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Amid war, Ukrainians are tracking Russia’s crimes against the environment

A car burns with two people inside, after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

A car burns with two people inside, after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

  • With civilian and political welfare as the Ukrainian government’s number one priority, environmental destruction has largely been overlooked during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • But civilians and experts alike have rallied together to record more than 100 separate instances of “crimes against the environment,” with the aim of bringing Russia to justice under international courts after the war.
  • From the destruction of fuel and gas depots to the long-term effects of ecosystem services on Ukraine, known as the “breadbasket of the world,” environmental impacts can also become humanitarian crises, activists warn.

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. The assault, by what’s widely considered the second-most powerful military in the world, was on six fronts across air, land and sea, spanning 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) across the Ukrainian border.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says that nearly 2,900 civilians have been killed as of April. 29, but the actual number is likely far higher. More than 5.3 million people have fled the country.

These injustices alone are staggering, yet, the crimes committed against the environment have largely gone unaddressed. While environmental damage may seem trivial in the face of death and displacement, a healthy environment will be crucial in safeguarding Ukraine’s socioeconomic recovery after the war.

According to the Geneva Convention, “it is prohibited to use methods or means of warfare that are intended to cause or are expected to cause widespread, long-term, and serious damage to the environment.”

Car parked on road side in Kyiv, Ukraine. Image by Mikhail Volkov via Pexels.

Yet, the environmental impacts of the Russia-Ukraine conflict to date are severe, far-reaching, and likely to affect generations of Ukrainians to come, according to Olena Maslyukivska, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Maslyukivska, who is a refugee herself, says environmental activists have had to record these damages in secret, and that the ongoing war has presented hurdles in collecting and analyzing this data.

“We have been advised that we should not publicly report environmental damage amidst the war so that the enemy doesn’t know how effective their bombing has been,” she says, citing the case of a Ukrainian TikToker who gave away the location of civilians in a supermarket in a viral video, allegedly resulting in Russia bombing and killing eight civilians the next day.

Despite these difficulties, civilians and experts alike have rallied their resources, giving rise to a record of more than a hundred separate instances of environmental damage directly resulting from the first month of the war alone and compiled by the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction. The call to record environmental crimes was initiated by the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, and promptly supported by NGOs like Ecoaction and other civil society organizations.

Map shows the numbers of environmental crimes tracked as of April 10 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Image courtesy of Ecoaction.

While the full scale of the environmental damage will only be calculable after the war, the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine has declared a preliminary estimate of at least $77 million for the pollution of land resources alone.

“All this evidence is so that we can later appeal to the international courts and receive compensation for the damages caused to the environment,” Maslyukivska says.

She adds the largest proportion (30% to 40%) of environmental impact to date has come from the bombing of industrial plants, oil depots, coal-fired power plants and gas pipelines.

Fires have broken out as a result of these bombings, giving rise to massive greenhouse gas emissions as well as air pollution impacting the victims of war. On Feb. 27, for example, the missile strikes on an oil depot in Vasylkiv resulted in the burning of 20,000 cubic meters (5.3 million gallons) of gasoline and diesel — around 200 to 300 gas stations’ worth of fuel.

One of the largest environmental threats has been the Russian military occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants. In a span of two weeks (March 14-28), more than 30 fires were recorded in the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a result of bombings. It’s been reported that Russian troops, while digging trenches and bunkers and riding armored vehicles through the highly irradiated Red Forest near Chernobyl, picked up radioactive material, the bulk of which was in the soil, on their shoes and clothing. This radioactive dust has reportedly escaped the exclusion zone as a result of military activity.

While Chernobyl is back under Ukrainian control, Zaporizhya, the largest nuclear power plant on the continent, still remains under Russian occupation. With Russia taking Ukrainian personnel in the nuclear facilities as hostages, all control has been surrendered to Russian troops, leaving unprecedented concern over nuclear radiation in the region.

A graph showing the types of environmental crimes so far documented by Ecoaction. Image courtesy of Ecoaction.

But perhaps even more long-lasting may be the impalpable effects stemming from the war. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources made a preliminary estimate on April 1 that almost one-third (12,407 square kilometers, or 4,790 square miles) of Ukraine’s protected areas are currently occupied by Russian soldiers. The government is particularly concerned for Ukraine’s Ramsar sites, wetland areas of international importance, along the country’s coasts and rivers.

Ukraine occupies 6% of Europe’s land area but possesses 35% of the continent’s biodiversity. Parts of Ukraine, such as the Kharkiv region, play a prominent role in serving as a resting point for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, and more than 800 species of flora and 500 species of fauna are protected out of the country’s biota of 70,000 species.

Ecosystem services, the benefits that human society relies on from heathy ecosystems, have also been greatly disrupted. Ukraine possesses one-third of the world’s most fertile black soils, and agriculture makes up 45% of the soil-rich nation’s exports. The Black Sea area alone exports more than 12% of the food calories traded in the world, making Ukraine the “breadbasket of the world.”

But on March 9, Ukraine banned the export of agricultural products due to the war, hitting many countries in the Middle East and North Africa with drastic food price shocks. Lebanon, for instance, is reliant on Ukraine for almost 80% of its wheat supply. Experts have warned that Russia’s war against Ukraine could lead to a global food crisis.

A street in Makariv, Ukraine. Image by Yevhen Timofeev via Pexels.

Russia’s invasion has also led to wildfires, oil and chemical pollution in Ukrainian soils and seas, and wastewater in rivers. Environmental impacts can also become humanitarian crises — many victims of war are now living in basements without basic access to clean water or sanitation as a result of rampant contamination of natural resources, Maslyukivska says.

Amid tragedy, Maslyukivska says there are glimmers of hope. She says the war has brought her people together like never before.

“The Russian Federation was mistaken — they thought that our people would welcome Russians, they thought they could take Kyiv in three days. But they’re basically losing now, and the knowledge that we are beating Russia is transforming our entire society over a very short period of time,” she says. “This war is not about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. It’s the war between the past and the future, between tyranny and the free world.”

Banner image: A car burns with two people inside, after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

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