The environmental impact of a single bomb falling in a field is disastrous — the crater opened up in the earth, the wildlife destroyed, the ensuing immolation, the explosive release of heavy metals and toxic chemicals spreading throughout the landscape and atmosphere.
Now imagine thousands of bombs across one of the most industrialized countries in the world, exploding in towns and cities, in manufacturing zones and wildlife refuges.
This environmental nightmare is happening in Ukraine, where the Russian military is routinely targeting critical infrastructure and hazardous sites. As efforts to stop the war rightly focus on minimizing the death toll and ongoing displacement of citizens, an environmental catastrophe is unfolding that will last long after the final Russian troops leave the country and could harm Ukrainian communities for years to come.
Environmental advocates have labeled the situation an "ecocide" and are trying to bring international criminal charges against Russia for the environmental destruction its military has already caused.
“Russia should pay for these crimes,” said Evgenia Zasiadko, the head of the climate department at Ecoaction, a Ukrainian environmental advocacy group. “Not only for the people who have been killed and harmed, not only for the infrastructure and cities, but also for the damage to the environment.
“My worst fear is that the damage will be so huge that we won’t be able to rebuild,” she said.
We will return to the topic of crimes against the environment many times in our future publications.— Ecoaction / Екодія 🇺🇦 (@ecodiya) March 29, 2022
What is important to know now is that this war is also a war against the environment.
Acknowledging this is the first step toward bringing russia to justice. / END pic.twitter.com/Hxyq6OFZjL
Zasiadko has been working with her colleagues to record the environmental crimes of the Russian invasion. They’re scouring news reports, social media, and have a dedicated Telegram channel for receiving tips.
As of March 28, her team had documented 110 explicit environmental crimes — and these only represent a fraction of the total, she said. The incidents are far ranging and affect the country’s water, soil, and air quality, as well as wildlife.
“The Pentagon database has recorded 1,200 [precision] missiles, and all of these missiles, bombs, and tanks contain waste,” she said. “Now and in the future, heavy metals will be in our groundwater and soil. We’re an agricultural country, and when it’s not an active war, I don't know how we’re going to rebuild anything because it's going to be polluted.”
There have been at least 36 attacks on fossil fuel infrastructure, 29 attacks on electricity stations, 7 attacks on water supplies, and 6 attacks on nuclear facilities, Ecoaction has noted.
After an attack on the Sumykhimprom chemical plant in northern Ukraine, ammonia began leaking until it covered an area with a radius of 2.5 kilometers, Zasiadko said, threatening nearby communities by contaminating groundwater supplies, the soil, and wildlife.
Forest fires caused by missiles near the Chornobyl nuclear facility have caused radioactive material to enter the atmosphere. Rockets fired by Russian soldiers at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant nearly caused a nuclear disaster.
Oil and gas facilities in Kharkiv have come under heavy fire since the war began, disrupting Ukraine’s energy supply, and releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions and other contaminants into the atmosphere that make it difficult to breathe.
Each day brings new reports of the Russian military destroying Ukraine’s environment with thermobaric bombs and other powerful weapons. Some cities, like Mariupol, have become so heavily bombarded that they are now unlivable, due to both a lack of infrastructure and extreme toxicity in the environment.
Wildlife refuges are being targeted and zoos have been attacked. Zasiadko said that 44% of the country’s most vulnerable environmental areas are in active war zones, with bombs causing significant harm to various ecosystems.
Russia is also targeting the country’s food sector, destroying agricultural equipment and warehouses.
Ukraine struggled with environmental integrity before the war, Zasiadko said. The country relied on fossil fuels, had outdated infrastructure, hosted an enormous chemical industry, and faced ongoing issues with waste management, with landfills catching fire and people dumping garbage into bodies of water.
The Donbas region has long been a hub for industrial activity, accounting for nearly half of Ukraine’s greenhouse gas emissions. For years, Donbas has been the site of Russian-led armed conflict, and the resulting pollution has created an “ecological catastrophe” with more than 530,000 hectares of protected land “affected, damaged, or destroyed,” according to the United Nations.
All of these challenges have been made considerably worse by the war, and huge amounts of resources will be needed simply to get back to the country’s environmental baseline prior to the invasion. It will take years to clear away pollution and toxic substances, and even longer for ecosystems to rehabilitate. The health impacts of the environmental damage could last for decades.
But Zasiadko insists that these challenges only underscore the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels and harmful industries.
“It’s very important that Ukraine and the whole world rebuild the country in a sustainable, green, and carbon-neutral way,” she said.