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Defund Putin’s War Machine: Ukrainian Environmentalist Calls for Global Halt to Fossil Fuel Funding

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We speak to Svitlana Romanko, a leading Ukrainian environmental lawyer based in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, which was bombed Friday. She describes the situation there and discusses her hopes that new sanctions to prevent American banks from investing in Russian fossil fuels signal a tipping point that will force the world to transition to clean energy. Aside from its disastrous impact on the environment, Russian oil and gas has funded powerful oligarchs and the military-industrial complex, which should prompt world leaders to invest in renewable energy in ways that will survive beyond the war, says Romanko. This week she co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times with founder Bill McKibben headlined “The Ukraine war is a decision point — banks should stop funding the fossil fuel industry forever.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia is widening its attack on Ukraine as the war enters its 16th day. Earlier today, Russian airstrikes hit the city of Dnipro in central-eastern Ukraine, killing at least one person. The airstrikes reportedly hit a kindergarten, an apartment building and a shoe factory. Long-range Russian missiles also hit airfields in two western cities, in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials are accusing Russia of shelling a physics institute in the eastern city of Kharkiv that houses an experimental nuclear reactor. Satellite images show the Russian convoy outside Kyiv has now dispersed, in a sign that Russia may soon move on the capital city. This all comes as the United Nations says more than two-and-a-half million Ukrainians have fled the country.

We begin today’s show with a Ukrainian environmental lawyer and climate activist who recently fled Ivano-Frankivsk, one of the western cities that was just bombed today. Svitlana Romanko is the founder of the Stand with Ukraine campaign, calling on governments to ban trade and investment in Russian oil and gas. This week she co-authored an article for the Los Angeles Times with Bill McKibben headlined “The Ukraine war is a decision point — banks should stop funding the fossil fuel industry forever.”

Svitlana Romanko, welcome to Democracy Now! Before we talk about this very important piece and your climate work, can you take us on the journey that you have taken? Describe what’s happened. We did not know when we were first talking to you that your city would be bombed. Talk about what happened — this is in the west of Ukraine, that hasn’t been hit yet — and then where you are now, or at least the overall region.

SVITLANA ROMANKO: Yes, thank you so much for having me today and for inviting me and giving a voice and space for Ukrainian activists to share the happenings and share the latest war developments and the huge impact, catastrophic impact, that it’s making for all our lives continually and regularly and severely, I would say.

That’s not true that we only have had explosions today in Ivano-Frankivsk, where I am regularly based and where I do have plan to come back in a few days and continue my fight for justice and for peace for my country, my beloved country. I actually woke up with my family to explosions on February 24th, the first day of war. Before that, we’ve got a lot of warnings from different intelligence services all over the world that “Heads up, Putin is going to attack. Just get prepared, and just stay strong and hold on.”

And I can say as a human, as a lawyer, as well, because lawyers are normally more prepared to take over some difficulties and challenges, because that’s normally what their work is, just to solve some problems in legislation and so on. But we all have been unprepared to wake up to explosions. We all have been highly unprepared to see our people dying, to lose our relatives, to lose a lot of children dying under the bombarded maternity hospitals. This is inhumane, this is insane, and this is atrocities that must stop.

Even now, when I’m speaking to you now, representing Ukrainian climate community — and we are many — we are trying to act. I will tell you a bit more later of how we are organizing and what we are doing and what is our piece with Bill McKibben about and why we target those institutions and how this could help Ukraine, bombarded Ukraine, just bleeding Ukraine, which is suffering every day. Today it’s the 16th day of war already, and that has been a very long 16 days for all the world that expressed immense solidarity, which we are deeply grateful for. And it’s been very long days for us, for all Ukrainians.

And today, as you said, there were new explosions in new cities, just, again, explosions in Ivano-Frankivsk after 16 days. And what they — fortunately, fortunately, no victims, no people died in Ivano-Frankivsk, but at least one person, as you said, died in our other city, Dnipro, and Lutsk. The tactic of Putin’s war machine is to keep civilians in fear, to destroy their infrastructure and buildings, to enable the terror, panic, and to enable Ukrainian government to accept what Ukrainian government will never accept, the conditions, which Putin request us, just to hold with. Saying that I would also admit that there are still almost 400,000 people that are staying in Mariupol, where there is a huge humanitarian catastrophe. They are starving. They don’t have water. The green corridors don’t work for them, because Russian troops opened fire and killed many civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, we —

SVITLANA ROMANKO: Even understanding — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We still don’t know how many people have died there, but we’ve seen the images of the mass graves where scores have been buried because there is no time to bury them individually. But hearing in Mariupol about the lack of water, the lack of food, the freezing temperatures, and yet there’s no electricity. Even cell service is cut off.

But, Svitlana, I wanted to read from the piece that you wrote with Bill McKibben. I think, clearly, overall, it very much ties into what we’re seeing today. You say, “Above all, it’s obvious that the world’s banks have amorally worked to build Russia’s oil and gas industry, the industry that funds the Russian army, and the industry that Vladimir Putin has used as a cudgel for decades to keep Europe cowering. And that’s why we cheered so loudly Tuesday when President Biden — as part of his ban on Russian oil — told American banks to make no new investments in Putin’s oil. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted, it strikes at the heart of Putin’s war machine.” So, can you talk about this, how your professional life, your activist life, as a Ukrainian environmental lawyer, comes together now with what you have identified as the reasons for this war and what can be used to stop funding the Russian military and the Russian regime?

SVITLANA ROMANKO: Yeah, thank you so much for that. And yeah, I will just tell through and explain a few initiatives that we’ve been taking over those days as a lawyer, as an activist involved in a lot of global organizations and communities to help us with. So, the first one is the complaint that I’ve been a part of organizing. It’s called “End global fossil fuel addiction that feeds Putin’s war machine.” And it was in this campaign we demand to European nation-states, the U.S., Canada, China, India, Japan, South Korea and all other importers of Russian oil and gas to stop fund Putin’s war machine. And we again call on political deputies to stop the war and actually to divest all funds that have been invested and kept into Russian companies, Russian assets. And we also mention that Putin has deliberately weaponized fossil gas to increase his existing energy dominance over the European Union. And what we see, I can tell a bit later about another action within the European Union, after amazing leadership of President Biden that you’ve mentioned, and how that continues over Europe and through Europe and European leaders. And Putin still threatens European nations that would come to Ukraine’s aid, and this needs to be stopped.

So, we called upon all governments of the countries I’ve mentioned, outside Europe and inside the European Union, to reject, ban, embargo any import of fossil fuels from Russia and rapidly phase out fossil fuels. Even, of course, realizing, because I am a researcher, I can understand climate change and easily navigate main provisions and main state of renewable energy development. So, yes, it not seems to be easy, but that’s quite possible, and it’s a decisive point, as we pointed out with Bill McKibben in our L.A. piece, that that has to be done, to provide affordable access to distributed renewable energy, for community-owned energy for everyone. And we should start now.

This war is such an immense tipping point and a chance we might not have had in the future, exactly as is with climate crisis. So, therefore, we also demanded to stop all trade and end all investment in Gazprom, Rosneft, Transneft, Surgutneftegas, Lukoil, Russian Coal and other Russian companies and freeze the assets of such companies outside Russia, as well as freezing other Russian fossil fuel assets. And Western companies, as ExxonMobil, as others, have to stop fossil fuel production in Russia. So, so far, we said we collected 660 organization signatures into that from over 60 countries. And yesterday we’ve delivered — with a campaign group of us, we delivered the letters to all European leaders in the European Union and urged them to follow the example of President Biden and to put embargo on Russian oil and gas and end any investments in fossil fuels for their companies and banks.

And also I would also like to mention a next very important Putin 100 campaign, which has been launched in solidarity with Ukraine, as well, by over 75 organizations, which we are writing to global banks, insurers and asset managers that are most active in the Russian fossil fuel sector. These include JPMorgan Chase, Crédit Agricole, Citibank, Vanguard, CHAPS, Lloyd’s of London and Munich Re. Groups are asking them to commit to not provide new financing investment, insurance coverage and other financial services to companies which make up the core of Russian coal, oil and gas industry, and divesting from existing assets. So, there is a start of campaign. You all can join. You can join our call to action, which is Stand with Ukraine, and you can also join campaign Putin’s 100, which has been launched within the U.S. and many global organizations in solidarity with Ukraine to stop this banking, because —

AMY GOODMAN: Svitlana —

SVITLANA ROMANKO: — so saying, I do remember one —

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to say, as you talk about stopping reliance on fossil fuel, the other part of this, the solution that you have stressed is renewables. Earlier this week, President Biden banned oil and gas imports from Russia and called for a transition to green energy. This is what he said.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This crisis is a stark reminder, to protect our economy over the long term, we need to become energy independent. I’ve had numerous conversations over the last three months with our European friends of how they have to wean themselves off of Russian oil. It’s just not — it’s just not tenable. It should motivate us to accelerate a transition to clean energy. This is a perspective, as I said, that our European allies share, and the — a future where together we can achieve greater independence.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Svitlana Romanko, you write in the L.A. Times, “With an influx of funding, we could, for instance, produce air source heat pumps by the millions and ship them to Europe, so by next winter they could be installed, heating homes and putting a noticeable dent in Putin’s oil-and-gas leverage.” These renewable solutions that you stress?

SVITLANA ROMANKO: Yeah, these are renewable energy solutions, beyond any doubt. And adding to that, I would like to say that the key and root prerequisite for those solutions to be put in place, to be implemented the soonest and not allow the peace-washing of fossil fuel companies actually to justify their increased exploration of fossil fuels, this should be also transformed into renewable energy transition as a society. As an activist, we should not allow fossil fuel companies right now to increase their exploration. And these renewable energy solutions that you have mentioned are very true, they are affordable, and everyone basically can be a part of a network of implementing those solutions. That’s why we call them distributed, community-owned, community-led solutions. But the root prerequisite, I would like to mention, that we need to triple our investment in clean energy, which means we need to find the costs from somewhere. And there is enough —

AMY GOODMAN: Svitlana, we’re going to have to break soon. We are going to be going to Mykolaiv, and you know that that southern city is under siege. But I wanted to, finally, ask you about — one, I was surprised when you said you plan to go right back to your city, that was just bombed today, that you plan to go back soon. And are you afraid about speaking out? I mean, you’re a Ukrainian climate lawyer, can clearly be identified. What are the risks?

SVITLANA ROMANKO: Yeah, I’ve seen some signs of risk. That’s why I’m just trying to mitigate them, but I am personally not afraid. I am not afraid. I am only — of course, I should consider some risks for family and so on, but I personally am not afraid, and I am ready to and I plan — I just really plan to, after some security measurers, to go back to my country and to help, because this is the country of my parents and where they are. This is the country where I was born. And I am a patriotic person, and I should go back and keep helping, even — because everyone in our country is a volunteer right now, and together we can overcome the biggest evil, which Putin represents with his war machine. We can stop this, I truly believe, and I have no fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Svitlana Romanko, I want to thank you so much for being with you. We are going to check back with you in the coming days. Ukrainian climate activist, longtime environmental lawyer, who lives in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. She founded the Stand with Ukraine campaign, calling on governments to ban trade and investment in Russian oil and gas. We’ll link to the piece you wrote with Bill McKibben “The Ukraine war is a decision point — banks should stop funding the fossil fuel industry forever.”

Coming up, we go to the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, and then we’ll be speaking with Andrew Bacevich. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Concerto for 2 Keyboards in C Minor,” featuring Alexander Malofeev. Despite voicing opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the young Russian pianist was struck from the schedule of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra this week. In a Facebook post, Malofeev wrote, quote, “The most important thing now is to stop the blood. All I know is that the spread of hatred will not help in any way but only cause more suffering.”

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Ukrainian Resident of Besieged Mykolaiv Describes Lack of Food, Water as Russian Troops Attack City

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