The World Wildlife Fund blocked its Ukraine chapter from signing a public statement last week denouncing the Russian government's invasion, claiming that it could harm the group's "long-term ability to do conservation work across the world," according to a Ukrainian environmental activist.
The WWF-Ukraine chapter had added its name to a joint statement this month, organized by the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG), which called on democratic governments to ban imports of Russian timber and wood products, a $13 billion industry, and denounced Russia's "aggressive war against Ukraine," according to the UNCG.
"WWF-Ukraine was one of the very first organizations to put their names to the statement to ban Russian and Belarusian wood imports," wrote the UNCG's Yehor Hrynyk in a recent statement on the group's website. "But just days later I received an email from representatives of WWF international's management."
WWF's international management reportedly asked Hrynyk to remove WWF-Ukraine's name, arguing that "as an international conservation organization we need to stick to stricter guidelines that safeguard our long-term ability to do conservation work across the world." The letter was signed by more than 100 NGOs, including the Rainforest Action Network and Global Witness.
The move comes as the WWF has avoided direct criticism of the Russian government, which the global climate change and wildlife activist group maintains close ties with through its advocacy work and its office leadership in Moscow. It also comes as Republican lawmakers have launched a probe into potential financial ties between other U.S. environmental groups and the Russian government.
Hrynyk described WWF's removal request as an attempt to "censor their colleagues in national offices who have taken a stance on these calls" and noted that WWF has declined to speak out against Russia's war.
The WWF's international office has issued a brief statement, which does not mention Russia by name, saying it is "gravely concerned about the mounting situation in Ukraine, and we are alarmed by the disturbing violence and destruction across the country. Our hearts and thoughts are with those affected, especially the people of Ukraine and everyone in the impacted regions."
While the WWF has been reluctant to criticize Russia, the organization has taken strong political stances in the past on U.S. issues. Last year, the group issued a lengthy statement after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol saying it "strongly condemns last week's attack on American democracy and the ongoing calls for violence."
"We cannot be silent when so much is at stake for our nation, our sacred institutions, our core values, and our common humanity," said the group, adding that the attack "was stoked, shamefully, by some of the very elected officials our country entrusted to faithfully carry out that [democratic] process."
In 2020, the WWF also condemned the "senseless killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and a continued pattern of violence toward African Americans."
"WWF cannot stay silent," said WWF-U.S. president Carter Roberts in a statement posted to the group's website. "We are compelled to speak out to condemn the trauma and injustice that the Black community has borne for so long."
The WWF's Russian office is overseen by a four-member "Guardian Council" that includes Leonid Grigoriev, chief adviser to the state-controlled Analytical Center for the Government of the Russian Federation; Vladislav Onishchenko, a former Russian Ministry of Finance official and head of the Kremlin-allied Center for Strategic Research; and Nikolai Drozdov, a Russian media figure who praised Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and helped lead a Russian propaganda group called "We Love Russia."
The WWF has worked closely with Vladimir Putin and the Russian government on environmental work for years, particularly on efforts to save endangered tigers in the region. The group is one of the main promoters for the upcoming Tiger Summit, scheduled to be held in Vladivostok, Russia, in September. The WWF did not respond to an inquiry about whether it will still go forward with the summit.
Republican lawmakers launched a probe this week into potential funding ties between the Russian government and several U.S. environmental groups. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters on Thursday requesting information on whether the groups have received funding "from the Russian government or anyone connected with the Russian government."