Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is poisoning the country’s land, air, water, and climate in a way that will have longstanding repercussions, according to the Ukrainian government and organizations on the ground.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources has recorded at least 1,200 environmental disasters in the two-plus months since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion. Those disasters are not only undermining Ukraine’s efforts to preserve its natural environment, they’re introducing toxic pollutants that will pose health risks long after the war’s end. The war is also pumping new carbon into the atmosphere, continuing to exacerbate the global climate crisis.
During the first month of the war, Ukraine’s environment ministry calculated 79,169 explosive devices had gone off, 1,955 aircraft bombs had been dropped, and 567.4 kgs of explosives were neutralized in Ukraine. The aftermath of these explosives mean that chemicals like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and formaldehyde have entered the atmosphere, according to Oleg Rubel, professor of public administration at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and a scientist that is working with the ministry.
On Feb 27, the ministry reported that an oil depot in the city Vasylkiv was hit by a ballistic missile. As a result of the attack, 10 tanks of 2,000 cubic meters of gasoline and diesel caught on fire and the combustion caused air pollution in nearby neighborhoods. Later that day, it was reported that Russian troops blew up a gas pipeline in Kharkiv “which resulted in a massive explosion and shockwave, which damaged buildings in the residential areas of the city,” according to the ministry. Since then, authorities have noted that soot, sulfur, and aldehyde — pollutants with respiratory and cardiovascular consequences for humans, particularly those in vulnerable populations — have been released into the atmosphere.
As the invasion continues, events like the Vasylkiv strike are happening again and again, and the environmental hazards are as multifaceted as they are damaging.
The ministry isn’t alone in assessing the environmental damages the war has caused. Eco Action is an Ukrainian activist organization that works with politicians and experts to protect the environment. Before the war, they advocated a shift to clean energy in the country; now they’re documenting the attacks against the environment. So far, Eco-Action has counted 216 of these environmental crimes, which are essentially any intentional actions that cause irreversible effects of climate change or harm human life. Some environmental crimes Eco-Action has found include fires at oil depots, damages to gas pipelines and a forest fire that raged on for two days — workers couldn’t get to it because of constant shelling.
“These crimes can bring a huge damage to nature and would also affect [the] population in Ukraine,” says Yevhenia Zasyadko, head of Environmental Crimes at Eco-Action. “Because of this environmental damage, the number can raise from [the] population who will feel a negative effect of this war, or even die.”
The chemicals released in warfare have numerous pathways into human bodies. They can be absorbed into the soil, and can contaminate surface waters with toxins like copper, which can be toxic for animals and humans, says Rubel. In one instance, a collection of surface water samples in the Ivka River showed contamination as a result of Russian missiles damaging a tank with mineral fertilizers. Rubel says that has made communities downstream lose access to clean drinking water. That is just one example of how water supply has been damaged because of the war: The ministry has calculated that currently 1.4 million people in Ukraine are without access to safe drinking water. The ministry also found that between Apr. 26 and Apr. 27, Russian troops on two occasions fired shells in the eastern city of Avdiivka containing phosphorus, a highly toxic chemical that burns rapidly, and can burn in the air for hours after it’s been exposed. Multiple fires broke out as a result and Rubel says several were injured from the gas, but there were no reported deaths.
The invasion is also affecting natural areas that Ukrainians have worked hard to protect. The ministry has found that a third of all protected areas in Ukraine have been damaged by the war, as have over seven million acres of Emerald Network Sites; 900 protected areas are under threat. (The ministry believes there are unexploded ordnance devices in these areas.)
Longer term, the war is pumping massive amounts of carbon pollution into the atmosphere at a time when the planet can’t afford it. Every time a Russian fighter jet flies past Ukraine, a missile hits a residential building, or a fire breaks out in a forest, carbon dioxide is released into the environment, exacerbating the unaddressed global climate crisis.
The war has also undermined Ukraine’s previous efforts to bolster its environmental quality and protect the climate, including the transition to climate-friendly energy. “From the first day of the war, we stopped everything that we were doing,” says Iryna Stavchuk, Ukraine’s deputy minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources. “That’s my personal tragedy because I was coordinating the climate policy work. We really planned a lot of work for Ukraine to shift to green development and integrate the mitigation measures in all the sectors of [the] economy.”
Instead, the ministry’s primary mission became to document dangers to the environment, and they sent scientists, inspectors, and members of environmental groups out to collect ground and water samples — wherever attacks didn’t threaten their safety.
Stavchuk hopes to have a comprehensive report of environmental damage numbers this summer, in an assessment coordinated by the World Bank. The ministry hopes to get some sort of financial compensation.
The greatest damage may be yet to come, as the war has dramatically increased the chance of nuclear disaster in a country that knows that threat all too well.
Until Mar. 31, Russian troops had occupied Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Stavchuk says that fires caused by Russian missiles have broken out, which could possibly have spread radioactive particles in the air. The ministry reports that Russian troops were “disturbing the ground” of the highly contaminated Red Forest in Chernobyl by kicking up clouds of radioactive dust and setting fire to bushes and grass, causing a spike in radiation levels. When troops left, they destroyed more than 200 devices and office equipment that was used to protect the plant from fires and to monitor radioactive levels. The ministry says it’s impossible to know right now what it will mean, but they fear its effects are going to be severe on the surrounding ecosystem.
“It’s difficult to assess because to understand the impacts on the biodiversity we would have to conduct field research and more in-depth analysis, but just taking into account that this heavy bombings and all the noise and, and all the military activities, of course it also impact the nature,” says Stavchuk
And in southeast Ukraine, Russian troops currently have control over the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine. If there is an explosion at Zaporizhzhya, activists think it might cause another Chernobyl incident.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” says Stavchuk. “[If a] technical mistake or whatever problem can happen, it can lead to major environmental catastrophe, not only for Ukraine but also for all the countries around us, and globally.”