Ukraine is finding new allies in a Russian tourist hotspot


Ukraine’s pavilion at the COP27 UN climate conference in Egypt is built of austere, dark gray walls. It feels like a bomb shelter, a bit out of place among all the brightly colored structures erected by other countries that are showcasing climate solutions and celebrating natural beauty.

The contrast is intentional. The Ukrainians came to Sharm el-Sheikh with a clear mission: to highlight the damage caused by Russia’s aggressive war – a war that is funded mostly by oil and gas revenues.

Russia, meanwhile, has largely been invisible at the conference. It has not put up a pavilion, contrary to previous years, and its delegation has been largely sidelined.

That’s an unusual sight in Sharm. The Red Sea resort town is a popular holiday destination for Russians wealthy enough to travel abroad – now more than ever as sanctions and visa restrictions related to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine make many other tourist hotspots inaccessible to them.

Restaurant menus and signs in shops and entertainment venues are often in Russian as well as Arabic, making it clear that Russians – and their money – are welcomed here.

But inside the COP conference venue, the reception has been far less friendly. Ukrainian activists have staged several protests during Russia-hosted events at the summit and protests often include anti-war messages.

At one panel featuring the Russian Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, one protestor shouted, “You are criminals, war criminals. You are killing my people. You are shooting bombs at our people,” before being escorted out of the venue.

Ukraine, on the other hand, has found many new allies among climate activists at the conference by making a clear link between fossil fuels and the invasion. Protests against the war and other conflicts have become part of the daily demonstrations at COP, where “fossil fuels kill” is one of activists’ key messages.

“As a Ukrainian, I can see how fossil fuels have powered Russia’s war machine for too long,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and the chair of the Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian group that received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Speaking at the conference via a video link from Kyiv, Matviichuk said Russia has “never been punished” for its crimes in places like Chechnya or Georgia because the world depends on its oil and gas.

Climate scientist Svitlana Krakovska, the head of Ukraine’s delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been trying to convey that message for months.

When Russia launched its full scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, Krakovska and her IPCC colleagues were about to work on a key report. “That morning, I told my colleagues at the plenary, ‘look, we are now under attack by Russians, we are now under much bigger threat … a threat to our lives.’ But we understand that climate change will not stop.’”

“‘That’s why we will do our homework, we will survive and we will withstand the Russian aggression, and you will continue your work here at the IPCC and you will approve this very important summary for policy makers to enable them to work,’” she said at an event at the COP27 conference.

Krakovska told CNN after the event that the invasion made her see the connection between Russia’s aggression and the fossil fuel industry much more clearly. “The cause of climate change is our addition to fossil fuels. And Russia depends on the income from these fossil fuels. So the message is clear. Stop funding the fossil fuel war,” she said.

“It’s crucial for us and for many other countries that are suffering,” she added, pointing out to the fact that the war in Ukraine is having ripple effects in some of the countries that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis because of the role Ukraine plays in global food supplies.

Ukraine is one of the biggest contributors to the World Food Program, which ships food to countries suffering from famines that are caused or made worse by the climate crisis. To remind the world of its role as a global breadbasket – and highlight the degradation caused by the war – the Ukrainian pavilion features a display of samples of different kinds of soils found across its sprawling farm lands.

Ukrainian climate activist Ilyess El Kortbi found that exhibit particularly touching. El Kortbi is from Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine that has seen some of the heaviest attacks of the war.

“When I entered it, it really felt like home. I miss my country,” El Kortbi, who fled the war to Germany, told CNN. Wearing a blue shirt and yellow jeans – the colors of the Ukrainian flag – El Kortbi said this was their third COP summit, first as an official member of the Ukrainian delegation. “I got upgraded,” El Kortbi said.

Like many other Ukrainians at the COP27 summit, El Kortbi relied on donations to pay for the trip and is working for free, helping as a communications adviser. El Kortbi used to organize climate strikes in Ukraine and the years spent as a Fridays For Future activist were good practice for this role.

Ilyess El Kortbi during a protest at the COP27 climate summit.

The message brought to COP by the activists was underscored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky who addressed the conference last week.

“There can be no effective climate policy without peace on Earth because in fact nations are thinking only about how to protect themselves here and now from the threats created in particular by the Russian aggression,” he told the summit.

A few days after Zelensky’s speech at COP, Ukrainian forces retook Kherson city after months of Russian occupation. A farming hub known for its watermelons, the strategic southern city was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had captured since February’s invasion. Its liberation was a major Ukrainian victory.

When the news broke on Friday, a watermelon appeared at the Ukrainian COP27 pavilion. It sat on its own chair, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag.

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