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The devastation unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is colossal – but Ukraine’s Environment Ministry is determined to map out the exact environmental pressures and gather evidence to eventually bring Russia to justice.
“It is crucial for us to record in detail and gather evidence to hold Russia accountable,” Ruslan Strelets, Ukraine’s environment minister, told POLITICO in an interview via Zoom.
Since the beginning of the war, Russian forces have attacked chemical plants, oil depots, water works and even nuclear power plants, as well as fields, forests and wildlife sanctuaries. These attacks have led to an increase in air, water and soil pollution that could have long-term negative effects on people’s health and the country’s economy.
As part of a special task force coordinated by the Ecological Inspectorate of Ukraine, a state agency, around 100 people are collecting evidence of environmental damage caused by Russia. They provide images, videos and satellite imagery and travel to polluted areas to collect samples whenever possible.
Sitting in his Kyiv office, behind him a Ukrainian flag and a map of the country, Strelets said the ministry is working with law firms Baker McKenzie and Hogan Lovells to build solid cases. He added that he was “fully aware that obtaining compensation for the environmental damage from Russia could take years.”
According to the ministry’s tally, which it publishes on its official website, Russian forces have committed 257 cases of environmental crime since the start of the war in Ukraine. She estimates the total damage at 13.2 billion hryvnia (4.2 billion euros).
“This is probably one of the best ecologically documented conflicts,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), an NGO that helps Ukrainian authorities collect data and quantify environmental damage. “And Ukrainians are vigorously promoting environmental issues related to the conflict.”
The government is actively calling on people to support the effort by launching a mobile app – EcoZagroza, which means “environmental threat” – that will allow people to upload pictures and videos of environmental damage they have witnessed. The app also displays statistics and information on radiation levels and air quality, among other environmental health indicators.
Holding Russia accountable for environmental damage is not just a matter of policy for Strelets, but a potential source of funding for post-war reconstruction of the country and restoration of nature.
Ukraine, which has formally applied for EU membership, wants to rebuild the country to meet the bloc’s environmental standards, the minister said.
“For many years, large industrial plants have been polluting Ukraine’s environment… but we will use the best available technologies to rebuild the destroyed infrastructures,” he said.
Ukraine’s legal options to pursue the cases it has built up are limited.
Between two loud air raid warnings, Strelets said Ukraine plans to prosecute the Russian military for environmental crimes through its national courts. The Ukrainian Penal Code includes ecocide – a term used to describe the deliberate and systematic destruction of ecosystems.
However, it is not easy to prove that an attack constitutes ecocide or an environmental crime.
To be classified as a crime, environmental damage must be serious, widespread, long-term and premeditated, which according to Anna Ackermann, co-founder of the NGO Ecoaction Ukraine, which oversees cases of, “is really difficult to prove in international courts”. environmental damage in the country. This is particularly true when it comes to proving that “there was an intention to harm the environment”.
Another major challenge is “to determine what was caused by the conflict and what was pre-existing pollution,” said Weir, the CEOBS researcher.
According to Weir, Ukraine has few options in international courts. “There is hardly any precedent for this,” he said, citing just one example: a UN compensation commission set up by the Security Council after the 1991 Gulf War.
Russia’s seat on the Security Council means it can veto any attempt to set up a similar commission to deal with the damage of the war in Ukraine.
Earlier this month, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers sent a letter to the UN General Assembly – which includes all member states – urging them to set up a “special environmental monitoring mission” tasked with reviewing environmental damage and crimes in Ukraine and a special court for Environmental Affairs is tasked with prosecuting these crimes.
This push is unlikely to succeed and risks setting a “rather dangerous precedent” for Western powers, Weir added, because it could potentially open the door to creating independent tribunals for other ongoing or past conflicts.
Ukraine has no way of appealing to the International Criminal Court because the court does not deal with environmental crimes and does not recognize the crime of ecocide, despite a push by Western countries to expand the court’s mandate.
Strelets said Ukraine also intends to “file lawsuits in foreign national courts to freeze Russia’s assets” and seek to seize those assets — such as foreign exchange reserves that have been frozen due to international sanctions — to pay for the repairs damage caused by the war.
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