Kateryna Polyanska. Photo by Todd Cooper.

A Wartime Mission 

Environmental fellowship brings Ukrainian scientist to Eugene to monitor Russian war crimes, help Ukraine recover after the war

Kateryna Polyanska waited until the last minute to leave Ukraine. 

Polyanska, a landscape ecologist at the Kyiv office of Environment People Law (EPL), formerly Ecopravo-Lviv, had friends in Ireland, Germany and Poland — and even the Eugene-based nonprofit who awarded her a fellowship to come to Oregon — who told her to leave the country on Feb. 24, the first day of the Russian invasion. 

“But I said, ‘No, I can’t. I have to stay with my family,’” she says. After discussing the move with her family, she decided to leave Ukraine for a nearly three-month fellowship with Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW). On March 23, she arrived in Eugene, a trip that required a 12-hour nighttime bus ride to Poland, where she boarded a plane to go to the U.S. because air travel to and from Ukraine is restricted. 

She decided to leave, Polyanska says, because she can better help Ukraine’s war efforts from Eugene. 

While in the U.S., she says she is going to work with EPL in Ukraine to collect data on the use of Russian munitions and military targets with the goal of submitting it to the International Criminal Court. She’ll spend her time at ELAW researching some of the practices used in the western U.S. states in managing forests, marine areas and wildfire recovery, which she says will help Ukraine recover after the war. 

“The Russian military has committed many terrible crimes,” she says. “They have also damaged our environment.” 

When Russia invaded Ukraine, after its troops spent days standing by at the border, Polyanska says she thought the war would last a few days. Days after the invasion, she says, she relocated to a village outside of Kyiv, where she and her family stayed in a shelter. 

As the war raged on, Polyanska says she and her family helped Ukrainian defenders make Molotov cocktails and sandbags. “The next day, we saw Russian tanks near our village,” she says. “We heard explosions. We saw explosions and smoke and airplanes.” 

Polyanska has a Ph.D. in physical geography, which she earned in 2017, and she says she has a history of working toward environmental protections in Ukraine since she was a college student in 2008. Before the Russian invasion, Polyanska planned to use her nearly three-month fellowship with ELAW to research environmental laws in the country and take that information to strengthen Ukraine’s. 

EPL was established 28 years ago, making it Ukraine’s first environmental nongovernmental organization, according to its website. It works to strengthen the country’s environmental laws through litigation and educating stakeholders.

But when the war began, Polyanska’s research plan changed. 

She says she’s going to collect information about Russian use of munitions in the country and about the impact of razed buildings and burned bodies on the environment. She’ll be working with EPL, which she says has a database that’s collecting information about damage to protected areas, such as forest fires caused by Russian forces. 

International governing bodies have condemned Russia, alleging the country has committed war crimes. And after images of a mass grave of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, were published online April 4, President Joe Biden has called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be put on trial for war crimes. 

​​Polyanska says the Russian military has committed crimes against humanity and against Ukraine’s environment and animals during the invasion. The military has burned stables of horses, and war has resulted in hundreds of dogs dying in shelters in the Kyiv region because no one could provide food or water for them. And Ukrainian zoos have seen animal casualties, too. 

“We want to send this information to an international court,” she says. “We want to start the process for these crimes and hold people accountable.” 

Polyanska says she’s collecting this data from various sources, such as official media outlets and via social and Telegram app messages from the military, regional administrations and friendly organizations there. She says she’s asked NASA and imagery company MAXAR for satellite images, but she hasn’t heard back yet. 

“Russians came in and destroyed everything — bridges, forests, parts of rivers, a lot of buildings,” Polyanska says. 

Polyanska says the use of Russia’s munitions, such as explosions from missiles and bombs and the use of bullets, pollute Ukraine’s soil and air. Chemicals from munitions include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, she says. 

Russia’s weapons have left craters throughout Ukraine that are visible through satellite imagery, she says. “If you know the companies of these missiles and bombs, you will know the types of pollution,” she says.

War-related pollution has an impact on Ukraine’s wildlife, such as birds, she says. “All of the birds want to create nests on our territories but they can’t because they’re afraid of explosions, noises from the conflicts,” she says. “We will have a problem with this migration.” 

 Russia’s naval presence in Ukraine’s territory of the Black Sea is also causing pollution there, she adds. Sunken ships and spilled fuel are a source of pollution and detrimental to ocean ecosystems. Groups in Turkey and Bulgaria, countries that share the Black Sea, found mines in the body of water, she says.

The pollution caused from the Russian invasion provoked concern from scientists and organizations from 79 countries, who penned a March 3 open letter, saying the war was a clear violation of international law. The letter added that history of other wars have shown that environmental impacts will be “far-reaching and long-lasting,” and that there will be a need for environmental assessment, long-term monitoring and accountability.

ELAW communications director and fellows program coordinator Maggie Keenan says the nonprofit doesn’t have expertise in military weapons use, but the staff have connections with experts throughout the country who can help Polyanska, who’s the nonprofit’s first fellowship award in two years; ELAW hasn’t had fellows due to COVID-19. 

Polyanska’s fellowship with ELAW is funded by the Trust for Mutual Understanding, a nonprofit whose mission is to provide grants to U.S. nonprofit organizations to support international exchanges of professionals who work in the arts and the environment. 

When the war ends, there will be a long recovery process, Polyanska says, so during her ELAW fellowship, she will study state and federal environmental laws.

Keenan says Polyanska has toured the Oregon coast where she spoke with an expert on coastal restoration and ecosystems. And she plans to visit Blue River to research the ongoing recovery efforts from the Holiday Farm fires. 

She also received the Janet Hughes Mersereau Scholarship to cover her tuition for the American English Institute’s intensive English program at the University of Oregon. Polyanksa says English is a common language in Europe and that having an advanced ability to speak it will help her not only communicate with other scientists there but also write academic papers. “In Europe, if you want to take part in a conference or work with international scientists, you should know English,” she says.  

In addition to her ELAW fellowship, Polyanska says she lectures once a week online to a class in Ukraine, which due to time zone difference begins at midnight for her, and she stays in touch with her family — even contacting her mother and grandmother in Kyiv about when air raid sirens are going off there. 

“It was a very difficult decision to go to the United States. Every time, I feel that I should go back and help them and I should work there,” she says. “It’s not my dream to live in the United States. I want to go back.” 

For more information about ELAW, visit ELAW.org. To learn about EPL, visit EPL.org.ua/en. 

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