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21 May 2022

How Vladimir Putin weaponised the environment in Ukraine

The Russian army has burned forests and poisoned water supplies, flouting international law. As the UN draws up new guidelines, is it possible to wage an “eco” war?

By Philippa Nuttall

The purple shoots of spring meadow saffron are usually a welcome sign of spring in Ukraine. This year the rare flowers lie crushed, destroyed by Russian tanks.

It might seem absurd to talk about flowers when men, women and children are being murdered and raped. But Russia is also waging an environmental war, and this casual destruction of a protected species is only one symptom. By their very nature, wars will always be environmentally damaging. However, there is a clear distinction between inadvertently harming an ecology, and its deliberate destruction or intentional weaponisation for strategic gain. Observers report that Russia has targeted the environment as part of its campaign of violence in Ukraine. For example, during recent fighting at Chernobyl – the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, now a protected biosphere – around 15,000 hectares of forest were deliberately burned. Several hundred units of military equipment were destroyed and abandoned, poisoning ecosystems with waste.

Environmental degradation has been ongoing since Moscow invaded the Donbas in 2014. In this heavily industrialised region pollution was already a problem, but one that has been accelerated by war. For instance, when a coal mine ceases to operate, water must be pumped out to prevent flooding and water contamination. Electricity supply cuts caused by the conflict have prevented this in the Donbas, prompting fears that heavy metals are contaminating water supplies and the soil.

Since the more recent Russian invasion that began on 24 February 2022, government officials and NGOs have recorded further actions that endanger Ukraine’s environment and long-term human health: explosions in thermal power plants; the mining of water reservoirs; the occupation of hydro and nuclear power stations; the destruction of gas pipelines and explosions in oil depots.

The argument that protecting the environment during a war is a “luxury”, is misguided, says Carl Bruch of the US Environmental Law Institute. “If there is no access to clean water, lives are cut short. Toxic substances in the water or the soil can cause long-term destabilisation. The destruction may not be as dramatic as the killing of people, but a healthy environment is critically important to long-term peace.” Bruch points to the growing trend of countries waging environmental war by targeting water infrastructure – in Yemen, Pakistan and Ukraine – as particularly disturbing. “Because nobody is being held accountable, this is being perceived as an acceptable tactic.”

Marie Jacobsson, an international law adviser at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, concurs. “Protecting civilians comes first, but if the environment is seriously or irreparably damaged, society can never be rebuilt in a proper way. How can you grow crops in contaminated areas?”

In addition to these attacks on infrastructure, at least 44 per cent of Ukraine’s national parks and nature reserves have suffered damage. The total may be higher, says Oleksiy Vasyliuk of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, but measuring the full extent of the devastation is impossible. “Nobody is disseminating information in detail now – it is forbidden because it can help the invaders. Russians are deliberately hunting down national park staff, claiming they are Nazis.” Vasyliuk was forced to flee Vasylkiv, a city 20 miles outside Kyiv, and is now in Lviv in western Ukraine. National park workers attempting to flee occupied territories “risk being abducted or shot as officials or activists,” he says.

One of the most important national parks is Meotyda, which surrounds the besieged city of Mariupol. This corner of the Donbas is a nesting place for many species of birds whose habitats are under threat, including the Dalmatian pelican with its impressive three-metre wingspan and 45cm long bill; and the Pallas, or great black-headed gull, the third biggest gull in the world. As well as damage caused by heavy machinery and tanks, national parks such as Meotyda have seen the construction of trenches and fortifications, explosions and the planting of mines.

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Some of Ukraine’s most endangered animals live in the Emerald Network — a pan-European set of protected sites, where the breeding season is now underway. The glorious marbled polecat, with its black and white striped face, and yellow-and-brown spotted back is a rare sight in Europe, and should be safe here; now all of its Ukrainian habitat is a warzone.

The Emerald Network is also home to Ukraine’s wetlands. Protected under the international Ramsar Convention, these habitats are the world’s most threatened ecosystem, disappearing three times faster than forests; they are increasingly threatened by agricultural practices and climate change. Now, they are the scene of active battles. One site – Dzharylhach, a 56 kilometre-square sand bank in the Black Sea near Crimea – is home to deer, wild boar, hares and foxes, as well as endangered grasses. Today, says Vasyliuk, the island “is mined all over with anti-personnel and anti-tank devices”.

The environmental cost of the war can’t be counted until it is over and Ukraine’s battlefields de-mined. Meanwhile NGOs are gathering what information they can, with a view to building a case for future reparations. “I want Russia to pay for all the crimes it has committed since 2014 in Ukraine,” says Yevheniia Zasiadko, the head of climate at the Centre for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction. She advocates “full reparations for destroyed lives, infrastructure and the environment. The price should be so high that they can no longer attack anybody in the future.”

Holding Russia to account matters when the damage is intentional rather than collateral, argues Vasyliuk. He cites the burning of forests around Chernobyl as one example, and the detonation of an ammonia storage facility, after the Russians failed to capture the city of Sumy in north-eastern Ukraine, as another. This was “comparable to the use of chemical weapons,” Vasyliuk says. “More than 60 oil depots and fuel storage facilities have been blown up near big cities” with the intention to stop Ukranians having access to fuel and to ensure unprecedented levels of air pollution, he states.

Is it possible to wage an “eco war”? The UN believes so, and is currently finalising 28 principles based on existing international law, following ten years of consultation with more than 40 experts. The guidelines are intended to inhibit the ecological destructiveness of war and should be signed off at the UN General Assembly this autumn. They set out how countries should behave before, during and after conflict to reduce their impact on the environment. “Protecting the environment is a core obligation of the modern state,” says Marja Lehto, the rapporteur on the dossier since 2016 and an international law adviser at Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

The draft principles under consideration by the UN International Law Commission insist that a state harming the environment during armed conflict is obliged to pay full reparations. The wording is important as it “recognises pure environmental damage as compensable, without requiring [it] to be caused to persons or the economy,” states Lehto. The principles are also clear that an occupying power, such as Russia in several areas of Ukraine, has an obligation of vigilance, and is responsible for acts that violate international rules, including environmental law, even when committed by individuals or companies that are not part of the occupying forces.

The call to protect nature when fighting wars is as old as the Bible. Deuteronomy 20:19 states that: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” 

The first steps towards legislation that would protect the environment in times of conflict came in the 1970s. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which publicised the devastating effects of synthetic chemicals on nature, ignited the modern environment movement, leading to a wave of environmental laws in the US, and readied the scene for change. At the same time, the US was fighting a war in Vietnam. For ten years, from 1961 to 1971, its military liberally sprayed forests and crops with the herbicide Agent Orange, at up to 20 times the concentration recommended by manufacturers. The aim was to defoliate trees and shrubs, and to cut off food supplies for opposition forces. But Agent Orange contained dioxin – a highly toxic substance that does not degrade easily. An estimated three million Vietnamese people have had their health affected by Agent Oange; at least 150,000 children were born with serious birth defects.

In response, the UN developed two multilateral treaties, including adding a protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention. These treaties seek to use international humanitarian law to balance the waging of war with the protection of people and the environment. Further guidelines were drawn up in 1990, after the systematic destruction of Kuwaiti oil wells by retreating Iraqi troops prompted an environmental catastrophe. The first Iraq war was also the one of the first heavily televised conflict, and showed the world the impact of weaponising the environment, with fires burning in the desert for months.

While Russia continues to flout international law, those close to the current UN negotiations insist their guidelines are a sign of progress, bringing environmental protection during war under one umbrella. “Before a war, the military is under an obligation to educate soldiers,” says Sweden’s Marie Jacobsson, who was the rapporteur on the UN guidelines from 2013 to 2016. “This includes [teaching them] how to protect civilian infrastructure, ensure that dams, dykes and nuclear electrical generating stations are not attacked, and that care is taken to protect the natural environment.”

But at the insistence of some countries, including the UK, the UN’s guidelines will remain non-binding. “There are persistent objections from countries such as the US, the UK and France, who don’t recognise some of the environmental provisions of international humanitarian law because they want the freedom to use nuclear weapons,” says Doug Weir of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, a UK-based NGO. “It is difficult to unleash nuclear weapons without causing significant amounts of environmental damage.”

In general though, the issue is being taken more seriously by many countries, he adds. “Wars will always be environmentally damaging, and we are far from reaching the point where states take the actions necessary to minimise harm. But there is growing interest in the environmental dimensions of conflicts, especially in the risks related to climate change.”

Increasing numbers of armies are trying to limit their environmental footprint by, for example, reducing their energy use and the waste produced during conflict. A 2019 report found that the US Department of Defense is the largest consumer of energy in the country, the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum, and the world’s largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. The US army took a small step forward in February this year, publishing its first climate strategy: this aims to halve emissions by 2030, electrify non-combat vehicles by 2035, and power missions by renewable energy.

However, while the war in Ukraine could prompt the transition to a global clean energy economy as European countries attempt to wean themselves off Russian fossil fuels, Moscow’s invasion per se is not good news for climate action. Its heightening of geopolitical tensions will inhibit transnational cooperation on issues such as climate change and is being used to justify large boosts to defence expenditure, in Europe and the US, which is bad news for the environment. Military operations, army bases and exercises, and the production of arms are all huge emitters of greenhouse gases. The US special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, has warned that a long war would undermine efforts to limit global warming and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Meanwhile Carl Bruch points to conflicts where humans have committed terrible atrocities against one another, while honouring a tacit agreement not to weaponise nature. “In the 1994 genocide during the Rwandan civil war, there was widespread protection of the mountain gorillas,” he says. “One gorilla was killed by a soldier who saw something in the woods, panicked and shot. But apart from that, all sides saw the gorillas as part of the country’s patrimony that should be left in peace.”

The Farc, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, adopted a similar approach, Bruch explains. “It carried out many atrocities, but enforced the protection of the forest with guns. No-one was allowed to cut trees without approval.” While their primary motivation was almost certainly not ecological – protecting forests made it easier for the guerrillas to hide – some Farc commanders also prohibited animal trafficking, overfishing and even placing cocaine labs too close to rivers.

Can Russia be held accountable for the environmental damage it has wrought on Ukraine? Within two months of the end of the Iraq war, the UN Compensation Commission was created to help neighbouring states recover from the losses inflicted, and to repair environmental damage. About 2.7 million claims worth $352.5bn for loss of property, deaths, loss of natural resources, damage to public health and the environment were filed with the Commission. In 2005, $52.4bn worth of compensation was awarded and in February 2022, the UN Security Council announced that Iraq has fulfilled its international obligations to compensate the approximately 1.5 million successful claimants. But while Russia remains a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it is difficult to see how it can be held responsible in the same way: Moscow would simply veto any compensation committee.

But Bruch insists there are options. He points to the work of the International Criminal Court, and to the national criminal prosecutors who investigate war crimes. When it comes to Russia, there is plenty of money that could be released, he adds. “Frozen Russian assets, worth $100bn in the US alone, and those of Russian oligarchs, could provide compensation for environmental and other damages arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

It could even be possible to bring a case against Russia on the grounds of “ecocide,” suggests Heather Allansdottir, a visiting fellow at the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law at the University of Cambridge. While the term, generally taken to mean widespread or long-term harm to nature, is not – yet – enshrined in international law, instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights assert the right to a clean environment. (Russia, interestingly, has enshrined “ecocide” in its own national law.)

Allansdottir draws a parallel with so-called “urbicide”. Despite the extensive destruction of cities during the Second World War, the concept wasn’t awarded its own convention under international law at the time. But since the Nuremberg trials, cultural and urban destruction — for example after the war in former Yugoslavia — has been prosecuted as part of genocide, or as a crime against humanity. “Ecocide could be evoked if there is ever an international criminal trial of Putin and of others responsible for the acts committed in Ukraine,” says Allansdottir.

She argues that environmental destruction in Ukraine could be the trigger for wider legal change. “Just as the 1948 Convention of Genocide was born out of the Holocaust, a convention on ecocide could potentially be born out of the international legal reckoning of what has taken place in Ukraine. It could be the Nuremberg for Putin – whatever form that will take – that hastens momentum towards enshrining ecocide in international law.”

Amid the continuing devastation, there is the occasional glimmer of hope. The breaching of the Irpin dam at the end of February by Ukranian forces stopped the advance of Russian soldiers and tanks, and flooded 13,000 hectares of land that was previously drained by the Soviets in the 1960s. The area had been earmarked for construction; now there is a chance these wetlands will be restored – though it will be an uphill battle, with polluting tanks and military equipment now lying underwater. Such wounds are not easily healed. As Iryna Stavchuk, Ukraine’s deputy environment minister said last month, “Nature…is also being raped and tortured by the Russian invasion.”

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