desolate landscape with trees and grey sky. A sign warns of nuclear contamination. With added logo “Socio-ecological Transformation Conflicts”
The exploitation of Ukraine's resources by external actors has caused environmental damage extending far into the future. | Foto: Oleksandra Bardash via Unplash

A Green Recovery for Ukraine: How to Avoid the Trap of Green Colonialism?

The environment is not a silent victim in Russia’s war against Ukraine; the long-term threats for the people of Ukraine are already visible. The environmental dimension of the war has been documented from early on. In this respect, the war is a model for future military conflicts. President Zelenskyy emphasized in his peace plan that green reconstruction is an essential element for a just and sustainable future. Green reconstruction, as every reconstruction, needs international support and local engagement. In this blog post, we identify the conditions that must be met to ensure that local groups are empowered and new international dependencies are avoided.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and millions more are on the run. The United Nations‘ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has repeatedly found evidence of war crimes and serious human rights violations. In addition to this immediate human suffering, there are long-term threats to human security in Ukraine related to the environmental damage caused by the hostilities. The environmental damage caused by the war is extraordinary. Large nature reserves, agricultural areas and maritime ecosystems have been destroyed and polluted. Beyond the direct suffering for people, animals, and whole ecosystems caused by the warfare, there are also long-term dangers that extend far into the future. The serious environmental damage is only partly an unintended consequence of the fighting; environmental damage is also deliberately used as a weapon. The most dramatic example of this is the demolition of the Kakhovka dam in June 2023, which led to widespread ecological devastation.

The environmental damage caused by the war is already being documented. Thus, unlike in other military conflicts, the environment is not a silent victim: it is spoken about. This is an important prerequisite for holding individuals or groups accountable for the environmental consequences of the war in the future and for repairing the damage where possible. Although the war is still ongoing and we don’t know when and how it will end, a discussion about reconstruction is already beginning. In this context, it is to be welcomed that the environment and environmental damage play a major role in this discussion. Green reconstruction is an important pillar in the early reconstruction plans of Ukraine, the EU and the OECD. It is essential, as we argue, that green reconstruction is pursued for its own sake and as a contribution to a just and sustainable peace. New asymmetries and political and economic dependencies must be avoided in this context.

An Environmental Compact for Ukraine

Against this backdrop, a new report by the Ukrainian-Swedish co-led ‘High-Level Working Group on the Environmental Consequences of the War,’ which includes influential members such as Greta Thunberg, Mary Robinson, as well as the European Union Commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius, proposes ‘An Environmental Compact for Ukraine.’ The report takes stock of the widespread environmental damages, recommends ways to document and monitor damages, as well as how to hold Russia accountable eventually, including through reparations. Further, the high-level working group sketches a roadmap for a green reconstruction and environmental recovery of Ukraine. Overall, the report paints the vision of “a clean, green, peaceful and democratic Ukraine”. The compact’s authors make clear that such a green future will demand major structural reforms, an EU-aligned green industrial policy, as well as strengthened administrative and inspection capacities in the environmental and climate sector to combat corruption. Furthermore, the report stresses the importance of empowering local communities, especially municipalities, while, for example, also suggesting the expansion of twin town and sister city programs with a clear sustainability focus.

Reconstruction Needs Power-Sensitive Perspectives

The report raises important issues around the environmental recovery and green reconstruction of Ukraine, such as the adoption of a planetary boundaries framework or the importance of gender-inclusiveness. More generally, however, it is also ultimately a document typical for the mainstream of liberal peacebuilding approaches: the focus lies on top-down, template-style solutions orientated towards high politics such as the democratisation of state institutions, the strengthening of rule of law and human rights reforms, as well as marketisation strategies. While these are important goals, their implementation cannot be successful without being embedded in a deeper historical and power-sensitive perspective. It will be essential to consider both longstanding and emerging asymmetries, as well as local and international sources of conflict.

Imperial Extractivism

As we describe in a recent article, today’s political, economic, and social structures in Ukraine have been significantly shaped by a history of imperial extractivism. Central in this process were the rich natural resources in Ukraine, which have long been exploited by external actors, with the local population often suffering the social, economic, as well as environmental consequences. For example, Galicia was the birthplace of the European oil industry and the resource-rich Donets River Basin soon developed into the centre of coal and steel industries in Imperial Russia. The new port city of Odesa developed into the largest export gateway for grain from the fertile Ukrainian steppe regions, with the first railroad in Southern Ukraine connecting the port to the agrarian hinterland, earning Ukraine the nickname of ‘Europe’s breadbasket’.

Today, many of the sites of historical Russian colonisation and industrialisation have become battlefields. It is important to consider Ukraine’s colonial heritage and the role natural resources play in it when contemplating different future pathways for development.

When reconstruction, and in particular green reconstruction, begins, old dependencies mustn’t be replaced by new ones. Ukraine’s agricultural and energy resources offer great potential for Europe to promote its ecological goals as part of the European Green Deal for example. This can create a win-win situation for all. But it could also lead to new asymmetric relationships which, to use a provocative term, could be understood as the beginnings of green colonialism. It will therefore also be important, when it comes to stronger European integration, to avoid establishing asymmetric relations and dependencies with Ukraine from the outset. Overall, Ukraine and its international partners must organise a rapid economic recovery and, on the other hand, create the conditions to dissolve old dependencies and avoid new ones. This is the only way to create sustainable peace.

The Importance of Local Initiatives

International involvement and support are not the only prerequisites for the ecological reconstruction of Ukraine. Against the backdrop of its extractivist colonial past and the risk of new asymmetries, the role of local initiatives is particularly important. In this context, we argue that leveraging research knowledge from environmental peacebuilding will be invaluable. While civil society initiatives play a crucial role, their capacities are often very limited and the risk of co-optation by international actors aiming to exploit them for legitimacy is high (Sändig 2018). As a consequence, the Ukrainian government should provide an institutional framework that enables and empowers local communities to strengthen the implementation of green reconstruction efforts.

Further, European actors, whether they are from the EU Commission or a European mayoral office of a prospective twin city, will have to keep in mind that they are often socialising agents with regard to what counts as “sustainable”, whether intentionally or not. This demands a great level of self-reflexivity and an openness for mutual learning. It will be a crucial challenge for the EU to ensure that the knowledge and capital flowing into Ukraine is responsive to and supportive of such local initiatives and successful pre-existing community-building projects.

Who Is This Green Recovery Ultimately For?

Drawing on the environmental peacebuilding literature against the backdrop of Ukrainian environmental insecurities caused by the war, it becomes clear that there are major trade-offs between a quick economic recovery and a planned sustainable rebuild, as well as between international support through knowledge and capital, and local initiatives and experiences. In light of the above discussion of the promises and pitfalls of environmental peacebuilding, it is necessary to strike the right balance between these competing priorities. It will also be crucial to center and listen to local communities and civil society for a sustainable peace in Ukraine. To avoid the trap of green colonialism, political actors in Europe should ask themselves which transformation is envisioned here? Who is green recovery ultimately for? If the answer is something other than local Ukrainian communities and ecosystems, then maybe think twice.

 

This blog post is based on a recent article published with Environment and Security. Patrick Flamm and Stefan Kroll use, complement, and adapt existing research knowledge that is important both for situating the history of externally caused environmental damage in Ukraine and for developing perspectives on environmental peacebuilding. In a complementary approach they combine a political ecology approach, which allows to account for the larger international and historical context, with the environmental peacebuilding scholarship, which enables insight into what local problem-solving strategies for these environmental insecurities might look like. Ultimately, in order to be successful, local environmental peacebuilding initiatives will have to be vetted against the historical and political context in which they are implemented.

Patrick Flamm

Patrick Flamm

Dr. Patrick Flamm ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am PRIF im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Seine Forschung konzentriert sich auf das Verhältnis zwischen Umwelt, Frieden und Sicherheit im „Anthropozän“ sowie auf polare Geopolitik. // Dr Patrick Flamm is a Senior Researcher at PRIF in the research department “International Security”. His research focuses on the relationship between the environment, peace and security in the “Anthropocene” as well as on polar geopolitics.
Stefan Kroll

Stefan Kroll

Dr. Stefan Kroll ist Leiter des Querschnittsbereichs Wissenschaftskommunikation und wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter im Programmbereich „Internationale Institutionen“. Seine Arbeitsschwerpunkte liegen im Bereich interdisziplinärer Normen- und Institutionenforschung, des Wissenstransfers und der politischen Bildung für Themen der Friedens- und Konfliktforschung. // Dr. Stefan Kroll is Head of Science Communication and a senior researcher at PRIF’s research department “International Institutions”. His work focuses on interdisciplinary research on norms and institutions, knowledge transfer, and political education for peace and conflict research topics. | Twitter: @St_Kroll

Patrick Flamm

Dr. Patrick Flamm ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am PRIF im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Seine Forschung konzentriert sich auf das Verhältnis zwischen Umwelt, Frieden und Sicherheit im „Anthropozän“ sowie auf polare Geopolitik. // Dr Patrick Flamm is a Senior Researcher at PRIF in the research department “International Security”. His research focuses on the relationship between the environment, peace and security in the “Anthropocene” as well as on polar geopolitics.

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