Environmental consequences have never been the top priority during wars. Crucially, however, a war’s impact on the environment can significantly increase the number of people affected by hostilities. On February 24th, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, after having already occupied Crimea and the Donbas region in 2014. While environmental destruction is already recognized as a war crime by the International Criminal Court and sanctioned by law, existing legal protections are inadequate and inconsistent. This makes it even more essential to monitor and collect evidence of Russia’s criminal acts against Ukraine’s people, environment, cities, and infrastructure in order to hold Moscow accountable.
The Ukrainian government, led by the Ministry of Environment and civil society, is working on collecting evidence about environmental crimes to bring Russia to justice. Ecoaction, one of such civil society organisations (CSOs), has monitored 252 cases of potentially adverse environmental damage caused by the Russian aggression so far, affecting Ukraine’s environment and beyond. Such cases include attacks on nuclear power plants, seaports, and hazardous waste storage facilities (e.g., mineral fertilizers, polyurethane foam, etc.); the destruction of industries, including the chemical and metallurgical ones; fires in oil depots, gas stations, and landfills; and, finally, damage to heating and water supply facilities (e.g., sewage pumping stations and filtering stations). The overall losses and impact of war on the environment can only be evaluated after the Ukrainian government restores control of the entire Ukrainian territory. However, initial estimates by the Ministry of the Environment on the war’s environmental damage stand at USD 5.8 billion.
In particular, eastern Ukraine is heavily industrialized, increasing the risk of environmental disasters. Under normal conditions, it would be possible to localize the risks, but shelling and bombing complicate matters. Ukraine has four operational nuclear power plants. The March 14 news of the seizure of the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia plants shook the world, particularly when occupiers detonated munitions at the latter and damaged a high-voltage line supplying electricity for cooling of spent nuclear fuel in local storage pools at the former. The lack of electricity could cause temperatures to rise in the spent fuel pools, potentially releasing radioactive substances into the environment. Damage to any nuclear facility could carry radiations to other regions in Ukraine as well as Belarus, Russia, Europe, and beyond. At the time of writing, the Zaporizhzhia station is still under Russian control.
In addition to nuclear hazards, shelling and occupation increase the risk of toxic waste emissions from industrial facilities. So far, the State Register of Potentially Hazardous Facilities contains information about over 23,000 of such facilities, including nearly 3000 warehouses storing highly toxic pesticides. Most of these facilities are located in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kharkiv —currently active war zones. After the 2014 occupation of Donbas, Ukraine lost access to that territory. There are several mines in that region and Russia has damaged power supply systems through shelling. As of 2020, estimates find that Russian activities had caused floods in at least 39 mines. Critically, untreated mine water might mix with groundwater used as a source of drinking water. When rising up to the earth's surface, mine water enters bodies of water and rivers across the Siverskiy Donets basin, directly polluting the region's main water artery. As of 2019, there were 232 mines located on Ukrainian territory within its internationally recognized borders: of the 148 operational ones, only 35 were in Ukraine-controlled territory. Official sources have reported about floods to critical levels at the Zolote and Toshkivska mines as well as the gradual flooding of the Carbonit and Gorna mines due to damage to the power supply networks caused by shelling since February 2022.
Moreover, Moscow has shelled water infrastructure, mined dams, and conducted military operations in the Black Sea and Azov Sea. It has destroyed the sewage pumping station building by attacking the wastewater treatment plant at the Vasylkivka water supply and sewage operation plant, causing unfiltered water to flow into the Dnipro River. Russian missiles have also damaged six tanks with fertilizer, leading to the spread of ammonium in the Ikva river in the Rivne region, which now exceeds standard levels by 163 times: unsurprisingly, residents of the Dubno district have found dead fish in the river.
Overall, Russia's war against Ukraine has already affected 900 protected areas, amounting to nearly a third (1.2 million hectares) of all of Ukraine's protected areas. Many internationally important wildlife sites also face destruction. Since 2014, 44% of the most valuable natural reserve territories have been in the war zone, under temporary control of Russian invaders or otherwise inaccessible to Ukraine. Crucially, the environmental impacts of the Russian aggression will also have significant, long-term consequences for soil pollution and arable land exclusion that may lead to a decrease in crop production, which is crucial for the rest of the world. Environmental damage might also lead to mass migration from polluted areas. As such, this is further testament that the conflict doesn’t only affect Ukraine but several other countries, too.