As of May 17th, almost 4000 civilians have been killed and 4000 injured in Russia’s war on Ukraine, with the Kyiv School of Economics estimating total economic losses at $600 billion. One silent victim of the war is the environment: the U.N. Environment Program (U.N.E.P.) estimates that at least 530,000 hectares of land have been affected, damaged, or destroyed by the conflict so far. This damage, ranging from forest burning to chemical pollution of waters to the release of radioactive substances from nuclear plants, poses a severe threat to those already struggling to survive. Carroll Muffett of the Center for International Environmental Law writes, “When we talk about the environmental consequences of war, what we’re really talking about is simply the impact of war on humans … in a more protracted and often more insidious form.”
Ukraine was already “on the verge of ecological catastrophe” before the Russian invasion intensified the rate and costs of environmental damage, Ukrainian environmental organization Ecodia says. The country has long been experiencing environmental distress, partly from climate change and hundreds of years of coal production, and intensifying after the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014, which the U.N.E.P. says severely damaged forests by destroying trees and polluting water and soil. Without forests, Ukraine is even more vulnerable to flooding and erosion, allowing for the further spread of toxic waste and rendering the land uninhabitable. Furthermore, war itself is a massive emitter of greenhouse gasses. The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs found that the military machinery and environmental destruction of the U.S. War on Terror released more than 1.2 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses.
Rule 45 of the Geneva Convention officially prohibits the use of “methods of means of warfare that are intended to cause or are expected to cause widespread, long-term, and serious damage to the environment.” Yevhenia Zasyadko, head of Ecodia’s Environmental War Crimes Workgroup, reported a number of environmental crimes committed since the beginning of the invasion: shelling and bombing of industrial facilities, damage to nuclear power plants (increasing the risk of toxic waste emissions), damage to energy and water pumping systems (leading to accumulation of carcinogenic waste), wildfire spreading, and major chemical pollution of soil and water. The Ukrainian government estimated the environmental damage at 77 million as of March 9th, but it will be impossible to assess the total loss until the conflict has subsided.
Given that Russian president Vladimir Putin has already blatantly committed violent massacres in Bucha and indiscriminately bombed Mariupol and Kharkiv, pointing out further violations of international law is unlikely to deter him from committing more environmental war crimes.
While many countries have pledged to sanction Russia, including limiting the country’s coal, oil, and gas trade, Kostiantyn Krynytskyi from Ecodia reports that the E.U.’s “green transition” isn’t happening fast enough. “Not enough has been done yet, as these strategic intentions aren’t affecting Russia’s revenues from fossil fuel exports in the short term,” Kryntytskyi says. Between February and April, Russia earned $66 billion in revenues from fossil fuel shipments, 71% of which the European Union purchased.
The European Commission announced a plan to accelerate the transition from Russian fossil fuels to renewable energy in late May, though this transition includes a continued reliance on coal importation from other sources like Egypt, Israel, and Nigeria. Sierra Club senior director Kelly Sheehan points out, “It is clear that new gas export facilities would fail to address short-term energy needs and would only serve to lock in decades of reliance on dirty fossil fuels at a time when our climate and communities can least afford it.”
The European Union and the United States must balance two objectives: 1) cutting off Russian fossil fuel exports as a means of sanctions for the war crimes committed in Ukraine; and 2) realizing the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. The Ukrainian crisis can be a catalyst for geo-political environmental change, as well as unified action against a powerful, aggressive Russian state.
The environment has long been a victim of violent conflict. Between 1950 and 2000, the New York Times writes, “more than 80% of the world’s major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hotspots.” In Mozambique, during a 15-year war at the end of the 20th century, the populations of elephants, zebras, and buffaloes declined by more than 90% in Gorongosa National Park. Food insecurity caused by war, economic stress, and destroyed land can lead to an increase in poaching, especially when previously-protected areas have lost their guards. The Wildlife Conservation Society found that soaring poverty rates can lead to declines even in abundant populations like moose, wild boars, and bears.
Currently, the U.N.E.P. reports that Ukraine is experiencing an increase in illegal poaching and logging, which not only threatens endangered species but abundant ones as well. The destruction of arable land, essential for both Ukrainian lives and the national grain exporting economy, will disrupt the entire ecosystem, threatening animals and humanity alike. Addressing food insecurity in Ukraine should be a major priority for humanitarian organizations to save both the environment and Ukrainian lives.
In some cases, such as during World War II or in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, periods of absence from certain lands have allowed for plant and animal populations to rebound. However, the New York Times cautions, the rapid move to rebuild infrastructure and economies once these conflicts end can accelerate environmental destruction beyond pre-war levels. Zasyadko calls for the rebuilding to happen in a “green, sustainable way.” Once the conflict ends and Ukraine begins to recover, she writes, Ukrainians should prioritize “ecosystem recovery and protection [that focus] on nature-based solutions and adaptation to climate change.” Zasyadko emphasizes the importance of environmental documentation and monitoring to assess the environmental damage of the war and force the “aggressor” – Russia – to pay for it.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will only accelerate the damage climate change is inflicting on living beings. Putin must be held responsible for his destruction, from the lives of those murdered in Bucha to those infected by chemically polluted waters. The United Nations, N.A.T.O., European Union, other international organizations, and N.G.O.s, along with individual states, must support ecological activists like Ecodia in Ukraine and join their fight to protect and rebuild Ukraine and its environment.
Crimes against the environment are crimes against humanity. Only a unified, reliable response from international and national organizations can ensure an end to both human and environmental casualties in Ukraine.