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Updated Dec 8, 2023, 2:18pm EST
net zero

Ukraine’s COP28 mission: Punish Russia’s ‘environmental war crimes’

REUTERS/Vladyslav Musiienko
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The Scene

Ukraine’s pavilion at COP28 is dominated by a sloping red tile roof, propped up on display near the door. The roof is a century old, and once topped a house near the Kakhovka Dam, which was destroyed by the Russian military in June. The house was one of more than 3,000 destroyed when the dam’s reservoir spilled out, and its roof — shipped to Dubai in a custom-built container — is now stacked up here alongside dozens of burned timbers, corn husks, and canisters of soil.

These artifacts are evidence of the environmental toll of Russia’s invasion, Oleksii Riabchyn, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament and member of the country’s COP28 delegation, told U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and U.S. Agency for International Development director Samantha Power during a tour of the pavilion. “We’re here to raise inconvenient questions,” he said. “Who will pay for the damage to the dam? Who will pay for the carbon emitted in Ukraine because of the war?”

Ukraine’s mission at COP28 is a bit different than most. Like many, it is here to tout its clean energy accomplishments, including a $500 million expansion of wind farms just a few miles from the front line. But it is also in Dubai to promote an unprecedented campaign to hold Russia legally accountable for what top officials describe as environmental war crimes.

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“The environment should no longer be a silent victim of war,” Maksym Popov, a prosecutor leading the investigation, told me.

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Tim’s view

Ukraine’s effort presents a daunting task for prosecutors, both in terms of gathering evidence and in ultimately holding individual Russian military officers accountable. But it’s grounded firmly in international law, experts say, and may provide an opening for the International Criminal Court to more easily prosecute environmental damages in other future conflicts.

“The fact that Ukraine is committed to putting resources into accountability here is an opportunity to breathe life into underused provisions of international criminal law, and leave a legacy of protection for the environment,” said Kate Mackintosh, executive director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at the University of California-Los Angeles law school.

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A key reason why environmental war crimes charges haven’t been previously pursued in other conflicts is because most governments under siege have been unable or unwilling to document damages in real time, Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s environment minister, told Semafor. But because Kyiv views the destruction of its natural resources as an intentional strategy by Russia to undermine its economy, public health, and national identity, it is scrambling to document environmental impacts — the cost of which amounts to at least $60 billion, he said — even while juggling many other complications of the war. One of Strilets’ priorities at COP28, he said, is to share that methodology with other countries and build support for international prosecutions.

“We don’t want to lose any information about this war, because it’s absolutely impossible to get the reparations from the aggressor without correct data,” he said. “We want our methodologies to be concrete and to verify the bill we will give to Russia in the future.”

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Much of that task falls to Popov, who is leading what he called the largest team of federal investigators in the country’s history. The overarching goal, he said, is to show that Russia’s invasion has caused “widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment,” which is considered a war crime under the Geneva Convention. It entails compiling banks of soil samples from toxic contamination on farmland, working with ecologists to estimate the death of wildlife (including dolphins in the Black Sea killed by naval operations and endangered newts left stranded by the dam explosion), and mapping wetlands and forests trampled by tanks or destroyed by shelling. So far, Popov said, the team has identified more than 250 incidents it believes qualify as environmental war crimes.

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This work is challenging for a number of reasons, Popov said. The prosecutor’s office lacks scientific expertise and equipment, and has had to recruit university researchers to assist in the effort. Many of the damaged areas are either heavily mined, facing ongoing shelling, or under occupation. And as with any war crime prosecution, there is the challenge of identifying specific Russian military officers who ordered certain acts of destruction.

This work will take time, he said, probably years. Eventually, the plan is to bring cases within Ukraine — which allows defendants to stand trial in absentia, allowing the possibility of prosecutions without the extremely challenging step of arresting Russian officers — as well as European courts that hear international charges and the ICC. Representatives of the ICC’s field office in Ukraine have accompanied members of Popov’s team on data collection trips, he said, although an ICC spokesperson declined to comment on whether its prosecutor will bring charges.

Mackintosh said she thinks there’s a good chance they will, leveraging Ukraine’s investment into the investigation to set a precedent for future conflicts that’s in line with the spirit of COP28.

We think of the laws of war as protecting people,” she said. “But there’s a growing realization that there’s no separation between people and the environment, and this is filtering through to the laws of war.”

The arrest of Russian officers may be impossible as long as President Vladimir Putin remains in office. But past war crimes prosecutions have shown that patience can pay off, once defendants lose political protection in their home countries or travel to jurisdictions willing to extradite them.

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Room for Disagreement

Ukraine is also seeking reparations for war-related emissions — 150 million metric tons of CO2 from fuel consumption, building reconstruction, and deforestation, according to an estimate by researchers working with the Kyiv School of Economics this week. That may prove more challenging, as climate impacts are not explicitly covered by the Geneva Convention.

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The View From the Russian Pavilion

On the opposite side of the summit from the Ukraine pavilion, Russia’s pavilion made no mention of the war, and was basically an immersive ad for the state nuclear power company Rosatom. Staff at the pavilion declined to answer questions or to provide contact information for a press officer; messages to Yury Sentyurin, a Russian foreign ministry official on the COP28 delegation, were not returned. Putin visited the UAE for a few hours on Wednesday, but not the summit itself, instead meeting with President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi to discuss the oil market.

In a press conference at COP28 during Putin’s visit, Kerry paid him a backhanded compliment: “By virtue of what he’s done in Ukraine,” he said, “he single-handedly accelerated the energy transition in Europe more than anyone else.”

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Notable

  • The European Union is preparing to allow individual member states to block natural gas imports from Russia, the Financial Times reported. The bloc still gets about 10% of its gas from Russia, in part because existing law makes it difficult for European companies to extract themselves from contracts that pre-date the full-scale invasion.
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