Ukraine: Kakhovska dam destruction is part of the climate emergency

The world must recognise that Russian imperialism, climate breakdown and capitalism are linked

The destruction of Ukraine’s Kakhovska dam, which evidence suggests was the work of Russian forces, highlights a problem with capitalist society: not being able to see the whole picture.

Capitalism fragments information and knowledge into separate categories: climate breakdown, Russia’s war on Ukraine, legacies of colonialism.

These categories compartmentalise different acts of violence, making them separate. Take a look at the “climate” sections of major news outlets and you can see that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not part of these conversations.

But in reality, the global climate emergency and Russian imperialism are deeply entangled – and it’s time to see them as such.

In the past year, major environmental organisations such as Greenpeace have taken a stance against fossil fuel extraction and petrocapitalism, which have allowed Russia to maintain and expand its empire for years. But that’s not enough today.

The destruction of the Kakhovska dam has caused massive damage, flooding homes and habitats, killing animals, plants and insects en masse. It has contaminated water, washed away landmines and other explosive weapons, and posed a new threat to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. So far, evidence points strongly in favour of an explosion.

The flooding has also impacted protected areas that are part of the transnational Emerald Network, including several national nature parks: Velykyi Luh (which remains illegally occupied by Russia), Kam’ianska Sich and Nyzhniodniprovskyi.

This will severely damage biodiversity in Ukraine and contribute to the sixth mass extinction of species globally.

Russia is guilty of ecocide

The destruction in the Kherson region joins a growing number of incidents of deliberate or negligent environmental destruction by Russian forces, which are currently under investigation by Ukrainian prosecutors under the charge of ecocide.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court does not list ecocide as an international crime, but it is part of Ukraine’s criminal code – and Ukraine can set an international precedent by holding Russia accountable for environmental harm.

Other examples of ecocide include another incident in the Kherson region: in March 2002, almost four million birds died at a poultry farm in Chornobayivka that came under massive Russian shelling. That same month, there was a Russian missile attack on an oil depot in the Rivne region.

Beyond the environmental destruction at Kakhovska, Russia has prevented or obstructed the evacuation of civilians from the Russian-occupied southern bank of the Dnipro river (Ukraine controls the northern bank). Ukraine-controlled territory has been attacked by Russian missiles, as rescue teams and volunteers try to evacuate people and animals from the flood zone. Some rescuers have been attacked and killed.

Repeated warnings

Ukraine previously warned the international community about the risk of the destruction of the Kakhovska dam. On 20 October 2022, president Volodymyr Zelenskyi addressed the European Council. “If Russian terrorists blow up this dam,” he said, “more than 80 settlements, including Kherson, will be in the zone of rapid flooding. Hundreds, hundreds of thousands of people may be affected.”

Ukraine has also sent repeated warnings about the risk of an explosion at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which has been under Russian occupation since March 2022. Last month, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, warned that the plant’s situation is “potentially dangerous”.

Russia continues to target hazardous infrastructure. Just last week, it repeatedly shelled an ammonia pipeline (the world’s longest), which would cause severe environmental damage if any ammonia was released.

Russia has clearly indicated its intention to kill Ukrainians and destroy Ukrainian habitats by any means, including ecocide

It is important that the world listens to these warnings and takes them seriously. Ukrainians are not speaking from a space of abstraction. These warnings come from lived experience, including the memory of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Russia has clearly indicated its intention to kill Ukrainians and destroy Ukrainian habitats by any means, including ecocide.

Environmental organisations globally must take urgent action in support of Ukraine and against Russian colonial violence. It is not enough to just lobby against fossil fuel extraction; we must recognise that the end of Russian imperialism is key to the struggle for climate justice. Ukrainian environmental activists have spoken about the increase in CO2 emissions caused by the Russian invasion.

If climate emergency initiatives only remember Ukraine in relation to the global food crisis and crop shortages (the destruction of the Kakhovska dam has further damaged the country’s agricultural sector) or the impact the war has had on the global fossil fuel economy, but remain silent and inactive when Ukrainians are killed by flooding and shelling, they are complicit in Russia’s invasion.

Environmental organisations should be more proactive. They should stand in solidarity with Ukraine by protesting, demanding full support from their governments and international organisations, demanding that rescue teams are sent, and organising donation drives. Today is already too late; there is really no time left.