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How Ukraine wants to make Russia pay for war’s environmental damage

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The destruction unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is vast — but Ukraine’s environment ministry is determined to chart the specific toll on the environment and amass evidence to eventually take Russia to court.

“It is crucial for us to record in detail and collect evidence to hold Russia accountable,” Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s environment minister, told POLITICO in an interview over Zoom.

Since the start of the war, Russian forces have hit chemical plants, oil depots, water facilities and even nuclear power plants as well as fields, forests and wildlife reserves. Those attacks have led to an increase in air, water and soil pollution that risk having 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 body, around 100 people are collecting evidence of environmental damage caused by Russia. They provide pictures, videos and satellite images, and travel to polluted areas, when possible, to collect samples.

Ukraine, which has formally applied for EU membership, wants to rebuild the country to meet the bloc’s environmental standards | Stephanie LeCocq/EPA-EFE

Sitting in his office in Kyiv, a Ukrainian flag and a map of the country behind him, Strilets said the ministry is working with law firms Baker McKenzie and Hogan Lovells to build solid cases. He added he is “fully aware that getting compensation for the damage to the environment from Russia can take years.”

According to the ministry’s count, which it publishes on its official website, Russian forces have committed 257 instances of environmental crime since the start of the war in Ukraine. It estimates the total damage at 204 billion hryvnia (€6.6 billion).

“This is probably one of the most environmentally documented conflicts,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), an NGO helping Ukrainian authorities collect data and put a price on the environmental damage. “And the Ukrainians are vigorously promoting environmental issues associated with the conflict.”

The government is actively calling on people to aid the effort, launching a mobile app — EcoZagroza, which means “environmental threat” — that people can use to upload pictures and videos of environmental damage they have witnessed. The app also displays statistics and information about radiation levels and air quality, among other indicators of environmental health.

Holding Russia accountable for damage done to the environment is not only a matter of principle for Strilets, but a potential source of financing for rebuilding the country and restoring nature after the war.

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 facilities were polluting the Ukrainian environment … but we will use the best available technologies to rebuild the destroyed infrastructures,” he said.

Legal challenges

Ukraine’s legal options for pursuing the cases it’s building are limited.

In between two loud air raid warnings, Strilets said Ukraine plans on prosecuting the Russian military for environmental crimes through its national courts. Ukraine’s criminal code includes ecocide — a term used to describe the deliberate and systemic destruction of ecosystems.

But proving an attack constitutes ecocide or an environmental crime is not straightforward.

To be labeled a crime, environmental damage must be severe, widespread, long-term and intentional, which is “really difficult to prove in international courts,” according to Anna Ackermann, co-founder of the NGO Ecoaction Ukraine, which monitors cases of environmental damage in the country. That’s particularly true when it comes to proving that “the intent was to harm the environment.”

Another big challenge is “determining what has been caused by the conflict and what was preexisting pollution,” said Weir, the CEOBS researcher.

Ukraine’s options in international courts are few, according to Weir. “There’s very little precedent for this,” he said, pointing to just one example: a U.N. 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 effort to set up a similar commission to tackle the damage of the war in Ukraine.

In a letter, Ukrainian MPs called on the U.N. General Assembly to create a “special environmental monitoring mission” | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, a group of Ukrainian MPs sent a letter to the U.N. General Assembly — which comprises all member states — calling on it to create a “special environmental monitoring mission” tasked with verifying environmental losses and crimes in Ukraine and a special environmental court to prosecute those crimes.

That push is unlikely to succeed and risks setting “a fairly dangerous precedent” for Western powers, Weir added, because it could potentially open the door to the creation of independent tribunals for other ongoing or past conflicts.

Ukraine has no recourse at the International Criminal Court as the court doesn’t deal with environmental crime and doesn’t recognize the crime of ecocide, despite a push by Western countries to expand the court’s mandate.

Strilets said Ukraine also intends to “bring lawsuits to the national courts of foreign countries to freeze Russia’s assets” and try to seize these assets — such as foreign currency reserves, which have been frozen as a result of international sanction — to help pay for repairing the damage wrought by the war.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the minister’s name. It is Ruslan Strilets. It also corrects the monetary amount of estimated environmental damage to 204 billion hryvnia (€6.6 billion).

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