A push notification news alert on his phone, then pictures of the flood – that’s how Heorhiy Veremiychyk learned about the disaster. With water rushing through the stricken Kakhovka Dam in the Kherson region of Ukraine, he immediately understood the enormity of what had transpired. “The water surged very sharply,” he says, referring to the dire effects on the wildlife downstream. “There was no escape.”
Veremiychyk, of the National Ecological Center of Ukraine (NECU), says the impact of the dam’s destruction is severe. These range from habitat destruction to drinking water contamination. He can only watch from afar. Like millions of Ukrainians, he fled Russian invaders and witnessed the Kakhovka Dam crisis from the Czech Republic.
President Zelensky called the catastrophe an ecocide, apparently in reference to Article 441 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code, which defines it as the mass destruction of flora or fauna, poisoning of the atmosphere or water, or other environmental crimes on a large scale.
Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk says the destruction of the dam is “the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl”. And various research and conservation groups are now calculating the terrible toll on their surroundings. This is just the latest in a long line of ecologically damaging acts that have occurred since Russia invaded. For many months, experts have been sounding the alarm about the environmental aspect of war.
Every crime has a perpetrator, and for many Ukrainians and experienced observers, that perpetrator is obvious. In an email to WIRED, NECU head Ruslan Havryliuk calls this “another Russian military terrorist act against Ukraine.” Russia has denied responsibility, but it is important to note that some Russian statements about the country’s activities in Ukraine have been unreliable.
“Russia is illegally invading and occupying Ukraine, so Russia is to blame, in my eyes, it doesn’t even make sense to have that discussion,” says Jonathon Turnbull, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford who has studied the Ecological impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The destruction of the dam is not a scorched earth tactic, he argues, but a “submerged earth” tactic.