Cover Image for War on the Environment

War on the Environment

This issue of the London Ukrainian Review examines Russia’s war on nature in Ukraine and its global repercussions. The editor Sasha Dovzhyk reflects on how Ukrainian and international responses to Russia’s wanton damage to the environment shape our present and future.

 

A decade since the start of Russia’s aggression, nonverbal records of violence are imprinted on the Ukrainian landscape: bomb craters burnt in the fertile black soil, forests contaminated with munitions, coal mines on the occupied territories flooded, rivers dried up, and agricultural lands swamped in the aftermath of dams’ destruction. Two years of Russia’s full-scale war turned Ukraine into the world’s largest minefield, roughly the size of Austria and Hungary combined. In the liberated Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions, which had been marked by active fighting, local people are advised not to think of entering a forest for the entirety of their lifetimes. Eerie and untouchable, the wounded nature has been made into a hazard.

In the essay ‘Vertical Occupation’, Svitlana Matviyenko probes the multidimensional character of the environmental damage Russia inflicts upon Ukraine. Rooted in imperialism, this devastation reaches as deep under the surface as the Russian-occupied flooded Yunkom coal mine, which was the site of a test nuclear explosion in 1979, and poses a threat to the whole Black Sea basin today; it spreads as uncontrollably as the nuclear terror amplified by the aggressor’s cyber warfare operations; it poisons not only our present but our future. In this perilous environment, Matviyenko argues, we should envision and call into being new ways of co-existence and care for our more-than-human communities.

Human and natural catastrophes mirror each other. The night after the funeral of Ukrainian writer, war crimes investigator, and victim of a Russian war crime, Victoria Amelina in Lviv, Russia struck the city with cruise missiles. In the morning, Amelina’s friend Kateryna Mikhalitsyna came to the site of the attack. She noticed the trees with their leaves torn off by the blast wave. ‘I stood by for a long time, stroking them. It was about the inexpressible pain for which there are no words, no sounds. It was also about the inevitability of bearing witness to Russia’s crimes because even trees here are part of it, not just people.’ Mikhalitsyna’s poems ‘(the fish speaks)’ and ‘(witnesses of war crimes)’ give voice to the speechless witnesses: the bird observing the agony brought by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, the house of the artist Polina Raiko uprooted by the flood, the fish mourning the dead, and the trees wounded by the explosion.

Justice must be served for the damage to the environment, and Ukrainians are determined to set a precedent. In a conversation with environmental policy analyst Anna Ackermann, the co-founder of Stop Ecocide, Jojo Mehta, explores how the impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has galvanised legal discussion. They focus on the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and its implications for the introduction of ecocide as the fifth crime of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Lessons from Ukraine were important for the legal thought behind two other international crimes in the Statute: crimes against humanity, which was advocated by Hersch Lauterpacht, and genocide, conceptualised by Raphael Lemkin. The two lawyers studied at Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv, western Ukraine (eastern Poland at the time), and lost their families in the Shoah. Their work was indispensable for shaping the system of human rights and international law in the middle of the twentieth century, the very system being put to the test by Russia’s crimes in Ukraine. While there is an urgent need to revise the international procedures and timeframes for serving justice for human victims of war crimes, we are simultaneously confronted with the immediate need to protect the rights of more-than-human communities. The devastation Russia wreaks on nature in Ukraine shows that legal mechanisms must be established to protect the environment in armed conflicts globally.

The theme of accountability resurfaces in Thammy Evans’s piece ‘The Ides of March: Ecocide in Ukraine’, which discusses rapid and influential developments in Ukrainian and international environmental legislation in response to Russia’s war on nature. While resisting the aggressor, Ukraine plans ambitiously for green recovery, and its pioneering initiatives advance the international understanding of our obligations towards the ecosystems that sustain us.

Exploring environmental themes in contemporary Ukrainian culture, Kateryna Iakovlenko’s essay ‘A Voice from Underground’ makes readers leap between the evocative text and thirty accompanying endnotes. Through the mentions of specific works and exhibitions, they detail Ukrainian artists’ responses to the mutilation of their landscapes. The back-and-forth movements make readers freeze over the abyss filled with the horror of the war. ‘[T]oday the word “movements” conjures military action’, Iakovlenko observes. ‘Now all artistic movements depend on the positions of military lines.’

Today, Ukrainian landscapes, ecosystems, and lives can only be protected with arms. It is only under Ukrainian control that safety can be restored at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, one of the two objects of civilian nuclear infrastructure Russia occupied in 2022, setting a dangerous precedent and making the world hostage to its nuclear blackmail. The other such object was the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in April 2022. The aggressor can be fought off and deterred. And although Ukrainian lands will remain, to use Matviyenko’s term, vertically occupied by the consequences of Russia’s reckless imperialist aggression, its horizontal spread can still be prevented. This is not just a responsibility for Ukraine but for the whole international community.

Kateryna Aliinyk’s series of illustrations Fruits we did not know commissioned by the London Ukrainian Review reveals nature’s wounds. We see twisted branches that bleed and disjointed roots reminiscent of barbed wire; things that decompose — or refuse to — underground and an atomic mushroom blooming on the horizon; underneath, a pair of eyes that could belong to a Byzantine icon or a human animal, meeting our gaze. Each day of turning a blind eye to Ukraine’s fight brings this future horizon closer to us.

The environment is a character that rarely takes centre stage in the so-perceived human tragedy of war. Rather than a mere backdrop against which people’s cruelty and virtue play out, nature is a key witness, victim, and weapon of modern military conflicts. Whether it will be a survivor is yet unclear.

 

 


London Ukrainian Review is published by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with the Institute for Human Sciences and Academic Studies Press.

This issue of the London Ukrainian Review has also been supported by the Culture of Solidarity Fund powered by the European Cultural Foundation, the Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland, the Delegation of Flanders (Embassy of Belgium) in the UK and Ireland, the Cyprus High Commission and EUNIC London (European Union National Institutes for Culture).


Cover Image for In Conversation: Stop Ecocide Co-Founder Jojo Mehta

In Conversation: Stop Ecocide Co-Founder Jojo Mehta

Jojo Mehta speaks about the addition of ecocide as the fifth international crime to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the impact of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on international legal discourse, and the significance of the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam for the debate.

Anna Ackermann
Cover Image for Poems: (the fish speaks), (witnesses of war crimes)

Poems: (the fish speaks), (witnesses of war crimes)

The bird observing the devastation brought by the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, the house of an artist uprooted by the flood, the trees stripped of their leaves by a blast wave: Kateryna Mikhali tsyna’s poems give them a voice so they can testify about Russia’s war crimes.

Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, trans. by Hanna Leliv