Greta Thunberg Is in Ukraine to Shame Us About 'Ecocide,' Gets It Half Right

AP Photo/David Keyton

On Thursday, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Kyiv Capitol. The gathering was an inaugural meeting for a working environmental group of prominent European figures to assess the damage the war has brought to the region over the last 16 months.


Thunberg criticized the global response to a blast to the Kakhovka dam that occurred on June 6, causing flooding in Russian-occupied areas of the Kherson region. Russia and Ukraine have each blamed the other for the dam’s destruction, which Ukraine said totals $1.3 billion in damages. Ukraine is investigating the incident as a war crime or potential criminal ecological destruction. In the wake of the dam’s breach, Zelensky called it “an environmental bomb of mass destruction.”

Thunberg spoke at a news conference, saying:

I do not think that the world reaction to this ecocide was sufficient. I don’t think any reaction could be sufficient. So I guess we need to make more room for people who are affected by these catastrophes to tell their stories and to share information about what’s happening on the ground. We must do everything we can to speak out about this and to try to spread awareness and share information about what is happening.


Thunberg spoke on the destruction of the environment as a type of warfare:

Ecocide and environmental destruction is a form of warfare… as Ukrainians by this point know all too well — and so does Russia. And that’s why they are deliberately targeting the environment and people’s livelihoods and homes and therefore also destroying lives. Because this is after all a matter of people.

The 20-year-old activist is partially correct; flooding is being used as a weapon of war by the Russians, but also by the Ukrainians. And such a tactic, called hydraulic warfare, is not new to either nation. Stalin’s Soviet secret police deployed the tactic in 1941, blowing a dam to slow a Nazi advance in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. This tactic was used throughout WW2 in Europe and in the Chinese war theater to thwart invading Japanese troops.

While reports say that evidence mounts against Russians for the Kherson Oblast flooding, others argue that it doesn’t make sense that they would flood their fortified defense positions along with their own troops. Alternative theories say that maybe they would destroy defensive lines if it reduced the length of the front and allowed a buildup of troops at critical positions they anticipate to be targeted in a Ukrainian offensive, such as Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. Another aspect theorized is that the humanitarian impacts of the flooding are used to slow Ukraine’s counteroffensive efforts by diverting them to evacuation and other flood responses.


As the war started in February 2022, Ukraine used hydraulic warfare to render two rivers impassable to impede Russian advances from Belarus to Kyiv. They breached a dam on the Irpin River and deliberately flooded the Zdvyzh and Teteriv rivers, bolstering Ukraine’s defense of Kyiv and shaping the outcome of the most significant battle in the war to date. Over a year has passed since the initial flooding of the Irpin River, and its waters continue to submerge the surrounding areas, leaving homes and farmlands destroyed or rendered unusable. 

Thunberg and the environmentalists are also correct in a larger and obvious point—explosives do make for a bad environment. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that 174,000 square kilometers of land are contaminated by mines and unexploded bombs, making Ukraine the country with the most landmines in the world, ahead of Syria and Afghanistan. In a Twitter post about the working group meeting, Andriy Kostin, Prosecutor General of Ukraine, wrote that approximately 30 percent of Ukraine’s territory is contaminated with explosive objects.


As war goes: until there are peace agreements, there will be destruction. So, maybe Thunberg should add that line to her speeches.


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