The Russia-Ukraine Conflict and its Implications for the Environment
Heena Samant, Research Assistant, VIF
Introduction

The Russia-Ukraine war is re-shaping the world. The war which began on 24th February 2022 has resulted in a fast-moving refugee crisis, unprecedented sanctions on Russia, and a re-shuffle of global relationships.[1] The war is also said to have impacted the world economy and food security.[2] However, a significant aspect of the crisis which is in need of greater attention is the damage the crisis is causing to the environment. According to the United Nations, humankind has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, while the damage done to the environment due to war often remains unpublicized.[3] The death and destruction of the environment, earth’s natural resources, and its inhabitants are argued to have always been overlooked when it comes to identifying the casualties of war.[4] Historically, wars have had a significant negative impact on the environment and ecosystems but little or no attention has been given to them. This is why, often times, the environment has been described as the silent victims of war.[5] It is also argued that even though wars get over, the damage done to the environment stays for a longer period of time and is felt by generations to come. History has shown that wars destroy habitats, kills wildlife, generate pollution and remake ecosystems entirely, with consequences that ripple through decades.[6] With the ongoing conflict, the debate over wars leading to the destruction of the environment has sparked once again leading to a growing focus on the concept of ‘ecocide’ and its significance.

This article discusses about the environmental implications of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine waron Ukraine’s environment with a larger focus on the significant environmental developments which has transpired as a result of war. Going forward, these developments will form the basis of protecting our nature even during the time of war.

Environment under Jeopardy

The environmental condition of Ukraine even before the start of war was under jeopardy. As per the Environmental Performance Index, an international ranking system that measures the environmental health and sustainability of countries, Ukraine ranked low on environmental indicators like air quality, biodiversity production, and ecosystem health, prior to the war.[7] The present war is said to likely exacerbate these environmental issues. Four months into the war, and it has led to severe air, water and soil pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, forest fires, nuclear safety concerns, impact on agriculture, impact on wildlife, and has also led to biodiversity loss. There have been attacks on chemical plants, nuclear power plants, oil and gas facilities which has led to these environmental catastrophes. Many instances have come to light with regard to these attacks. According to one of the articles published in open Democracy, an open independent global media platform, environmental damage during the war in Ukraine has proved more immediately visible than in other conflicts because of growing awareness of its importance supported by improved monitoring and the ability of social media to relay news much faster.[8] It is argued that in late May a large plume of pink smoke erupted from a chemical plant and rose above apartment buildings in Ukraine’s eastern city of Severodonetsk.[9] This plume of smoke was considered to be toxic as it came out of a tank of nitric acid.[10] Nitric acid is said to be dangerous if inhaled, swallowed, and if it comes in contact with the skin.[11] Additionally, in March, bombing of a town called Novoselytsya in northern part of Ukraine led to an ammonia leak at a fertilizer factory which further led to the contamination of groundwater and soil.[12] Large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine have been engulfed in wildfires as a result of explosions leading to air pollution.[13]

There have also been attacks on the country’s nuclear facilities causing a threat of a potential nuclear disaster. In March, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, was reported to be fired on by rocket-propelled grenades by the Russian forces.[14] This prompted the argument that this attack could have triggered a meltdown similar to that of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in 2011.[15] It was also argued that the attack could have resulted in a potential disaster with the capacity to be ten times larger than the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.[16] As of July 5th 2022, it has been stated that Europe’s largest nuclear power plant was heading towards heavy militarization as the plant has heavy artilleries deployed in its vicinity by the Russian soldiers.[17] In fact, the Russian troops were also able to capture the now defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine on the very first day of the invasion leading to the speculations that another Chernobyl disaster could happen in 2022.[18] These notions soon died down as the Russian forces were seen to have left the zone by 31st March.[19] However, the fact that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is still under the occupation of the Russian troops, potential threat of a nuclear disaster happening in future has not subsided. It is also important to note that Ukraine is a heavily industrialized country, in particular, the eastern part of it which makes the ongoing war even more damaging for Ukraine’s environment. 44%of Ukraine’ most vulnerable environmental areas are in active war zones where bombs are causing significant harms to various ecosystems.[20] The war is also leading to a biodiversity crisis. According to the Turkish Marine Research Foundation, the war has led to the destruction of endangered red algae which is the life of marine species and feeding grounds for fish including dolphins in the Black Sea.[21] Scientists have warned that dolphins are being killed as a result of war, in fact, as per one of the Ukrainian ecologist several thousands of dolphins have already died.[22] Ukraine also consists of 35 percent of Europe’s biodiversity comprising of over 70,000 rare and endemic flora and fauna.[23] It also constitutes 16 percent of its land area as forest.[24] The war is already sabotaging the country’s biodiversity and causing forest fires due to explosions. This could intensify and lead to destruction as time goes by. At the moment, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which the war will harm the environment as the war is still ongoing. However, the impact of it will be felt by the people of Ukraine for years to come.

Significant Environmental Developments due to the War

The war has led to some additional significant developments related to the environment. This ranges from the fact that a need has risen to articulate the voice of the voiceless, to focus on the concept of ecocide as has been brought out earlier, Ukraine’s determination to make environmental damages of the country as visible as possible, and how a sense of urgency is required by the international community on the subject of ‘war and environment’.

Starting with the subject of flora and fauna, an important point which comes out of the debate is that there is no doubt about the fact that wars bring sufferings to humans. People often get displaced and move to other countries or cities to seek refuge during the time of war. We are seeing this happening in the case of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war as well. However, an important question which arises is what happens to the speechless life forms who are equally the victims of war as much as we human beings are. Unfortunately, this seems to have always been the case since eternity. The fate of these life forms is that during the time of war, they are displaced and eventually die as they have no place to take refuge.[25] Dr. Ritu Dhingra, Regional vice Chair for South and East Asia, Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP), of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in her article ‘The War Between Russia and Ukraine- An Environmental Disaster’ argues that it was high time that we human beings who have the power to decide as to which species will live and which will die, take a moment to think and feel the plight of other living beings on this earth, even during the war time.[26] She also advocates that these times urgently call for a special convention for protecting these life forms during wartime such as that of a treaty on “Conservation of Species During the War”.[27]

The war has also put on hold the climate measures which Ukraine had pledged as part of global climate change actions. It has been argued that Ukraine had made a lot of effort to increase its climate ambitions and achieve the Paris Agreement goals.[28] These included pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.[29] The war has highlighted the dependency of the Western world on fossil fuels. Many countries have resorted to finding alternative sources of energy which they used to get from Russia and this step is a major blow to global climate change agendas as new investments are being made in fossil fuels sector.[30] They have turned themselves towards coal or imports of liquefied natural gas as alternative sources to Russian energy.[31] This is specially the case with the European nations who are heavily reliant on Russian oil and gas.[32] It is argued that natural gas represents 20 % of its energy mix and in 2021, about 40 % of all natural gas imported by Europe came from Russia.[33] This step has put planned energy transition at crossroads.[34] Fossil fuels are the main contributors of global warming and the Western world’s tilt towards it in the wake of the war is bad news for the planet. One of the recent articles published by the BBC NEWS argues that the world is witnessing a “gold rush” for new fossil fuel projects.[35] This move if materialized will either end up as massive stranded assets or will lead the world into irreversible warming.[36] The net-zero emission targets may have become less of a priority for many countries; thus undermining the overall global climate actions which eventually will have a huge impact on planet earth in the long run.

Additionally, the war has also led to a deepening food crisis situation worldwide. The sanctions which followed the attack have led to soaring global food prices threatening to push millions of people especially those in the low-income countries into starvation. [37]

We all have heard of the term ‘genocide’, however, as mentioned above, the war has also brought into focus the concept of ‘ecocide’, which can be understood as environmental mass destruction.[38] While ‘genocide’ is recognized as one of the four core international crimes, ‘ecocide’ is still to become one.[39] There has however been a push towards making ‘ecocide’ an international crime by the environmentalists. The Stop Ecocide International is the driving force behind the growing global movement to make ecocide an international crime.[40]They collaborate with diplomats, lawyers, corporate leaders, NGOs, indigenous and faith groups, influencers, academic experts, grassroots campaigns and individuals.[41] According to the Stop Ecocide International the term ‘ecocide’ is broadly understood to mean mass damage and destruction of ecosystems and severe harm to nature which is wide spread or long-term.[42] Few of the examples of activities which could be considered as an ecocide are:

  • Ocean damage;
  • Deforestation;
  • Land and Water Contamination; and
  • Air Pollution.

In 2020, the Stop Ecocide Foundation, the main fundraising and commissioning organ of the Stop Ecocide International convened The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide to draft a legal definition of ‘ecocide’.[43] The panel came out with a proposed consensus definition of ‘ecocide’ in June 2021. As per the expert panel, ecocide was defined as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”[44] The purpose of drafting such a definition was to provide a basis to consider ecocide as an international crime.[45] The year 2022 will be pivotal in this regard as it marks the year when this dream of many may come true. Additionally, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has also triggered the need to bring environment under the purview of international law. This is because of the fact that the environmentalists have labeled the ongoing situation as an ‘ecocide’.[46] This classification can be attributed to the above arguments which clearly states that the shelling of chemical plants, nuclear power plants, oil and gas depots have led to severe air, water, and soil pollution along with impacting the flora and fauna. These damages done to the environment will last longer than imagined.

The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine have been keeping records of the numerous damages that have been done to the environment due to the war. It has periodically been briefing its citizens and the rest of the world about the same on its official website. A special task force has been convened by the Ecological Inspectorate of Ukraine which includes around 100 people which are collecting evidence of the environmental damages caused as a result of the war.[47] The purpose of such a step is to seek compensation for damages from Russia in international courts.[48] In the 21st-27th July briefing of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, it is stated that since the beginning of the conflict the special task force had recorded 2000 crimes against the environment.[49] Additionally, the motive also is to make the citizens of the country aware of the potential impacts of the war on the environment.[50] In this regard, the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine launched a mobile application called Eco Zagroza which means “environmental threat”.[51] It features an interactive map of Ukraine with monitoring data of air quality and radiation levels as well as provides information on environmental crimes.[52] The users of this application can also report the environmental crimes they have witnessed which includes uploading pictures and videos of the damages.[53] The government of Ukraine is also very keen on a green post war recovery. On April 21st, the President of Ukraine by his decree established the National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine from the War.[54] Additionally, a working group “Environmental Safety” has been created within the council whose goal is to develop proposals in the field of environmental protection.[55] Ukraine has also signed an agreement with the EU on Ukraine’s accession to the LIFE program.[56] This move will help Ukraine to benefit from financing innovative environmental protection projects and sustainable post-war restoration.[57]

This subject of ‘war and environment’ is just one but an important aspect of environmental protection. The international community must understand this as wars lead to some severe environmental catastrophes. The environmental movement of the sixties is said to have started partly because of the horrors of Vietnam War such as Agent Orange, Napalm, carpet-bombing, and also a threat of nuclear war.[58] To elaborate it further, Agent Orange is a toxic chemical herbicide that was used from about 1965-1970 in the Vietnam War.[59] It is argued to be fifty times more concentrated than normal agricultural herbicides and due to this specific reason plants are said to have been completely destroyed.[60] It also had devastating impacts on agriculture, people, and animals.[61] This also led to 4.8 million deaths and 400,000 children are said to have been born with birth defects due to the exposure.[62] Napalm was a substance which was a mixture of plastic polystyrene, hydrocarbon benzene, and gasoline used by the U.S. troops from 1965 to 1972. [63] This combination created a jelly-like substance which when ignited stuck to anything and burned up to ten minutes.[64] Hence, the damages done to the environment during the time of war need considerable attention after all humans are responsible for wars and we should take it in our hands to protect it. Although not related to war, a similar concern was shown by Rachel Carson in her book titled Silent Spring in which she very clearly argues that humans should act responsibly, carefully, and as stewards of the living earth.[65]
These developments are eye-opener to a simple fact which is to treat nature right. The world is already grappling with the heavy impacts of climate change with extreme weather events ravaging different parts of the world and this war will contribute to exacerbate these impacts.

Conclusion

The Russia-Ukraine war has sparked a significant yet unpublicized debate about wars. It is rather interesting to see as to how Ukraine which is in the middle of a war is still prioritizing to protect its environment; a lesson which the international community needs to learn. While the world is become more conscious about the environment, what happens to our environment including flora and fauna during the time of war is where we have been found wanting. Hence the ongoing conflict gives an opportunity to ponder upon these questions. The significant developments which have followed since the outbreak of the war are unpredictable yet important as they have set the stage for future environment protection negotiations. The Russia-Ukraine war is an ongoing one and it is difficult to measure the damage it will have on the country’s environment at present. However, the war will have a long-lasting impact on Ukraine’s environment whose effects will be felt by generations to come and will be a game-changer for future environment protection negotiations especially during the time of war.

End Notes :

[1] AlinaSelyukh et al 2022, ‘The ripple effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine are changing the world’, npr, [Online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2022/05/10/1093066817/ukraine-war-gas-prices-refugees.
[2]Paulo Pereira et al, ‘Russian-Ukrainian war impacts the total environment’, Science of the Total Environment, Volume 837, 1st September 2022, 155865.
[3]United Nations, ‘International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict 6 November’, [Online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/observances/environment-in-war-protection-day.
[4]Philip Swintek2006, ‘The Environmental Effects of War’, Student Theses 2001-2013, [Online] Available at: https://fordham.bepress.com/environ_theses/71?utm_source=fordham.bepress.com%2Fenviron_theses%2F71&utm_medium=PDF&utm_campaign=PDFCoverPages.
[5]Emily Anthes2022, ‘A ‘silent victim’: How nature becomes a casualty of war’, The Indian Express, [Online] Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/world/a-silent-victim-how-nature-becomes-a-casualty-of-war/.
[6]Ibid.
[7]Lorenzo Teclemeand AustejaDumciute 2022, ‘Ukraine and the others: the environmental impacts of war’, European Union, [Online] Available at: https://europa.eu/youth/year-of-youth/young-journalists/ukraine-and-others-environmental-impacts-of-war_en.
[8]Isabella Kaminski 2022, ‘Could Russia be prosecuted for environmental harm in Ukraine?’,open Democracy, [Online] Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/ukraine-nuclear-war-environment/.
[9]Benji Jones 2022, ‘The pollution from Russia’s war will poison Ukraine for decades’, Vox, [Online] Available at: https://www.vox.com/down-to-earth/2022/6/2/23143250/ukraine-russia-war-pollution-emissions-environment.
[10]Ibid.
[11]Ibid.
[12]Ibid.
[13]IvanaKottasova 2022, ‘Ukraine’s natural environment is another casualty of war. The damage could be felt for decades’, CTV NEWS, [Online] Available at: https://www.ctvnews.ca/mobile/climate-and-environment/ukraine-s-natural-environment-is-another-casualty-of-war-the-damage-could-be-felt-for-decades-1.5916315?cache=yesclipId104062%3Ca+href=?autoPlay=true..
[14]Geoff Brumfiel et al 2022, ‘Video analysis reveals Russian attack on Ukrainian nuclear plant veered near disaster’, npr, [Online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2022/03/11/1085427380/ukraine-nuclear-power-plant-zaporizhzhia.
[15]Ibid.
[16]DikshaMunjal 2022, ‘What happened at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant?’ THE HINDU, [Online] Available at :https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/explained-what-happened-at-ukraines-zaporizhzhia-nuclear-power-plant/article65190545.ece.
[17]Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson 2022, ‘Russian Army Turns Ukraine’s Largest Nuclear Plant Into a Military Base’, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, [Online] Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/russian-army-turns-ukraines-largest-nuclear-plant-into-a-military-base-11657035694.
[18]YogitaLimaye 2022, ‘Inside Chernobyl: We Stole Russian fuel to prevent catastrophe’, BBC News, [Online] available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-61048256.
[19]Alessandra Prentice and Timothy Heritage 2022, ‘Ukraine state nuclear firm says all Russian forces have left Chernobyl plant’, REUTERS, [Online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/ukraine-state-nuclear-firm-says-most-russian-forces-have-left-chernobyl-nuclear-2022-03-31/.
[20]Joe McCarthy 2022, ‘How Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine is Harming Water, Air, Soil, and Wildlife’, GLOBAL CITIZEN, [Online] Available at: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/environmental-impact-of-war-in-ukraine/.
[21]Bethany Dawson 2022, ‘Russia-Ukraine war has killed ‘several thousand dolphins’ and harmed the marine ecosystem, say Black Sea scientists’, BUSINESS INSIDER INDIA, [Online] Available at: https://www.businessinsider.in/science/news/russia-ukraine-war-has-killed-several-thousand-dolphins-and-harmed-the-marine-ecosystem-say-black-sea-scientists/articleshow/92006117.cms#:~:text=In%20a%20press%20release%2C%20the,into%20a%20maritime%20war%20zone.
[22]Ibid.
[23]No 7.
[24]Ibid.
[25]RituDhingra 2022, ‘The War BetweenRussia and Ukraine-An Environmental Disaster’, IUCN, [Online] Available at: https://www.iucn.org/news/commission-environmental-economic-and-social-policy/202203/war-between-russia-and-ukraine-environmental-disaster.
[26]Ibid.
[27]Ibid.
[28]Ecoaction 2022, ‘Russian actions jeopardize Ukrainian and global climate efforts’, [Online] Available at: https://en.ecoaction.org.ua/russian-actions-jeopardize-climate-efforts.html.
[29]Ibid.
[30]Franck Kuwonu 2022, ‘Africa’s chief climate negotiator: We must have tangible and actionable climate decisions for a successful COP 27’, Africa Renewal, [Online] Available at: https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/june-2022/africa%E2%80%99s-chief-climate-negotiator-we-must-have-tangible-and-actionable-climate.
[31]Sam Meredith 2022, ‘The Ukraine war has upended the energy transition and its not good news for the planet’, CNBC, [Online] Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/20/ukraine-crisis-what-does-russias-war-mean-for-global-climate-goals.html.
[32]Ibid.
[33]Climate Trade 2022, ‘The climate consequences of the Ukraine-Russia war’, [Online] Available at: https://climatetrade.com/ukraine-russia-climate-consequences/.
[34]Ibid.
[35]Jonah Fisher 2022, ‘Climate change: Ukraine war prompts fossil fuel ‘gold rush’ – report’, BBC News, [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-61723252.
[36]Ibid.
[37]Stanly Johny 2022, ‘The Ukraine war and the global food crisis’, THE HINDU, [Online] Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-ukraine-war-and-the-global-food-crisis/article65507134.ece.
[38]Josie Fischels 2021, ‘How 165 Words Could Make Mass Environmental Destruction An International Crime’, npr, [Online] Available at: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/27/1010402568/ecocide-environment-destruction-international-crime-criminal-court.
[39]Ibid.
[40]Stop Ecocide International, ‘Who We Are’, [Online] Available at: https://www.stopecocide.earth/who-we-are-.
[41]Ibid.
[42]Stop Ecocide International, ‘What is Ecocide’, [Online] Available at: https://www.stopecocide.earth/what-is-ecocide.
[43]Stop Ecocide International, ‘Legal Definition of Ecocide’, [Online] Available at: https://www.stopecocide.earth/legal-definition-of-ecocide#:~:text=For%20the%20purpose%20of%20this,being%20caused%20by%20those%20acts.
[44]Ibid.
[45]No 33.
[46]No 21.
[47]Louise Guillot 2022, ‘How Ukraine wants to make Russia pay for war’s environmental damage’, POLITICO, [Online] Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/how-ukraine-want-make-russia-pay-for-war-environmental-damage/.
[48]Ibid.
[49]Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine 2022, ‘Briefing on the environmental damage caused by the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine (21-27 July 2022)’, [Online] Available at:https://mepr.gov.ua/en/news/39447.html.
[50]Ecoaction 2022, ‘Potential Environmental Impacts Caused by Russian Aggression in Ukraine [Interactive Map], [Online] Available at: https://en.ecoaction.org.ua/warmap.html.
[51]Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine 2022, ‘Briefing on the environmental damage caused by the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine (11-18 May 2022)’, [Online] Available at: https://mepr.gov.ua/en/news/39218.html.
[52]Ibid.
[53]No 42.
[54]Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine 2022, ‘Briefing on the environmental damage caused by the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine (2-8 June 2022)’, [Online] Available at: https://mepr.gov.ua/en/news/39274.html.
[55]Ibid.
[56]Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine 2022, ‘Briefing on the environmental damage caused by the Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine (23-29 June 2022)’, [Online] Available at: https://mepr.gov.ua/en/news/39368.html.
[57]Ibid.
[58]Gar Smith 2017, ‘The Environmental Destruction Wrought by War’, Earth Island Journal, [Online] Available at: https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/articles/entry/environmental_destruction_war/.
[59]The Vietnam War, ‘Napalm and Agent Orange’, [Online] Available at: https://vietnamawbb.weebly.com/napalm-agent-orange.html#:~:text=Napalm%20was%20first%20used%20in,bombs%20and%20other%20incendiary%20explosives.
[60]Ibid.
[61]Ibid.
[62]Ibid.
[63]Ibid.
[64]Ibid.
[65]Silent Spring, ‘The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson’, [Online] Available at: http://www.rachelcarson.org/SilentSpring.aspx

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