Amidst the war, Ukrainians are prosecuting Russia’s crimes against the environment – Advice Eating

  • Since civil and political well-being is the top priority of the Ukrainian government, the environmental degradation during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been largely overlooked.
  • But civilians and experts alike have joined forces to document more than 100 individual cases of “crimes against the environment” with the goal of bringing Russia to international courts after the war.
  • From the destruction of fuel and gas depots to the long-term impact of ecosystem services on Ukraine, known as the “breadbasket of the world,” environmental impacts can also turn into humanitarian crises, activists warn.

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. Widely regarded as the second most powerful military force in the world, the attack took place on six fronts in the air, land and sea and stretched 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) across the Ukrainian border.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says nearly 2,900 civilians have been killed by April. 29, but the real number is probably much 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 critical to ensuring Ukraine’s post-war socio-economic recovery.

According to the Geneva Convention, “It is forbidden to use any method or means of warfare designed or likely to cause widespread, long-term and serious damage to the environment.”

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

However, to date, the environmental impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is severe, far-reaching and expected to affect generations of Ukrainians, according to Olena Maslyukivska, associate professor at the Institute of Environmental Studies at Kyiv National University-Mohyla Academy.

Maslyukivska, a refugee herself, says environmental activists have had to covertly record this damage and that the ongoing war poses hurdles in collecting and analyzing this data.

“We were advised not to publicly report environmental damage during the war, lest the enemy know how effective their bombing was,” she says, citing the case of a Ukrainian TikToker divulging the whereabouts of civilians at a supermarket in a viral video, which allegedly resulted in Russia bombing and killing eight civilians the next day.

Despite these difficulties, civilians and experts alike have pooled their resources, resulting in a record of more than a hundred individual cases of environmental damage resulting from the first month of war alone, compiled by the Ukrainian NGO Ecoaction. The call to record environmental crimes was initiated by Ukraine’s Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and promptly supported by NGOs such as Ekoida and other civil society organizations.

The map shows the number of environmental crimes prosecuted on April 10 due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Image courtesy of Ecoaction.

While the full extent of the environmental damage will not be known until after the war, Ukraine’s State Environmental Inspectorate has given a preliminary estimate of at least US$77 million for land resource pollution alone.

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

She adds that the largest share (30% to 40%) of the environmental impact so far 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, resulting in massive greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution affecting victims of the war. For example, on February 27, rocket attacks on an oil depot in Vasylkiv resulted in the burning of 20,000 cubic meters (5.3 million gallons) of gasoline and diesel — about 200 to 300 gas stations’ worth of fuel.

One of the greatest environmental threats has been the Russian military occupation of Ukrainian nuclear power plants. Within two weeks (March 14-28), more than 30 fires were registered in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone as a result of bombings. It was reported that while Russian troops were digging trenches and bunkers and driving armored vehicles through the heavily contaminated Red Forest near Chernobyl, they picked up radioactive material on their shoes and clothing, most of it buried in the ground. This radioactive dust has reportedly leaked out of the exclusion zone as a result of military activities.

While Chernobyl is back under Ukrainian control, Zaporizhya, the continent’s largest nuclear power plant, still remains under Russian occupation. As Russia has taken Ukrainian personnel hostage at the nuclear facilities, all control has been handed over to Russian troops, prompting unprecedented concern over nuclear radiation in the region.

A graphic showing the types of environmental crime documented by Ecoaction to date. Image courtesy of Ecoaction.

But perhaps even more lasting are the intangible effects of the war. The Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources gave a preliminary estimate on April 1 that almost a third (12,407 square kilometers or 4,790 sq mi) of Ukraine’s protected areas are currently occupied by Russian soldiers. The government is particularly concerned about Ukraine’s Ramsar sites, wetlands 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 as a resting place for migratory coastal and aquatic birds, and more than 800 plant species and 500 animal species are protected from the country’s biota of 70,000 species.

Ecosystem services, the benefits that human society depends on from healthy ecosystems, have also been severely disrupted. Ukraine has a third of the most fertile black soil in the world, and agriculture accounts for 45% of the soil-rich nation’s exports. The Black Sea region alone exports more than 12% of the world’s traded food calories, making Ukraine the “granary of the world”.

But on March 9, Ukraine banned the export of agricultural products due to the war, which hit many countries in the Middle East and North Africa with sharp shocks in food prices. Lebanon, for example, relies 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.

The Russian invasion has also resulted in wildfires, oil and chemical pollution in Ukrainian soil and seas, and sewage in rivers. Environmental impacts can also turn into humanitarian crises — many war victims are now living in basements without basic access to clean water or sanitation as a result of rampant contamination of natural resources, says Maslyukivska.

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

“The Russian Federation was wrong – they thought that our people would welcome the Russians, they thought they could take Kyiv in three days. But they’re basically losing now, and knowing we’re beating Russia changes our entire society in a very short time,” she says. “This war is not about the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. It is the war between past and 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. Picture by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

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