COP27: Ukraine finds new allies in a Russian tourist hotspot

Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

Ukraine’s pavilion at the UN climate change conference COP27 in Egypt consists of austere, dark gray walls. It feels like a bomb shelter, a bit out of place among all the colorful buildings erected by other countries 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 war of aggression – a war funded primarily by oil and gas revenues.

Russia, on the other hand, was largely invisible at the conference. In contrast to previous years, she did not set up a pavilion and largely postponed her delegation.

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

Menus and signs in shops and entertainment venues are often in both Russian and Arabic, making it clear that Russians – and their money – are welcome here.

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

At a roundtable discussion with Russia’s deputy minister of natural resources and ecology, one protester shouted: “You are criminals, war criminals. You are killing my people. They’re shooting bombs at our people” before being escorted out of the venue.

Ukraine, on the other hand, made 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 daily demonstrations at COP, where “killing fossil fuels” is one of the activists’ key messages.

Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk addresses an audience at COP27 from Kyiv.

“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 chair of the Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian group that won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

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

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

When Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in late February, Krakovska and her IPCC colleagues were in the process of working on a key report. “That morning I said to my colleagues in the plenary: ‘Look, we’re under Russian attack now, we’re facing a much bigger threat now… a threat to our lives.’ But we understand that climate change will not stop.”

“‘So we’re going to do our homework, we’re going to survive and withstand Russian aggression, and you’re going to continue your work here at the IPCC and approve this very important summary for policymakers to work with,'” 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 revenues from these fossil fuels. So the message is clear. Stop funding the fossil fuel war,” she said.

“It is crucial for us and for many other suffering countries,” she added, noting that the war in Ukraine is having repercussions in some of the countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis due to the role Ukraine is playing in of the global food supply.

Ukraine is one of the largest contributors to the World Food Program, which delivers food to countries suffering from famines caused or exacerbated by the climate crisis. To remind the world of its role as a global breadbasket – and to highlight the devastation caused by the war – Ukraine’s pavilion features a display of samples of different types of soil found on its vast farmland.

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

“As soon as I walked in, 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 her third COP summit, initially as an official member of Ukraine’s delegation. “I was upgraded,” El Kortbi said.

Like many other Ukrainians at the COP27 summit, El Kortbi relied on donations to pay for the trip and works as a volunteer communications consultant. El Kortbi used to organize climate strikes in Ukraine, and the years as a Fridays For Future activist were good practice for the role.

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

The message the activists brought to the COP was underscored by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who spoke at the conference last week.

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

A few days after Zelenskyy’s speech at the COP, Ukrainian troops recaptured the city of Kherson after months of Russian occupation. The strategic southern city, an agricultural center known for its watermelons, was the only Ukrainian regional capital that Russian forces had captured since February’s invasion. Its liberation was a great Ukrainian victory.

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

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