"The war is affecting the sustainable development of every single country in our region."

Vladislav Kaim is dedicated to protecting the environment. A member of the UN Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, he promotes green jobs, the energy transition, and generous climate finance - urgent priorities for our rapidly warming world. Yet the war in Ukraine has blown apart regional and global networks working towards a livable future.

As a Moldovan, Vladislav Kaim has seen how the devastating war in Ukraine has affected the region and turned people's attention away from the climate emergency. In this episode, he reflects on the effect of the war on long-term climate action, and on his fears for loved ones in the region.




Transcript and Multimedia


Vladislav Kaim 0:00  


To me, all these countries, they are countries where I have, or had, my relatives, my close friends. And their lives were absolutely shattered in different ways.


Melissa Fleming 0:22  


The war in Ukraine has torn so many lives apart. Vladislav Kaim comes from the region. He's from Moldova, which borders Ukraine. Moldova has taken in 1000s and 1000s of Ukrainian refugees, including his family. Vladislav is a member of the UN's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. He's a native Russian speaker. He studied in Moscow. And he told me about his fears for the region and its environment. From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. This is Awake at Night. Welcome, Vladislav.


Vladislav Kaim 1:10 


Thank you. A pleasure to be here.


Melissa Fleming 1:11  


I understand your passion for climate and the environment came from a visit that you made as a teenager to the Dniester River in your home country of Moldova. Tell me what you saw.


Vladislav Kaim 1:24  


When I was 15 years old, and I won a local competition that was dedicated to storytelling about the river. We were on a day visit. And I spotted to my horror that the downstream was basically bringing a pack of dead fish. And the water itself that was carrying them was grey water with greenish undertones of a darker kind with some smell that was not particularly good. And to me at that time, that was not… I wouldn’t say that it's a light bulb moment, but I started putting a lot of questions about like, ‘But how could this happen’? After this trip, I came to my chemistry teacher and told her about this. And she said that, ‘Unfortunately, this is something that has been happening for quite a while already. And it might start happening more often’. And I said, ‘Okay, but what can we do to try to make sure that it stops?’ She took quite a pause. Because she was, I guess, running through her head like, how can you respond to a 15-year-old on this question while both being honest and not demotivating. And she said, ‘You know, this is something that in my lifetime, we will probably still have to see. But if you want to accumulate more knowledge about this, I will help you with this. And if you say yes, I am sure that you will be able to carry it forward and help. And if there are more and more guys like you who would be able to help, people's attitudes will change as well’.


Melissa Fleming 3:24 


What meaning does the Dniester River have for Moldova?


Vladislav Kaim 3:30  


Dniester is more than a river. It is a source of around 80% of potable water for my home city, the capital of Moldova - Chisinau - as well as for many of the communities that are closer around it. And this is one of the two main rivers that were defining as a country throughout our short history - Dniester on the east, Prut on the west. The cooperation around the river has been a vehicle for peace for us to be able to overcome the trauma of the war of 1992. And it even features in our national anthem as well. 


Melissa Fleming 4:09  


So, a huge meaning if that river is not healthy. It has implications beyond the dead fish that you saw. It's the clean water and it's even peace. So, this seemed to ignite something in you. 

Vladislav at a conference


Vladislav Kaim 4:24  




Melissa Fleming 4:25  


What happened next? What did you do?


Vladislav Kaim 4:27 


I started taking as many books on this to read as a I could in the local library that was like around 15 minutes by foot from my school. And discussing it with both my chemistry teacher but also with my parents back home. The more I was discussing it with them, the more I was reading, the more questions I was actually having. Why did I see so much fish die? Why those who have the means, the power to reverse it, are not doing it? And this is sort of the final question with which I came out of high school.


Melissa Fleming 5:11  


How old are you now? 


Vladislav Kaim 5:12  




Melissa Fleming 5:13  


26. So, you missed the Soviet Union?


Vladislav Kaim 5:18 


I missed the Soviet Union, but I have acquired a memory of the debris that the dissolution of the empire left.


Melissa Fleming 5:29  


What do you mean when you say debris? Because when one thinks of debris, one thinks of like physical things? What do you mean by that?


Vladislav Kaim 5:35  


Yes, it's both physical things, but also the lives of many people. For example, in our family, my grandfather was during Soviet times a very successful practitioner of essential oil crops. He in his research institute was actually fired and then rehired as a security guard. And stories like this. Of them there are many in many countries that formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And the stories of like, how people in this transition, which was needed. You cannot escape that. But could have been managed way, way better. How they were losing this sense of pride and dignity in what they were doing. This is something that I vividly remember from the stories. And this is something that strongly motivates me today, as well, to pursue the work that I'm doing on green jobs. Because I consider that each job is much more than a paycheck. It's much more than even the higher environmental goal. Job is also something that is a powerful engine of self-identification for a person. And without it, without the security that it provides… Without the dignity of work, as Joe Biden put it, people will find it extremely hard to concentrate on those big challenges that we are discussing out there and which need to be tackled, like climate change. If those basics of human self-identification are not secured for them.


Melissa Fleming 7:32  


I wonder if this has origins in your own family story. I mean, you just mentioned your grandfather, who was a scientist but wasn't able to remain a scientist and instead was forced to become a security guard in his own institute. I wonder, what did your parents do? And what would their have potential have been, you know. But just given… Paint a picture of that time in Moldova, in that transition period.


Vladislav Kaim 8:03  


So, in the middle of the 1990s, we are talking about since I was born in September 1995. It meets my mother being an English language teacher. She graduated four years before that. She taught at a lyceum and was doing a lot of private lessons as well. Because hustling comes extremely natural to us considering that there were rarely, if any, opportunities to have one job and live off of it. Combining things, being able to have something on the side was something that was crucial to bring the basics on the table. My father at that time was already a qualified interior designer. But due to the situation he was not able to pursue his passion in that. In like interior decorations and everything. So, he was working construction elsewhere abroad. And I saw him for the first time when I was around one year old. And being able to recognize him by the photo that he sends to my mom. And she put it in a nice place out there in the apartment. And was showing it to me every day to make sure that I do not forget.

Vladislav portrait photo at UN headquarters with a view of the sunset


Melissa Fleming 9:23  


So, what did you do when he arrived, as a one-year-old who had never seen his father?


Vladislav Kaim 9:28 


Well, since my mom was always saying before that, ‘Look, this is papa’. I saw papa and said, ‘Papa’. Which made him deeply moved from what they tell me.


Melissa Fleming 9:39 


You went on to study economics in Moscow. Why did you choose to go to Moscow?


Vladislav Kaim 9:45  


So, Moscow State University of International Relations is the university that has had a reputation that is quite significant for the region. It was 2014. A very momentous year, as far as the events in both Russia and our region were changing. And I considered that it would be a great challenge for me to be able to spend the time in the country that was rethinking itself so fast. And unfortunately, as we can see, not in a good direction. Coming from a country in its near immediate neighbourhood, it was extremely important to understand their mindset. But as well as understanding the whole structure of interdependence between… Economic interdependence, between big powers, between themselves and between big powers and small countries like mine. And how that affects also their calculus, their thinking, their decision making.


Melissa Fleming 10:50  


So, you were already thinking like that as an 18-year-old?


Vladislav Kaim 10:52  


I used to read a lot of historical books at the time. This was something that I was very passionately pursuing. I was considering for a brief moment out there to study history. But as one of my close friends said, ‘Being a historian is not going to bring you food to the table’. To which I agreed. And I consider that in that case, you need to study something that is moving history. And to me economics is something that is moving history.


Melissa Fleming 11:29  


You arrived as a young guy, and you come to Moscow. Like, how did it look to you? And how did it feel for you?


Vladislav Kaim 11:35


Absolutely enormous. I was… I lived my whole life by that time in the city that counts like 700,000 people. This is the first time I'm going to live anywhere without my family. And you are bolted straight into a city that like by different counts is like 16 to 20 million people. And this is something that I was both very scared of but also cherished a lot because, as I said, I like challenge myself. And…


Melissa Fleming 12:12  


How was your Russian?


Vladislav Kaim 12:16  


I'm coming from a family that where the predominant language spoken is Russian. So, in that regard, I faced no barriers.


Melissa Fleming 12:25  


Did anybody help shape your life or kind of take you in at that time to make your introduction to living in Moscow easy?


Vladislav Kaim 12:34  


I had great luck shortly after I commenced my Bachelor studies to start getting involved in the university's economic club, which was headed by the woman who was to become my mentor. But at that time was my economic theory professor – Anna Makarenko. And the way her attitude toward students as equals diverged from many other professors that I have met later was something that struck me extremely positively. And the warmth with which she always approached me, and my best friends was something that struck me deeply. And I thought that this is a person whom I want to be my mentor. And then the…

Melissa Fleming 13:26  


Did you have to ask her? 


Vladislav Kaim 13:27  


I don't… I cannot say that there was an exact moment of like when I asked her, or she offered to me. But I guess it's a process that ended up naturally coming to that point.


Melissa Fleming 13:39 


Okay, so what was it? What did she do for you? 


Vladislav Kaim 13:43 


So, me and two colleagues of mine, we came to her with this idea of starting one of the first of its kind youth communities that would be focused on exchanging and disseminating knowledge about, at that time MDGs because SDGs were…


Melissa Fleming 13:57


The Millennium Development Goals. 

group photo
photo of Secretary-General António Guterres with Vladislav Kaim


Vladislav Kaim 14:00


Yes, it was October 2014. And Miss Anna, she was extremely supportive of that. Whatever door we had to bang on, she was always trying to do her best to open it. And she, at the same time, was very frank with us when she was noticing that we're going into overdrive or maybe this is something you shouldn't do. But frank but soft at the same time. And this is a combination and style of care and honesty that I have internalized so much to the point where like my own mother said at the graduation ceremony in 2018 to her, ‘You should know, Anna Viktorovna that you are a second mother to him’. She smiled a lot at this and remembered this expression. Unfortunately, we lost her to complications that are related to COVID-19 in November 2020, and this is something that I consider extremely unfortunate. She knew at that time I already was in the UN Secretary-General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. But beyond that, unfortunately, we did not have time to talk more about it or for her to see my further path.


Melissa Fleming 15:36  


Sounds like that really, really affected you. How to lose her from COVID-19. And I guess you didn't have a chance to… 


Vladislav Kaim 15:44  


Attend the funeral. No. 


Melissa Fleming 15:45  


Because of COVID.


Vladislav Kaim 15:46  




Melissa Fleming 15:52  


That's a terrible disease. But she left some real strength that she gave you inside you.


Vladislav Kaim 16:00 


The most important I think that she left is her disciples - people like me. People who realized the value of independent thinking, independent organizing in environments that might be to others seem challenging. The value of being honest. And to me, when, for example, we came in the Youth Advisory Group, and the first thing the Secretary-General said, ‘I need to have frank and honest advice from you’. In my mind, I was like, ‘No, I've done that before. I will easily adapt. Not a problem.’ The values of being able to speak your own mind even if it might upset someone whom you would not want to upset. These are the values that many, many disciples, including me, have been carrying throughout. And through them, we will keep remembering her for that.


Melissa Fleming 17:15  


So, you know, during that time, so encouraged by Professor Anna, you became involved in youth activism. Wasn't that kind of risky in Moscow?


Vladislav Kaim 17:28  


Certainly, risks are higher than in other places, especially in Europe. However, for the youth to be able to know the importance of the Sustainable Development Agenda and being able to pass the knowledge about this importance to their own communities. And organize for more projects, ideas, on how to act on them locally is something that is absolutely common sense. Sustainable development is something that requires cooperation. You need to have everybody on board and willing to be open to each other. This is unfortunately something that is not going to happen probably for a long time in that context anymore.


Melissa Fleming 18:15  


Do you mean because of the war in Ukraine? 


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Vladislav Kaim 18:18  


Absolutely. The war was used as a pretext to walk back on certain already feeble commitments in terms of climate that were undertaken by Russia before. And this is extremely unfortunate, because we are talking about a country that is quite high up there on the rankings of the countries with high historic emissions of CO2. The country that has to lose the most in terms of consequences of the permafrost melting. The country that hosts a huge chunk of world's boreal forests. The country that has seen some absolutely devastating wildfires in its northern lands throughout the past years. And these challenges would not disappear simply because you want to wish them away. In order to unite the society over such a terrible cause. Quite to the contrary, because as I said, they are common sense. People want to breathe clean air, drink clean water. They want to be able to live and practice their traditional crafts in the same places where their ancestors did. And they want to live in cities that will not sink, that will not be potentially destroyed by other extreme events. And all this is eaten up by the war. This is something that is affecting all of us around. The sustainable development of every single country in our region is affected tremendously.


Melissa Fleming 20:01


So, you fear that the ripple effects of this war could have an effect on our climate.


Vladislav Kaim 20:10  


They already do. If we look at the cooperation that was happening in the Black Sea Basin, I think that definitely something that for the time being we can write off. And…


Melissa Fleming 20:21  


What would that have resulted in if it had gone forward?


Vladislav Kaim 20:27  


At the very least, it would have allowed to keep a space for dialogue, for sharing important scientific data about the state of biodiversity in the Black Sea Basin. And be able to coordinate our measures to protect the environment, to refrain from drilling on the seabed for oil and gas. That would inflict further damage not only on the marine environment, but on people who are living nearby. And I'm extremely afraid that it is going to lead, at least for a moment, to forgetting about the bigger picture. And climate is definitely a huge part of this bigger picture.


illustration of the earth sweating with a thermometer next to it

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Melissa Fleming 21:13 


You look… I mean, people can't see you right now. But to me, you look visibly upset about this.


Vladislav Kaim 21:18  


I am. Because to me all these countries, they are countries where I have, or had, my relatives, my close friends. And their lives were absolutely shattered in different ways. And this is something that I cannot take lightly. Neither in personal terms, nor in the terms of its influence on that bigger picture that I was talking about.


Melissa Fleming 21:44  


So, you’re talking about your friends in Russia, your friends in Ukraine.


Vladislav Kaim 21:48  


Yeah. My family in Ukraine, first and foremost. Because six members of my family were forced to leave. Three of them are currently being hosted by my parents in their apartment in Chisinau. And this is only a small snippet of this enormous effort coming out of our hearts of Moldovans that we undertook throughout the last weeks to ensure that our brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, kids, relatives of all kinds coming from Ukraine. And even strangers would be able to find shelter, to brush off at least a little bit the horror that they were exposed to. Something that Europe should have never seen again after 1945. And we are showing to the world right now that Moldova is a country that might have a small purse but has a big heart.


illustration of the earth sweating with a thermometer next to it

UN News | Focus on the Ukraine

“This horrific scenario demonstrates something that is unfortunately, always true: civilians always pay the highest price. Innocent civilians were living in these buildings. They were paying the highest price for a war for which they had not contributed at all. And this is something everybody should remember, everywhere in the world. Wherever there is a war, the highest price is paid by civilians,” said the Secretary-General in Irpin.
Photo: ©UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Latest UN News on the Ukraine


Melissa Fleming 22:54 


You know, you say your family members had to flee Ukraine and that your parents are hosting three of them. What are they saying?


Vladislav Kaim 23:05


For many of them, it did not quite start sinking in - the actual scale of the ramifications that are waiting for them. Many of them, including my relatives in question, they think that it's something that is extremely temporary, and that they will be able to return soon. I really hope they would be right. But international relations and the logic according to which they develop, or lack thereof, do not make me so optimistic. But I really hope they would be right. I'm praying for it. 


Melissa Fleming 23:38  


Like we all do. I mean, back to the environment. You just went up. I'm just pivoting to this because we're sitting here at the UN studio in New York. Because you went up to visit the Secretary-General together with other fellow members of his youth, or the UN's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. What did you tell him?


Vladislav Kaim 24:04  


First and foremost, I thanked him for the efforts that the UN system has been undertaking to make sure that the refugees coming to Moldova benefit from good conditions. Secondly, I also talked about the various causes of anger in the youth climate movement to what is happening worldwide with climate finance. Or rather what is not happening. Particularly the… what I think amounts to betrayal of the developing countries at COP26 with regards to loss and damage financing and how we can address that gap. The fact that most of the climate finance is still coming through loans and not grants. And this is not acceptable.


Melissa Fleming 24:54  


So, you feel yourself and you describe yourself as part of a global youth movement. Is that correct?


Vladislav Kaim 25:03 


Well, this is certainly the context that I'm operating in. 


Melissa Fleming 25:07


What did it mean for you to be asked to be part of the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change for the United Nations?


Vladislav Kaim 25:13  


I honestly cried when I found out the news and primarily because it came like two months after my grandmother died. And I found this extremely unfair that she was not able to live to see it. But to me as a professional, this is something that is absolutely life changing. Because when one of the people with the greatest bully pulpits in the world, tells you that I need to hear your advice. My climate envoy needs to hear your advice on a regular basis. And you are here for the work that you're doing. Not because you are from Country X or Y, or because you are coming from background Y or Z. This is something that I hold deeply to heart, something that I'm extremely appreciative of, and was doing my best to prove through my work that the decision was worth it.


Melissa Fleming 26:20   


Sounds like you really miss your grandmother. What was your relationship with her like? And it seems like she died quite young.


Vladislav Kaim 26:29  


Well, she died in her mid-70s. Again, from COVID. And she basically brought me up. She taught me how to read. How to write. My passion towards reading is something that I got from her. The extreme care about the people that give your everything to you and the desire to give everything to them. This is also something that I got from her. And I just wish there was more time.


Melissa Fleming 27:05  


Were you there when she got sick?


Vladislav Kaim 27:08  


No. When she got sick, in certain moments, yes. But that when she died, I wasn't there. She died in the middle of the first wave. So, lockdowns in 2020. And so, it's been… it was nigh impossible. Unfortunately, such is life.


Melissa Fleming 27:28 


I'm very sorry to hear that. And I'm sure she'd be very proud.


Vladislav Kaim 27:33


I hope so too. 


Melissa Fleming 27:35


You're now studying in Sweden.


Vladislav Kaim 27:40  


Yes, I am. Finishing my second Master's. I have graduated with my first Master's in economics from Lund University. And right now, I'm gearing towards the ending of my second Master's in Urban Studies at Malmö University.


Melissa Fleming 27:59  


And why Sweden?


Vladislav Kaim 28:03  


Well, first of all, Sweden, because of love. My spouse is living there. And we moved in together by going to the south of Sweden, in Malmö, where we are staying at the moment. And because Sweden is a country that, from my point of view also epitomizes the values that I hold the dearest in the society. A combination of this strong sense of personal responsibility and responsibility to the society. Being able to always be ready to contribute. And making sure that you are in a society that builds for itself. Where state exists for people, and not people exist for the state. And this is a model that I strongly hope that my country will also be espousing soon on her way to the European Union. And I hope that in my lifetime, and my kids will already be able to see a European Union in which both of the countries that I hold so dear to heart are in the same European family.


Melissa Fleming 29:34  


Vladislav, thank you so much for joining us on Awake at Night.


Vladislav Kaim 29:37  


Thank you so much for your invitation.


Melissa Fleming 29:41  


Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. 


To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. On Twitter, we’re @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please do take the time to review us. It helps more people find the show.


Thanks to my editor Bethany Bell, to Jen Thomas, Adam Paylor and the team at Purpose and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Katerina Kitidi, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier.