‘We don’t know what will happen tomorrow’

Caught in the chaos of war, Paul Krantz speaks to young climate activists in Ukraine whose message is clear: modern wars are fossil fuel wars.

protesters hold a banner that reads: stop war, end fossil fuels
Fridays For Future protest in front of the Reichstag, Berlin on 3 March 2022. Credit: Stefan Müller, under a CC BY 2.0 license.

‘We are youth climate activists usually fighting a crisis we didn’t cause, now finding ourselves at the frontlines of a war we didn’t start,’ read the tweet posted by Fridays for Future Ukraine on 1 March.

Much of the media coverage of Putin’s attack on Ukraine tends to frame the war in terms of either a Russia-led battle against expanding NATO powers, or one despot’s mission to reclaim a former empire. But to activists who have been pushing for climate justice in a country threatened by Russia for several years, this attack is another example in a long series of oil and gas conflicts that have claimed millions of lives throughout recent history. Modern war, they say, is almost always a fight for fossil fuels. And it is a massive contributor to catastrophic climate change in itself: burning through fossil fuels at a high rate.

It’s impossible to talk about the climate crisis right now, but the war is only escalating the crisis, and speeding up the time until doomsday’

Anastasiia Onufriv lives on the western side of Ukraine, where Russian tanks and rockets have not yet disturbed the city of Stryi in Lviv Oblast. Still, she feels the war’s effects. ‘The community has become really strong,’ Onufriv said. ‘Everyone wants to do something.’

On the other hand, Onufriv senses widespread distrust and there are increasing concerns as people find themselves short of money. Rents in the city have skyrocketed in the past weeks as some landlords take advantage of the influx of refugees people escaping from the eastern regions. For now, Onufriv is grateful that her own rent hasn’t increased, and she applauds the Ukrainian government for holding down prices on basic commodities. Still, things are tight as, due to the war, she has lost her job running online English lessons for students in Kyiv.

Fossil fuel capitalism

Beside teaching, Onufriv has been active with the international youth-led climate network, Fridays for Future, for the last year and a half.

‘It’s impossible to talk about the climate crisis right now,’ Onufriv said, ‘but the war is only escalating the crisis, and speeding up the time until doomsday.’ She believes ‘fossil fuel capitalism’ is central to why Putin is attacking her country. ‘Fossil fuels are at the core of the economy of the modern world,’ she said.

In Ukraine, there are oil reserves in Black Sea, and there are black coal deposits in the Donbass region. Both of these fossil fuel rich regions have now been claimed by Putin. Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea which has been disputed for much of history between Russia and Ukraine, was annexed by Russia in 2014. The Donbass region was recognized by Russia as two self-proclaimed states on 24 February, just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

Onufriv’s thoughts are echoed by other Fridays for Future Ukraine members, who are spread throughout the country, living in wildly different conditions.

Ilyess El Kortbi, the board secretary for Fridays for Future Ukraine, grew up in both Ukraine and  Morocco, is now staying in a shelter near the borders of the European Union. He can’t disclose where. Having lost his Moroccan passport, El Kortbi has no chance of leaving Ukraine for now. He doesn’t want to leave, but to avoid being conscripted to the army he remains in hiding. ‘I am a humanitarian volunteer,’ El Kortbi said. ‘I don’t want to kill people.’ He continues to coordinate with contacts throughout Ukraine and Poland to help arrange safe passage for refugees who need transport to the border.

Despite his own hands-on involvement in the present war, El Kortbi expresses an understanding of conflict as a global phenomenon. ‘It’s no different than what happened in Iraq a decade ago, or in Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya,’ he said. ‘But now Europe can clearly see, it can happen everywhere.’

‘My dream now is to go back home’

Meanwhile in Kyiv, Ihor Sumliennyi is stuck in his second floor apartment. Rockets have struck close to both sides of his home in the past days, but his dad is battling cancer and can’t be moved to a shelter. The two of them will stay in their apartment for now.

‘There is not enough bread, or fruit and vegetables, but there is enough water and food for us,’ Sumliennyi said. ‘There is still trash removal – life continues.’ The self-employed accountant usually acts as Fridays for Future Ukraine’s international coordinator.

Sumliennyi expressed his concern about the Russian army’s attempts to take control of Ukraine's nuclear power stations. He worries both about what could happen if Putin decided to use nuclear weapons, or equally if a rocket were to hit a nuclear power plant. ‘It could cause another Chernobyl incident,’ he said. Since I spoke with Sumliennyi, such fears have become a much more real prospect amid the bombardment of the Zaporizhzhia power station, which houses six of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors, on Thursday night. A fire was extinguished early on Friday morning, but the site has now reportedly been captured by the Russian military.

It could cause another Chernobyl’

Back in the Kyiv Oblast, Arina Bilai stays with a relative’s friend. At 16 years old, she has recently become Fridays for Future Ukraine’s social media and communication coordinator, having already worked with an NGO called Teenergizer.

But all of that is on pause at the moment. Having grown up in Kyiv, Bilai struggles to cope mentally with the ongoing war. ‘My dream now is to go back home and to wake up in my bed,’ she said.

Bilai had some cutting words to describe what she expects from European leaders: ‘The war in Ukraine is also about fossil fuels, which build half of Russia’s economy, and about European dependence on it,’ Bilai said. ‘Show that you demand independence from Russian fossil fuels by providing sectoral sanctions and the unwillingness to have the Russian oligarchs’ money.’

International solidarity

Fridays for the Future activists like Onufriv, El Kortbi, Sumliennyi and Bilai wanted to bring attention to the ways in which fossil fuels are linked to the war in their country and have asked organizers around the world to hold rallies in solidarity with Ukraine.

The call did not go unheard. On 3 March, Fridays for Future Ukraine tweeted a list of 130 cities where demonstrations were organized. The majority were  in Europe, but there were also a handful in the US and several across Africa, Asia and South America.

In Berlin, an estimated 5,000 people marched from the Ukrainian embassy to the capitol building.

‘We are here in solidarity with the people of Ukraine,’ said Clara Duvigneau of Fridays for Future Berlin, adding that the focus of the protest was the connection between peace and climate justice, ‘Because climate justice only works in peace.’

While these protests will not bring Putin under an international tribunal, the widespread support means a lot to those who are watching in Ukraine. ‘It gives us power to keep on fighting,’ Onufriv said.

And this power is badly needed, because for the activists on the ground in Ukraine there’s no telling what tomorrow may bring.