europe for decades. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

Rather than supplying arms to Ukraine, Lorincz would rather see Canada help monitor the ecological fallout of the war and rebuild.

“Ensuring that post-conflict reconstruction and recovery is done in an ecological and green way. So, you know, we could work with Ukraine, for example, after to rebuild it with green principles in mind and in an energy-efficient way,” she says.

Lorincz believes the conflict could not have come at a worse time for the environment and has jeopardized international cooperation on climate change.

“We have to cooperate with all countries like Russia and China to deal with global warming and the war undermines our ability to work well with other countries,” she said, noting that Russia itself is in the grip of a severe climate crisis with wildfires, drought and extreme heat waves.

“I am very concerned that this Russian invasion in Ukraine, this ongoing war, will increase tensions between countries and make it more difficult for us to cooperate and find the comprehensive solutions that we need to deal with the climate crisis.”