Russia’s invasion jeopardizes future of Ukraine’s forests – Atlantic Council | Mega Mediakw

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sparked the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II and inflicted catastrophic damage on the continent’s largest nation. In addition to the staggering human and economic casualties of Putin’s war, Ukraine also faces an ecological crisis, with the country’s forests particularly vulnerable.

The most immediate threat of war to the Ukrainian forests are forest fires. Between the start of the Russian invasion on February 24 and the end of May, more than 160,000 hectares of Ukrainian forests burned in hostilities-affected regions. With fighting raging along a frontline stretching more than a thousand miles across the country and Russian forces attempting to systematically destroy Ukraine’s natural and industrial resource base, this grim trend is likely to continue.

There are also major war-related problems in forest areas that have already been liberated by the Ukrainian military. In late March and early April, Russian troops were forced to retreat from northern Ukraine after being defeated in the Battle of Kyiv. As they retreated across the border into Russia and Belarus, they left behind thousands of acres of mined forests. It will likely be decades before these areas can be fully demined.

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Other, less immediate but equally serious threats to Ukraine’s forests have emerged in recent months against the backdrop of the Russian invasion. The war has sent Ukraine’s economy into free fall, with the National Bank of Ukraine forecasting a GDP contraction of at least 33% in 2022 and possibly much more. Understandably, authorities are scrambling to take immediate action to offset this economic meltdown. Increased logging is seen as a potentially viable option.

The head of the State Forest Service of Ukraine and the Minister of Environment have officially announced plans to increase logging volume. These efforts are intended to focus primarily on logging in hard-to-reach mountains and wetlands. In other words, we could soon witness the destruction of Ukraine’s most valuable remaining natural forests. Such plans may sound a little far-fetched, but they are actually part of the government’s vision for Ukraine’s economic recovery and were even unveiled at the Ukraine Recovery Conference held in Lugano, Switzerland in early July. The Ukrainian authorities also plan to attract foreign funds for forest development projects.

At this point, it could still be argued that Ukraine’s emergency logging initiative is not really being implemented. However, since the outbreak of hostilities, some steps have already been taken to ensure future increases in felling. Back in March, Ukraine’s parliament scrapped a number of environmental restrictions on logging as part of wartime measures ostensibly put in place to boost the country’s defense capabilities.

The Ukrainian authorities have also made it difficult for civil society to participate in efforts to monitor logging’s environmental impact. Access to previously public logging documents has recently been closed or restricted. Meanwhile, a number of legal acts are being prepared that aim to further simplify the felling of older forests. These and other steps have resulted in a 10-25% increase in felling volumes in the western regions of Ukraine in recent months compared to the same period in 2021. Activists fear this surge is just the beginning.

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Even before the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s natural forests were shrinking and being replaced by plantations. The environmental, social and economic consequences of such unsustainable forest management are potentially catastrophic and reach well beyond Ukraine. For example, the EU has clearly stated the goal of protecting the Carpathian Mountains, but these efforts will be unsuccessful unless the Ukrainian part of the Carpathian Mountains is also protected.

What can be done to save Ukraine’s forests? The most obvious solution is to end the war as soon as possible. This can only be achieved with the support of the international community, which must impose tougher sanctions on Russia and provide Ukraine with enough weapons to defeat Putin’s invaders on the battlefield. Anything less than a Ukrainian military victory will result in a compromise peace that would merely set the stage for a new war in the years to come.

It is clear that Russia’s defeat cannot be achieved overnight. In the meantime, it is crucial for the Ukrainian partners to incentivize the conservation of the country’s forests. The Ukrainian authorities are heavily dependent on the international community for financial support to keep the economy afloat. Ukraine has also recently been granted the status of an official EU candidate country, which brings with it additional obligations and opportunities. Against this background, Ukraine’s international partners should try to include conservation measures as a condition for further support.

This would correspond very well to Ukraine’s own European integration ambitions. In July 2022, more than 25 European NGOs appealed to EU leaders with a list of concrete steps needed to protect Ukraine’s forests. Developed in the spirit of the European Green Deal, this list includes high-priority legislation and other actions. It can become a roap map for the Ukrainian authorities.

As Ukraine struggles to survive and defend its right to a European future, it is imperative to ensure that the country’s unique ecological heritage is preserved and not lost to Putin’s invasion. European support can help prevent this.

Yehor Hrynyk is the coordinator of the Ukraine conservation group.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

That of the Eurasia Center Mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values ​​and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the west to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the east.

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Pictured: Members of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces ride an armored personnel carrier (APC) during tactical exercises in the forest near Kyiv, Ukraine. July 13, 2022 (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto)

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