On the first day of its full-scale invasion, Russian forces captured Chernobyl. Photo: Isabel Hilton

Traces of war

From Chernobyl to Odesa Oblast, Ukrainians are gathering evidence of what they say are Russian war crimes—not only against their compatriots, but against the environment itself
March 22, 2024

The final instructions before going through the last of several doors were direct. “All protective clothing must be in place before entering the reactor. If you drop something on the floor, don’t pick it up.” We were a small group of visitors to Chernobyl, once the site of Ukraine’s largest group of nuclear reactors—and the world’s worst nuclear accident. The final door opened into the building that housed reactor Number 4, which exploded with deadly consequences on 25th April 1986. Today, the entire building is encased in the world’s largest man-made mobile structure, a steel containment dome that was moved into place in 2016 and is big enough to house the Statue of Liberty.

When the building was constructed, the reactor’s Soviet designers had claimed that their design was so safe that it did not need a protective cover, but the force of the explosion blew radioactive material through the roof, releasing a radioactive plume that spread rapidly in the wind. Moscow said nothing about the disaster until a surge in radiation levels in Sweden forced the admission. Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, hundreds of firefighters and plant workers were fighting a desperate battle to contain the disaster and prevent a second, larger explosion. Few of the first responders survived.

Today the dead power station sits inside a high-radiation area that is 10km in radius, and a wider 30km exclusion zone. The access road through the forest boasts a series of roadblocks and military checkpoints—the latter a consequence of Russia’s invasion—a landscape of scattered abandoned villages and small farms, an area now the preserve of antelope, lynx and other animals. 

Near the silent plant, rusting gantries support networks of snaking steel pipes, while radiating pylons still carry dead transmission lines out from what was once Ukraine’s biggest source of energy. One suggestion for the future is to build a utility-scale renewable energy plant here, to produce high volumes of clean energy on land that will not be safe for human habitation for 1,000 years, repurposing the existing distribution infrastructure and offering Chernobyl a symbolic post-disaster rehabilitation. 

The forest is reclaiming what was once the model town of Pripyat, built to house the power plant’s young workforce and their families. They were given only hours to evacuate after radiation levels shot up, and were told they would be back in three days. They never returned. A dilapidated Ferris wheel with rusting orange pods was part of a planned amusement park that was fated never to open. The remains of a hotel overlook the main square, its flat roof once the landing pad for the helicopters that were deployed to drop sand into the blazing reactor. Like the rest of the town, the hotel is a bleak, abandoned ruin.

Two convoys of Russian armoured vehicles entered Ukraine from Belarus and barrelled south along the exclusion zone road, scattering radioactive dust

Today, some 1,000 personnel still visit the site, continuing the work of decontamination and nuclear waste storage. They rotate every 15 days, sleeping in dormitories in the nearby settlement of Chernobyl. The plant itself has its own rotating maintenance, monitoring and decommissioning teams, many of whom live on the other side of the nearby Dnipro River in Belarus, commuting to work by train. 

These were the workers who were waiting to change shifts on the morning of 24th February 2022, when two convoys of Russian armoured vehicles entered Ukraine from Belarus and barrelled south along the exclusion zone road, scattering radioactive dust as they drove and sending contamination levels soaring. The railway bridge across the river was blown up; workers due for the next shift would not arrive. What was once a 40-minute commute now takes six hours. It would be several weeks before the workers trapped at the plant that morning saw their homes again.

The Russians were finally driven out of Chernobyl in April 2022, but they left booby traps in the derelict apartments of Pripyat and the power station itself, thousands of land mines in the exclusion zone and a series of trenches dug in the notoriously contaminated Red Forest. 

They also stole everything of value that could be carried away, including computers, monitoring equipment and personal items they found in the workers’ dormitories. “They took my jackets and shoes, and my favourite perfume,” one worker tells me. “They took my red high-heeled shoes,” says another. “How can we imagine that they are so poor?”

In a snow-covered clearing on the edge of Ivankiv, just outside the exclusion zone, Viktor Bushkov, an official of Ukraine’s forestry service, also grapples with the legacy of the occupation. Shattered buildings testify to the violence, but the land mines in the forest, which he manages, are his biggest preoccupation. And like thousands of people in Ukraine, from officials to journalists and citizen volunteers, he is measuring and monitoring, painstakingly collecting evidence of the environmental damage that Russia has left behind, in the hope of adding crimes against the environment to the list of charges for which Russia might one day be held accountable. 

Ukraine is home to 35 per cent of Europe’s biodiversity. Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, its military actions in Crimea and the Donbas from 2013 had heavily impacted some of Ukraine’s most important protected areas. In the Donbas alone, 78 nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and landscape parks have been damaged, 50 protected areas have suffered fires and 29 have been directly affected by hostilities. 

Today the hope of environmental recovery is aligned with Ukraine’s desire for a European rather than a Russian future. Meeting the European Union’s environment and climate rules, and documenting Russia’s environmental crimes for prosecution, are tasks that have assumed both practical and symbolic significance. A restored and protected environment symbolises a free and liveable future. The staff of Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine’s environment minister, are -busily rewriting the country’s laws and regulations to bring them in line with the EU. Strilets tells me: “Yes, we need to work 24/7, but I want my kids to live in a European country. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.” 

On the wall in a corridor in his ministry, a series of panels lists the names and dates of casualties, colleagues from the ministry or forestry management killed in the war. It is a grim reminder of the human as well as the environmental cost of the war. Ukraine hopes to win justice for both. 

In November 2022, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky listed the prosecution of war crimes and the remediation of ecological damage caused by the war in his 10-point peace plan. One result was that a high-level working group on the environmental consequences of the war was set up, co-chaired by Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, and former Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström. Among the group’s recommendations were several proposals on building capacity to document environmental crimes and collect evidence for future legal proceedings.

“Our biggest challenge,” Strilets explains, “is to find the correct data. Our environment inspectors are working in unsafe situations, and I am really proud of these people who work in the war zone, collecting data every morning after nights of rocket attacks.”

Chernobyl and its poisoned surroundings were already notorious, but catastrophic war damage is now evident elsewhere, including in the surroundings of the Kakhovka Dam at the very southern end of the Dnipro, in Kherson Oblast, which was breached on 6th June 2023. 

The dam was built as a Soviet project to provide both power and irrigation, boosting Ukraine’s agricultural production. Completed in 1956, the construction caused extensive suffering and loss, with 3,000 villages and towns and 2,500 churches flooded and some three million people forced to move to make way for the dam and its storage lake. 

Its destruction was equally brutal: Kakhovka was under the control of Russian forces when an explosion blew a large hole in the retaining wall. Millions of tonnes of water drained out over three days in a catastrophe that swept away villages, roads and bridges, and deposited toxic sludge over vast areas of farmland. More than 37,000 homes were affected. Houses, furniture and animals were carried downstream as far as Odesa Oblast to the west; a breeding station for critically endangered sturgeon was wiped out and the ecology of the region was altered forever. 

An aerial shot of the remains of the Kakhova Dam and the flooded landscape The war’s southern frontline hugs the Dnipro river. When the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed, the deluge lasted for days. Photo: AP Photo

One of the long-term effects, ironically, was to leave people across large areas deprived of their water supply, as Hanna Mamonova, a journalist and filmmaker who has spent months documenting the impacts, explains. “It was one of the largest dams and the largest canal in Europe,” she says. “It brought water to southern Ukraine and Crimea. Now hundreds of people have to rely on bottled water.” The dam also supplied cooling water for the Zaporizhia nuclear power station, now also under Russian control.

Mamonova works with the Reckoning Project, founded by journalists Janine di Giovanni and Peter Pomerantsev. The project’s team of reporters, researchers and filmmakers are collecting evidence of Russian war crimes. The lead journalist, Nataliya Gumenyuk, explained that this requires a more disciplined methodology than regular journalism. “We have to avoid contaminating evidence by asking leading questions, for example,” she says. 

Added to the hazards are the risks of incoming fire from Russian forces across the river

The project teams work with more than 50 scientists and ecologists, prosecutors and volunteers to collect soil, tissue and hair samples and to interview witnesses, working to ensure that the evidence they collect is robust enough for future legal proceedings. “Documenting environmental crimes can be complicated,” Mamonova tells me. “With Kakhovka, for example, you can see the immediate impacts of the flood, but it might take years for the worst effects to appear.” 

Added to the hazards are the risks of incoming fire from Russian forces across the river. “The worst damage was on the right bank, but we can’t document that. And they shell the left bank: the entire line of the river and the dam is on the front line and it’s heavily shelled and raided by drones, especially when people are around the river,” Mamonova explains. “We were taking samples from one of the most flooded neighbourhoods on Ostriv Island [also known as Potemkin Island] but the shelling didn’t stop. We didn’t know if they were aiming at us but one local man was killed.” The team was forced to collect samples in short bursts over two days, to avoid being shelled. 

Kakhovka was the last in a cascade of five dams, and it was where accumulated toxins from upstream chemical plants were filtered out before water was discharged, eventually draining into the Black Sea. The sludge left on the floor of the dam contains toxins that range from heavy metals to radioactive elements. Some of the filtering was done with dense beds of mussels. With the water gone, an estimated half a million tonnes of dead mussels are rotting on the dried lake bed. “It was its own ecosystem,” says Mamonova. “It took a year to clean the water before it was discharged. Now there is no filter.” 

Samples are collected, analysed and carefully stored in the hope that crimes such as the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam might one day be prosecuted. How to bring such a prosecution, however, remains under discussion. The crime of ecocide figures in both the criminal codes of Ukraine and Russia, but without a victory on the battlefield it is hard to see how a Ukrainian court could bring other than a symbolic prosecution. 

Ukraine has already opened a case against Russia for genocide in the International Court of Justice and Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministry recently launched an effort to secure international support to establish a special ad hoc tribunal against Russia for the crime of aggression. They do not intend to include environmental crime in that effort, preferring the possibility that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague might bring a prosecution under Article 8 of the Rome statute, the foundational statute of the ICC. Article 8 states that it is a war crime intentionally to launch an attack “in the knowledge that such attack will cause… widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.” 

Ukraine has not ratified the Rome statute, but it has recognised its jurisdiction in cases of Russia’s war crimes and crimes against humanity and has argued that the ICC can prosecute environmental crimes. Ukraine’s prosecutor general intends to submit the results of more than 200 currently active environmental investigations to the ICC, in the hope that the court will decide to prosecute.

On 16th February 2024, the ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan launched a consultation on the prosecution of environmental crime with the aim of producing a policy paper by December. Announcing the initiative, Khan said: “Damage to the environment poses an existential threat to all life on the planet. For that reason, I am firmly committed to ensuring that my office systematically addresses environmental crimes in all stages of its work, from preliminary examinations to prosecutions.”

In snowy Pripyat, an abandoned ferris wheel with yellow booths stands still In Pripyat, the vestiges of the Soviet town have been supplemented by more sinister and more recent souvenirs from Moscow: landmines. Photo: Isabel Hilton

Nevertheless, the bar is high for prosecution under the Rome statute. The prosecutor must prove both knowledge of the likely consequences and the intent to cause damage disproportionate to any military gain, as well as demonstrating that such damage was caused. This poses obvious evidentiary challenges, including the need to prove that any identified damage could be attributed to Russia’s action. But the team at the Reckoning Project believe a case could be made. 

Ukraine was part of the USSR, they point out, so Moscow still has both a detailed knowledge of Ukraine’s infrastructure and a clear understanding of the consequences of destroying it. “It’s obvious that the Kakhovka Dam was under Russian occupation when it exploded,” says Mamonova. “But we still have to prove they took this decision in the understanding of the scale of impact. The dam was built in 1956 by the USSR, so they have the documentation. They had the opportunity to look at the documents, so they realised what they were doing. Ukrainian law enforcement detected two explosions and has intercepted some relevant conversations about the action. They believe that the decision to destroy the dam came from Moscow and we conclude they understood from the beginning what the consequences would be. Their tactic is to turn our land into a wasteland.” 

The report of the High Level Working Group, formally presented in February to Zelensky, details dangerous chemical releases, pollution from damaged industrial sites and impacts on air quality from bombing and burning forests. The Ukrainian government has estimated the direct costs in environmental damage so far at $56bn, but many of these effects will have long-term consequences for human health and, because of Ukraine’s unique geography and global importance as an agricultural producer, will extend beyond its borders into the Black Sea and global food markets. 

Among the group’s 50 recommendations are several on creating the methodology for evidence collection to meet legal standards, but how any case is to be advanced and what the next steps might be is unclear.

Ukraine continues to pursue both domestic and international efforts to achieve criminal accountability. Its prosecutors recently served two Russian generals and three colonels with a notice of suspicion of ecocide, aggression and war crimes for having ordered and executed the 2022 attack on the world’s only subcritical nuclear installation and a nuclear storage facility at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology.

According to the prosecutor’s office, the nuclear facility took 74 hits from a variety of weapons, including aerial bombs, high-explosive fragmentation tubed artillery shells, and high-explosive fragmentation and cluster rounds. Although an inspection team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) found no radiation leak when they visited in November 2022, they described the extent of the damage to the facility as “dramatic and shocking”. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the director general of the IAEA, said that the scale and intensity of the sustained targeting of the facility had violated all the seven indispensable nuclear safety and security pillars that he had outlined at the beginning of the conflict. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andrii Kostin, says that “As far as we know, this will be the first case in the world of criminal prosecution for the crime of ecocide committed during the war.” The accused, however, are unlikely to answer to the court.

There is a third option, according to Simon Holmström, a former Finnish MP and member of the working group: the case of Ukraine could be used to advance the long-running campaign for international recognition of the crime of ecocide; “Ukraine could be a beacon for the recognition of ecocide,” he says. “Zelensky mentioned ecocide in November 2022, shortly before the December meeting of the 123 state parties to the ICC in the Hague. He also released a statement during that meeting directly accusing Russia of ecocide. The discussion on ecocide has spurred more countries to accede to the Rome statute and raises the question of how to prosecute ecocide as a crime separate from war crimes.” 

But if the war has stimulated greater interest in holding perpetrators accountable for ecocide, the first prosecution still seems a long way off. As discussions on evidence collection and methodology continued in Kyiv, the prospect of the military victory that seems essential to successful prosecution was retreating in the face of Ukraine’s acute shortages of ammunition and uncertainties around continuing US support. 

When this long and grinding war finally ends, however it ends, Ukrainians will be confronted with lasting environmental damage that includes widespread chemical contamination of agricultural lands and forests, the wanton destruction of key protected areas, and the laying of innumerable mines that experts say will take decades to clear.