BBC 2024-02-24 22:32:03

Navalny’s body returned to mother, spokeswoman says

The body of leading Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny has been returned to his mother, his spokeswoman says.

In a post on X, Kira Yarmysh thanked everybody who had demanded that the authorities hand over his remains.

“The funeral is yet to take place,” she wrote.

Navalny’s mother Lyudmila had reportedly been told to agree to a “secret” burial. If she refused, he would be buried at the prison colony where he died.

She has spent the last week in the town close to the prison where he died, trying to first confirm the location of his body then demanding it be returned to her.

After signing a death certificate saying he had died of natural causes, she was then given three hours to agree to a “secret” funeral for her son.

If she didn’t agree he would be buried within the grounds of the prison where he died, Ms Yarmysh said his mother was told.

However, Lyudmila had apparently refused to negotiate with the authorities.

  • What we know about Alexei Navalny’s death
  • Supporters’ grief, defiance and hope after leader’s death

Ms Yarmysh said the funeral plans were still not clear.

“We don’t know whether the authorities will interfere with it being carried out in the way the family wants and as Alexei deserves,” she said.

Earlier on Saturday, Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accused Vladimir Putin of holding her late husband’s body “hostage” and demanded its release without conditions.

“Give us the body of my husband,” she demanded in a video address.

“You tortured him alive, and now you keep torturing him dead. You mock the remains of the dead.”

Ms Navalnaya again accused the Russian president of being behind the death of her husband.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations, calling Western reaction to the death “hysterical”.

Navalny died on 16 February in a Russian prison inside the Arctic Circle.

Details about what happened to him remain scarce. His team has offered security officers €20,000 ($22,000; £17,000) in reward and assistance in leaving Russia in exchange for information about his death in prison.

For years, he was the most high-profile critic of the Russian leader.

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned using the Novichok nerve agent by a team of would-be assassins from the Russian secret services.

Airlifted to Germany, he recovered there before returning to Russia in January 2021, where he was imprisoned.

Attempts at commemorating his death have been met by a heavy-handed response from Russian authorities, with makeshift monuments cleared and hundreds arrested.

South Carolina Republican primary: Trump attacks Biden, ignores Haley, in speech

A win in South Carolina does not guarantee a candidate will go on to be the Republican presidential candidate – but it often matches up.

Let’s take a look at the past few Republican winners.

  • 2020 – South Carolina cancelled its Republican primary because as incumbent, Donald Trump‘s path was pretty clear
  • 2016 – Trump won South Carolina and won the presidential nomination
  • 2012 – Newt Gingrich won South Carolina but Mitt Romney won the nomination
  • 2008 – John McCain won South Carolina and won the nomination
  • 2004 – There was no Republican primary, as George W Bush faced no challenger
  • 2000 – George W Bush won South Carolina and the nomination

Ukraine war: Zelensky insists country will win on second anniversary

Ukraine’s president has issued a rallying cry, vowing that his country will prevail, as it marks two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“None of us will allow our Ukraine to end,” Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address in the capital Kyiv.

He was joined by Western leaders in a show of solidarity.

The anniversary comes as Ukraine experiences a range of setbacks in its efforts to expel Russia from its territory.

Mr Zelensky said in his speech on Saturday that while any normal person would want the war to end, it could only be on Ukraine’s terms.

“That’s why, to the words ‘end of the war’, we always add ‘on our terms’. That’s why the word ‘peace’ always goes with ‘fair’.

“We are fighting for it. For 730 days of our lives already. And we will win on the best day of our life.”

  • Exhausted Ukrainians refuse to give up
  • Steve Rosenberg: How two years of war in Ukraine changed Russia

Joining him in Kyiv were the leaders of Italy, Belgium and Canada – as well as the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

They laid wreaths at a wall commemorating those who have lost their lives in the war.

However, there were some glaring omissions among the visitors. No senior US representatives were present, whereas last year President Joe Biden attended the anniversary.

Mr Zelensky did meet a group of Democratic senators led by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday, though, which he said was a sign Washington backed Ukraine.

Ms von der Leyen praised the Ukrainian troops who defended the country in the early days of the invasion and confounded expectations about their ability to withhold Russia’s invasion force.

“You managed to stop Russia’s attack to the heart of Ukraine. You saved your country, you saved all of Europe,” she said.

Italy and Canada used the anniversary visit to announce that they had signed bilateral security pacts with Kyiv – meant to boost Ukraine’s hopes of becoming a member of the Nato military alliance.

Later, members of the G7 – including Canada, Italy, the UK and US – pledged support for Ukraine and new sanctions on Russia during a virtual meeting.

Marches have also been held across Europe in solidarity with Ukraine. Participants demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin end the war.

At least four people were reportedly detained in Moscow on Saturday at a protest against the war, organised by wives of mobilised soldiers.

Such demonstrations are rare as there are several laws in place now in Russia that punish dissent.

The anniversary of Russia’s invasion comes at a difficult time for Ukraine. Only a week ago, it announced that troops had withdrawn from the embattled town of Avdiivka – one of Russia’s biggest wins for months.

The failure of Ukraine’s counter-offensive and issues over securing further aid from the US have also been big setbacks.

Meanwhile, the fighting continues. At least four people were killed during the latest Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities.

Kyiv said it had hit one of Russia’s largest steel plants in a drone attack early on Saturday.

Ukraine has made some gains in the war – sinking Russian warships and reportedly downing spy planes – but the victory President Zelensky has promised still seems far away.

Premier League: Arsenal thrash Newcastle to keep pressure on – reaction

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How nature became part of Ukraine’s resistance

Lawsuits, art and the sandy blind mole-rat have all played a part in Ukraine’s fight for environmental justice in the wake of Russia’s invasion. But green efforts can only go so far while war rages.

In July 2023, I crossed into Ukraine on a night train from Poland. As usual, my evening was spent talking to other passengers. I did not mention my interest in environmental questions, preferring to listen to people’s stories, when suddenly my compartment neighbour, who was not an environmentalist, started talking about the sandy blind mole-rat.

The sandy blind mole-rat (Spalax arenarius) is an endangered species endemic to the Lower Dnipro region of southern Ukraine. The area has been occupied by Russia since February 2022, and, on 6 June 2023, the region’s Kakhovka Hydroelectric reservoir and dam collapsed, resulting in widespread flooding and destruction. Ukraine’s military and Nato blame Russia, and experts suggest the damage could be either a deliberate or an unintended consequence of the Russian occupation.

It is impossible at present to assess the full impacts of the disaster since the area remains under Russian occupation. Yet the event, which demolished houses and affected internationally significant nature sites, has been proclaimed in Ukraine as the biggest environmental catastrophe since the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion in 1986. An estimated 18 cubic km (4.3 cubic miles) of reservoir water burst through, washing pollutants and sewage products downstream to the Black Sea, and displacing landmines. The loss of water for agricultural irrigation also hit global food security and biodiversity loss has been significant.

Amid this destruction, the population of the endemic sandy blind mole-rat is thought to have fallen by 50%. For my fellow train passengers, the animal was seen as yet another victim of Russian aggression.

The Kakhovka dam in Ukraine was breached in the early hours of 6 June 2023 (Credit: Getty Images)

The Kherson oblast, where Kakhovka is located, is not alone among Ukraine’s environmental wartime casualties. Ukraine is now the largest mined territory in the world and around 2,000 environmentally protected areas have been under Russian occupation. The extent of environmental damage can be seen on Ecodozor, a platform developed by Zoi Environment Network, with support from the UN Environment Programme and others, to map the consequences and risks of the fighting.

The Ukrainian government is currently attempting to investigate and catalogue the harm. But destruction is perhaps not the only environmental legacy of Russia’s invasion. Even amidst the grief, calls for environmental justice have also become part of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression. And slowly, via everything from government initiatives to art exhibitions, public awareness of the impacts of environmental destruction has been growing.

It’s a response that has deep roots: outrage at the environmental damage caused by the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, which is closer to the Ukrainian pronunciation) contributed to the growing independence movements in then-Soviet Ukraine.

Yet how far can today’s ecological concern reach while war continues?

A growing environmental awareness

When I was in Ukraine this past summer, interviewing people for my forthcoming book about environmental impacts of Russia’s war, I observed a shared experience of loss.

Following the Kakhovka disaster, there was a widespread outpouring of grief: not only for the loss of human lives and homes lost in the flooding, but for the disappearance of whole worlds that went underwater. Film clips and videos circulated online, documenting people wading through waist-high water to rescue animals and evacuate pets. Several hours after the disaster, prominent Ukrainian media wrote about potential impacts on endangered species, such as the thick-tail jerboa (Stylodipus telum) and the sandy blind mole-rat.

An estimated 18 cubic km (4.3 cubic miles) of reservoir water burst through the destroyed Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, causing widespread floods (Credit: Getty Images)

In the world of culture, the interest in the environmental consequences of war also appears to have grown. Ukraine’s pavilion at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale reflected on terraforming defence structures and the impact of the war on the environment. Back in Ukraine, the country’s biggest art event, Kyiv Biennial 2023, featured an exhibition focused entirely on the Dnipro River, on which the Kakhovka dam was situated.

Like with many other causes, availability of funding is crucial to ensure the continuation of environmental efforts on the ground. But activists, scholars, and conservationists keep finding innovative ways to organise and raise funds despite the hardship. Among the most prominent examples is the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG)’s international campaign for the oldest nature reserve in Ukraine, Askania-Nova. UNCG is an NGO, and when Askania-Nova was occupied by the Russian military, they collected donations for the reserve. For almost a year, they were able to provide for the park’s maintenance and the large number of animals that inhabit it, including saiga antelope, onagers, Przewalski horses, American bison and red deer.

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In November 2023, UAnimals, one of the biggest animal welfare organisations in Ukraine even launched a charitable online shop called Animalism. The site sells T-shirts, scarves, jars, sweatshirts and other merchandise featuring endangered animals of Ukraine – and puts the money towards rescuing animals from the frontlines. It’s just one of many organisations raising funds for Ukraine’s animals during the war.

Environmental justice

In ways like the above, Ukrainians have demonstrated extraordinary civic mobilisation for the environment, and continue to fight for more environmentally just futures.

Sometimes this can lead to internal debates within the country. For example, in the aftermath of the Kakhovka disaster, some environmentalists oppose plans by the government and Ukraine’s main state-owned hydro generating company, Ukrhydroenergo, to rebuild the dam. Environmentalists argue that the original construction of the dam in the 1950s severely damaged ecosystems and provided little economic and energy benefit. In July 2023, numerous organisations formed a civic coalition, Kakhovka Platform, to resist potential dam reconstruction and fight for the natural restoration of ecosystems instead. Ukraine’s Ministry of the Economy was contacted for comment, but didn’t respond by the time this article was published.

Ukraine is pushing to include “ecocide” in the crimes recognised by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Credit: Getty Images)

At the same time, internationally, Ukraine’s government is leading the fight to include “ecocide” in the crimes recognised by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. As one of 13 countries that has an article for ecocide or intentional environmental crime in its Criminal Code (Article 441), cases such as the Kakhovka disaster and the mass death of cetaceans in the Black Sea are now being investigated by Ukraine’s Specialised Environmental Prosecutor’s Office. On 14 February 2024, the General Prosecutor Andriy Kostin announced that a Russian colonel general and four subordinates had been served notice of suspicion of the crime of ecocide. This was the first such charge in Ukraine.

Limits of working in times of war

As much as the new forms of green engagement are being developed in response to the destruction, however, ongoing Russian aggression is also setting limits on what can be achieved.

Environmental justice for Ukraine is dependent on the often less visible, often routine work of nature reserves, environmental researchers and organisations like UNCG in sustaining and expanding existing protected areas. But two years into the full-scale invasion, people in Ukraine are exhausted and resources are depleted. And “while the number of international grant opportunities has risen since February 2022, the number of grant recipients has shrunk”, says Oleksii Vasyliuk, a researcher at I. I. Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology, and chairman and co-founder of UNCG. “Many are in the army or left the country”, he says. “Part of the civic society is gone.”

Around 2,000 environmentally protected areas in Ukraine have been under Russian occupation (Getty Images)

Many challenges that environmental scholars and conservationists face are the same as those before the full-scale invasion, such as poaching or illegal logging, but now they are often exacerbated. “On the international level you hear everywhere about ecocide, which is great, but if you look at the local level nothing has changed: entrepreneurs try to extract resources in protected areas, farmers who were displaced from the occupied territories try to find ways to plough protected areas,” says Vasyliuk. “In the conditions of the war, the business lobby is very active. When there is a choice between environmental values and business interests, most often the latter are prioritised.”

There are also new obstacles. Alongside the direct loss, occupation and destruction of conservation areas, those responsible for managing natural spaces must deal with shortages of staff, as well as loss of access to areas located near the borders with Belarus and Russia. Sometimes, the threats are directly felt by the conservationists. Last summer as part of my research, I interviewed an environmentalist whose reserve has been under the Russian occupation since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. It has been turned into a military base and is continuously burning, the environmentalist told me. He himself is in a place which is bombed almost weekly.  

For activists too, there are new challenges to civic organisation. “We cannot hold protests, most of our activists are in the armed forces, [and] a large part of information is unavailable due to the closure of access to public services, such as the State Land Registry,” says Inna Tymchenko, an associate professor in ecology at the Admiral Makarov National University of Shipbuilding in Mykolaiv who is also involved in environmental activism. “We also often have to work in dangerous conditions.”

Hope for a post-war future

From its experience of living with the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Ukraine knows only too well that environmental impacts are long-lasting and affects ecosystems beyond the state borders. There is a need for a long-term plan for environmental reparations and recovery, as well as sustainable structures for the work of environmentalists and environmental scholars on the ground.

With the civic society remaining strong and engaged in fighting for environmental justice, however, there are reasons for hope. In the past two years of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine has firmly put an environmental justice agenda at the heart of the country’s vision of post-war future. President Zelensky’s 10-point Peace Plan, which features environmental protection and ecocide accountability, is a prominent embodiment of this. Ukraine’s push for the international recognition of ecocide is another. So is the growing public awareness of the country’s own diverse ecosystems.

The destruction of the Kakhovka dam on 6 June 2023 swept dangerous debris downstream, including pollutants and unexploded mines (Credit: Getty Images)

Most Ukrainians had probably never heard about a sandy blind mole-rat before Kakhovka. Now that’s changed: the life and death of an endangered rat has become entangled with Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian aggression.

It is thus tempting to be hopeful for the environmental future today. Yet real environmental change can only come in a post-war future, and only if environmentalists are part of the post-war reconstruction. Today, any environmental work is dependent on the safety of Ukraine’s landscapes and everyone – human and non-human – who inhabit them.

*Darya Tsymbalyuk, PhD is an environmental humanities researcher from Ukraine. She is currently working on a book about the environmental impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine, forthcoming with Polity Press.

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