The tragedies of war stretch across nearly all aspects of life, ranging from civilian displacement to infrastructure demolition. As a result, environmental damages can often be overlooked when considering the overall devastation caused by warfare. Due to humanity’s historical negligence in regard to environmental concerns, society no longer has time to ignore the consequences of war on ecosystems and the natural world. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has, of course, led to large-scale soldier and civilian casualties. However, it has also led to a copious amount of environmental damages that must be addressed.
“Environmental damage” is an umbrella term that encapsulates the corrosion or destruction of ecological systems such as the atmosphere, water system, vegetation, and more. While the functions of human society inherently debilitate these systems through factories, automobiles, and travel, warfare can bring upon massive damage over short periods of time. For example, according to Nikki Reisch and Steve Kretzmann of OilChange International in a 2008 study, over 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MMTCO2e) were emitted as a result of the Iraq War between March 2003 and March 2008. That’s equivalent to the emissions increase that 25 million additional cars on the road in the US would generate. Following that study, the Iraq War would go on for another three and a half years.
With further advancements in warfare technology in the years since the Iraq War, environmental damages due to combat will exponentially increase as the destructive force of weapons grows. For example, unmanned aerial vehicles (also known as UAVs or drones) have increased the precision of bombings and direct strikes, and have been utilized far more in the Ukraine-Russia conflict than in previous wars. This advancement in warfare technology has affected the current conflict as well; in the eight months since Russia’s initial invasion attempt of Ukraine, it is estimated that more than 36 billion euros (35.86 billion USD) worth of environmental damages have amounted due to the conflict, according to the Ukrainian Minister of Environmental Protection. The devastation has occurred across 3 million acres and has affected 30% of Ukraine’s protected natural land. This desecration has directly impacted numerous spheres of the environment, ranging from forest fires to water pollution to atmospheric damage.
Ukraine is particularly known for its forests and is recognized as a part of the “Green Heart of Europe” by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, a European environmental advocacy group. In fact, the country contains “habitats that are home to 35% of Europe’s biodiversity, including 70,000 plant and animal species.” However, the fires of war have already ravaged the woodlands of Ukraine. Bombings, shellings, and ground warfare has torched an estimated 100,000 hectacres of forest during only the first four months of the war. Not only do fires contribute heavily to the emissions of greenhouse gasses through combustion, but habitats and whole ecosystems are eradicated, leading to large-scale displacement and death of a wide range of forest life.
On top of the devastation done to woodlands and forests, the rivers and lakes of Ukraine have also suffered as a result of the Russian invasion. The shelling of industrial production infrastructure such as mines and factories has led to the flooding of pollutants into the water system through run-off. Those pollutants and toxins are then circulated through river systems such as the Siverskyi Donets River, impacting fishlife and those who rely on said rivers for agriculture. Furthermore, groundwater, which is used primarily as a source of drinking water, has also been directly impacted by the invasion. Unique situations have appeared across the country such as the explosion of a food warehouse in Brovary. The large quantity of food left after the explosion was buried by residents, which then led to toxins such as ammonia infiltrating the groundwater. In addition to disasters like the Brovary incident, military-related scrap metal left in the wake of destruction is also contaminating groundwater via natural erosion.
Air pollution has also become a concerning consequence of the Ukraine-Russia conflict. As mentioned previously, large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions have been released by fires that have scorched Ukrainian land. Beyond that, other sources of air pollution have emerged. Russian attacks have directly targeted oil and gas storage tanks, releasing large amounts of toxic gasses into the air. In the first five weeks of the conflict, there were at least 36 recorded Russian attacks on Ukrainian fossil fuel infrastructure. Now, several months since the beginning of the conflict, copious amounts of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane have been unleashed into the atmosphere.
With the colossal desolation of natural ecosystems and environments, many questions from Ukrainian officials have arisen about how these damages will be addressed. The Ukrainian Environmental Ministry hopes to ensure Russia takes responsibility and pays for the insurmountable devastation that must be remedied. International law will be called into question by Ukraine in order to attempt to force Russian reparations. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, the US National Security Council believes it would be difficult to force Russian cooperation through measures such as economic seizures due to “possible legal and economic consequence[s].”
Navigating where responsibility falls will remain a difficult task for diplomatic entities to determine. Regardless of whether international support steps in, damages will have to be assessed and repaired for the revitalization of the Ukrainian environment. Without it, environmental injustice across a vastly diverse ecological terrain will once again triumph at the fault of human conflict.
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