The Kremlin’s “ecocide” is the Putin regime’s crime against Earth
The war in Ukraine has brought attention to many pressing humanitarian issues in the country. Despite this, the conflict’s effects on the environment have not been discussed at length. Russia’s actions in Ukraine could well set a legal precedent for “ecocide” in international law.
Whilst the Russian occupiers are committing numerous war crimes in Ukraine today, the international community should pay particular attention to those actions that can be classified as an “ecocide”. Here, we are talking about the mass extermination of biota and poisoning of water resources and air. Naturally, this is leading to an environmental catastrophe. Damaging ecosystems as a result of hostilities can be classified as military ecocide. One particular danger is the nuclear threat that could be made by the Kremlin’s militaristic despot and war criminal from his bunker.
The nuclear “powder keg” of the war in Ukraine
The occupier captured the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the first days of the war and later the complex in Zaporizhzhia. This second plant is the largest in Europe. Power lines in the exclusion zone have been repeatedly shut down and the aggressor has not even allowed repair crews to access these fixtures. It should be noted that an uninterrupted power supply to Chernobyl is required for the stable cooling of the spent nuclear assemblies (a total of 22,000 of them are buried in the zone). In the absence of electricity, diesel generators are turned on, the operation of which lasts for 48 hours. After that, the temperature in the holding pools rises alongside the potential release of radioactive substances into the environment. There is also an accumulation of radioactive hydrogen, which can lead to an explosion. The staff at the station, knowing that the Russian occupier does not allow rotations, have been working on the verge of physical and mental exhaustion for more than three weeks. There have been no opportunities for the repair and maintenance of equipment.
The detonation of shells and mines does not stop around the captured Zaporizhzhia plant. The coastal part of the area was mined by the occupier himself. Russian strikes destroyed the plant’s training centre and damaged the high-voltage power line, which reduced the capacity of the complex’s power units. In Kharkiv, which is suffering under continuous shelling and destruction by Russian missiles, the nuclear research facility “Neutron Source” (containing 37 nuclear fuel cells) has been de-energised and put into critical operation. Ukrainian military intelligence reports that there is a danger of terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants.
Ecocide: what does international law say?
According to Evhen Tsybulenko, a professor of international law at Tallinn University of Technology, there is currently no definition of ecocide as a global crime. In 2021, lawyers tried to include this concept in the Rome Statute (according to which the International Criminal Court in The Hague operates), defining it as “illegal or unjustified acts committed with the knowledge that such actions are likely to cause serious and large-scale or long-term environment damage”. However, the initiative failed. At the same time, an attack on nuclear facilities can be classified as a war crime under the Rome Statute, as such an attack could cause extensive and long-term damage to the environment. This is clearly disproportionate to the expected military advantage gained from such an action. Russia has violated the Additional Protocol (Protocol 1) of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which states that dams and nuclear power plants must not be attacked, even if they are military facilities. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolutions indicate that an armed attack on such facilities could result in severe radioactive releases inside and outside the affected country. This would create a situation in which the United Nations Security Council would have to act immediately in accordance with the provisions of the UN Charter. Such criminal acts of the aggressor are in violation of international humanitarian law and agreements such as the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management, the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident, the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. It is possible that the Russian occupier’s barbaric actions will set a precedent that will lead to changes in international law regarding the definition and implementation of mechanisms regarding ecocide.
Attacks on nuclear facilities in Ukraine are direct evidence of Russia’s nuclear terrorism!
The danger with nuclear energy is that if it gets out of control, the scale of the catastrophe will also be difficult to control. This may affect not only the population of Ukraine, but also people in Russia and Belarus depending on the geography of the nuclear facility. A nuclear accident could also cause a catastrophe on a European scale. At the time of the terrible Chernobyl tragedy of 1986, the radiation background was 200 times higher in Sweden, 1,400 kilometres from the epicentre.
The aggressor violated almost all IAEA principles, from the safety of personnel to the shelling of nuclear infrastructure. However, the international organisation has so far remained quite restrained in its reaction. Currently, it appears that the body may be preparing a bilateral agreement with Ukraine on nuclear safety. Ukraine’s call for the creation of 30 kilometre safety zones around nuclear power plants was not heard. The Ukrainian authorities also demand that the members of the United Nations Security Council must take immediate measures to demilitarize the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl NPP. At the same time, representatives of Rosatom are present at the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia plants, which are more widely controlled by the Russian army.
Coalition Energy Transition, on behalf of the Ukrainian NGOs Ekodia, Ekoltava, Ecoclub, Khmelnytskyi Energy Cluster, All-Ukrainian Agency for Investment and Sustainable Development, PravoPolis and the city of Mykolaiv addressed open letters to the EU, member governments, the United States and other cooperating countries in the field of nuclear energy. These called for an end to all cooperation with Rosatom and its subsidiaries and the imposition of sanctions against the holding and its management, as well as a ban on imports of Russian nuclear fuel.
Military action cannot be carried out around peaceful nuclear facilities, as well as thermal and hydroelectric power plants (the occupier recently captured the Kakhovka HPP). Active battles involving the widespread use of artillery and aircraft reveal other issues concerning environmental disturbance. This is especially noticeable in the Donbas. Ecologically dangerous enterprises are concentrated in the region, such as the Avdiivka Coke Plant and Dzerzhinsk Ferroalloy Plant. These facilities possess tailings storage facilities for liquid industrial waste, slag dumps, and, after 2014, flooded mines. The intensification of hostilities in 2022 and the occupation administrations’ complete lack of control over such dangerous facilities pose potential threats that could have consequences for several generations. The Azovstal plant has been damaged during the siege of Ukraine-controlled Mariupol. There, the occupiers are committing a real act of genocide. However, the facility was protected in advance, preventing a possible environmental catastrophe.
The conflict is causing pollution issues in relation to the air, soil and rivers that flow into the Black Sea. At the same time, biodiversity loss and threats of uncontrolled fires (especially in dangerous peatlands and the Chernobyl zone) are other consequences of Putin’s aggression. As a result, Ukraine will in no way be able to meet its climate policy targets set out for 2030. The international community must take these factors into account, both in its efforts to end the war by all possible means and in helping to rebuild Ukraine after it in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. These are crimes against Earth, and therefore the opposition to the aggressor must be appropriate.
Pavlo Lodyn is a political scientist and Executive Director of the Center for Political Narratives of Democracy, a Ukraine-based NGO that is researching international issues. He is also a graduate of the Eastern Summer School of SEW (2016). His interests focus on international processes in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the Ukraine correspondent for the portal Obserwator Międzynarodowy.
This article is based on materials from, and in consultation with, experts of the NGO “Center for Environmental Initiatives Ekodia”, Ukraine. Those who helped with the piece include Head of the Climate Department Evgenia Zasiadko, climate change adaptation expert Oksana Omelchuk, Green Investment Specialist Viktoriia-Anna Oliinyk, and energy policy expert Oksana Ananyeva.
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