Conservation and Biodiversity

Putin’s environmental crimes

In the wake of thousands of deaths of civilians, including children, Russia’s ongoing environmental crimes in Ukraine may be viewed of minor importance given the enormity of war crimes perpetrated against Ukraine and its people. 

Russia is targeting Ukrainian energy facilities. Once again the dark legacy of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster weighs heavily on Ukrainians — which included tens of thousands of cancer cases, along with widespread environmental damage during the decades of Russia’s control of Ukraine. Now, Ukrainians are witnessing unparalleled environmental destruction and the undoing of 18 years of progress.  

It certainly felt like that dark legacy was in the rearview mirror on Earth Day 2005, just three months after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, when 150,000 people, including 10,000 Chernobyl victims and their families, entered a plaza near Kiev’s Independence Square in a snowstorm. Independence Square was one of the main protest sites that Ukrainians occupied to protest the fraudulent election of a corrupt billionaire Viktor Yanukovych. Those protests and a Ukrainian Supreme Court decision led to new elections. In 2005, many believed that Ukraine was finally (and we thought forever) free. Of course, it took another 10 years for a second revolution (The Revolution of Dignity) to finally send the now Russian-controlled Yanukovych packing into Russian exile and to solidify some democratic gains. Those gains came at a great price, and Russian war crimes and hostilities — from the Crimea takeover to the Donbas War — have led Ukraine to where we are today.  

But on that Earth Day in 2005, thoughts were not about the distant future, but rather on what the environmental community could accomplish to create a green future and to replace the Chernobyl legacy. The country was awash in optimism. The day was self-styled as the Green Revolution meets the Orange Revolution, and stores across Ukraine were decorated with green and orange flags. Not unlike the first Earth Day, which catapulted from the antiwar and civil rights activism, the Green Revolution, harnessed the energy of the country’s democracy and political movements, and across Ukraine — in schools, universities, cities and towns —mpeople joined in the peaceful, hopeful, environmental events. 

Political leaders showed up promising the end to corruption and a reversal of the look-the-other-way policies toward the environment that had created a country-wide landscape of contamination and pollution. Although the Chernobyl meltdown became a global parable about environmental woes and the perils of nuclear energy generally, most people believed a green revolution like those in the U.S. and across Europe was in their near future.

The event empowered Ukrainian advocacy organizations, including environmental groups and Chernobyl survivors to express their concerns about environmental issues and reach a broad range of their fellow citizens. The event also launched a campaign aimed at passing legislation to deal with the country’s most serious environmental issues. Since then, Ukraine has made additional progress to reverse decades of pollution and contamination

Now, just as Ukraine’s environmental movement has matured, with many organizations approximating the influence of those in the West, the unthinkable happened. First an invasion, and then Russian troops stormed the nuclear power plant in the city of Zaporizhzhia and took over the Chernobyl facility, including 22,000 spent reactor fuel assemblies and significant plutonium-239. The results could have been catastrophic and may still be. 

As the invasion continues, environmental crimes grow with damages that are extraordinary and purposeful. Russian missiles, targeting industrial facilities, have hit major fuel facilities spreading toxic pollutants, ash and slag in populated areas. The Russians targeted the Kyiv Reservoir and hydropower plant which would have flooded parts of Kyiv had it not been shot down.

Other targets include power supplies for farms, creating biohazards for towns and warehouses containing hazardous materials. Intentional bombing of water supplies, sewage systems and other facilities have devastated local populations. Russian troops attacked major seaports sinking ships and fuel storage facilities, creating widespread contamination. Over a dozen globally important “Ramsar” wetlands, forests, protected areas, homes to endangered and threatened species have suffered grave impacts. Forest fires are now closing in on Chernobyl, once again raising fears. Close to two decades of progress has been wiped out in a few weeks. 

Russia’s invasion has violated dozens of Ukrainian laws, including many criminal provisions, along with treaties and global norms. The violations of dozens of global treaties include:

Iryna Stavchuk, Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, agrees, telling the world’s leaders last week that Russia’s war is “a clear violation of international law, human rights, environmental and nuclear security, and global peace,” which could lead to “a global environmental catastrophe.”  

These crimes and treaty violations will once again result in tragedy for the living and future generations in Ukraine. The global financial costs of this willful wanton destruction will be huge, costly billions of dollars in additional costs, reducing the economic and health recovery for Ukrainians. Looking back on Earth Day 2005, when the legacy of environmental assault suddenly could be vanquished, replaced by the jubilance of a country celebrating a new orange and green era that included political freedom, accountability, and environmental progress — those memories, that promise, and decades of progress are on the minds of everyone who cares about Ukraine, its people and the planet.

Natalia Boiarchuk is co-founder of Earth Day Ukraine.

Kathleen Rogers is president of EARTHDAY.ORG.