Green Insecurity: The Environmental Costs of War in Ukraine

Spoilt harvest: an unexploded missile stuck in a wheat field in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine. Image: ZUMA Press / Alamy

Alongside the direct toll on civilian life, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has many far-reaching environmental impacts. With Ukraine’s nuclear facilities, its industrialised eastern regions and its vital role in global food supply chains, the risk of ecological fallout is high.

The Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power plant at the beginning of March 2022 led to fears of a nuclear disaster worse than Chernobyl. Fortunately, the fire at the Zaporizhzhia plant was contained with no damage to essential equipment or change in radiation levels. However, the incident alerted the international community to the many threats the conflict poses to environmental security. The conflict in Ukraine is resulting in a devastating loss of human life but also – as with many historic conflicts – simultaneously risks environmental catastrophe.

The environmental impacts of the conflict are varied and significant, but to date have been largely overlooked. Conflict-related environmental degradation has far-reaching, long-term impacts and – as the situation in Ukraine demonstrates – requires international cooperation to address.

Industrial Threats in the East

The environmental ramifications of the conflict began long before Russia’s invasion on 24 February 2022. The conflict between the Ukrainian Army and Russia-backed forces after Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Donbas suitably illustrates some of the environmental risks entailed with war.

The Donbas region is highly industrialised and home to hundreds of collieries, metallurgical plants, mines and chemically dangerous operations. Shelling of these industrial sites resulted in the release of hazardous waste and led to the contamination of water, soil and land.

Equally concerningly, after 2014, 70 of the 94 mines in the Donbas region ended up in separatist-controlled areas. It is impossible to confirm if the mines in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics – unrecognised by the international community – are being properly maintained, intensifying concerns over the contamination of ground and surface water. Water from the region feeds into the Siverskyi-Donets – the largest river in eastern Ukraine – presenting risks to local drinking water supplies and to water beyond Ukraine’s borders, posing a transnational threat.

Attempts to mitigate these effects by building treatment plants to purify the water were in the pipeline, but given the current full-scale Russian invasion they are unlikely to come to fruition. Instead, the threat to water quality is likely to intensify and spread to other Ukrainian regions as more vital infrastructure falls into Russian hands.

The ongoing conflict will render farmers unable to harvest this year’s crop and risks a potential food crisis extending into next year if they are unable to plant crops this spring

As more territory falls under Russian control and shelling continues, the environmental risks increase. In the first week of the Russian invasion in 2022, more than 20 industrial sites were experiencing environmentally damaging spills, explosions or fires. Tools for monitoring these sites were also hit by cyber attacks, undermining efforts to address the environmental risks and their potential long-term impact.

Risking a Second Chernobyl

As the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant shows, damage to any of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors poses a significant threat to both the environment and human life. Damage to reactor containment or cooling systems might lead to the release of radiation, resulting in hundreds of kilometres of land becoming inhospitable for years to come.

Chernobyl should serve as a very real warning of what a release of radiation would mean for the environment. The fallout after the Chernobyl disaster resulted in increased mortality rates among many species of plants and animals and reproductive dysfunction. The transfer of radionuclides to bodies of water also led to contamination across Europe.

Even if Ukraine’s nuclear facilities avoid being directly damaged in the conflict, their safe operation relies on expert technicians and personnel, the electrical grid for cooling systems and access to other specialist equipment, all of which will be obstructed by the ongoing conflict. Millions of Ukrainians have already fled the country, power plants have already been struck by artillery and Chernobyl’s power supply was cut off after the Russian advance. The Russian occupation of Chernobyl has also resulted in staff working in unsafe conditions and without the proper systems and equipment.

Blowing-up Bread Supplies

Together, Russia and Ukraine produce nearly 25% of the world’s wheat, as well as being key suppliers of barley, sunflower seed oil and corn. The ongoing conflict will render farmers unable to harvest this year’s crop and risks a potential food crisis extending into next year if they are unable to plant crops this spring.

While in the long term, countries may be able to reduce their dependence on the region, in the short term it is likely to exacerbate existing food crises. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are highly dependent on Russia and Ukraine. Fertiliser company Yara International has already warned that the conflict will result in only the most privileged people having access to sufficient food, leading to starvation and further violence in vulnerable countries.

Ukraine’s ecosystems are under threat from direct military action which risks destroying landscapes, exacerbating deforestation and increasing the risk of forest fires

Climate change is already impacting global wheat production, by limiting countries’ ability to grow wheat, and demand, by worsening food shocks and increasing local dependencies on imported food. The ongoing conflict threatens to worsen the situation in regions already reliant on Russian and Ukrainian exports to mitigate the impact of climate change on their domestic food production.

Clashes with Conservation

As well as being the breadbasket of the world, Ukraine hosts 35% of Europe’s biodiversity. The conflict threatens this biodiversity both directly and indirectly. Ukraine’s ecosystems are under threat from direct military action which risks destroying landscapes, exacerbating deforestation and increasing the risk of forest fires.

No less importantly, however, the conflict is also impacting conservation efforts. International organisations that support conservation efforts in Ukraine rely on peace and stability to do so. Conservationists have been forced to evacuate or take up arms due to the Russian invasion. The conflict is also derailing conservation and climate work beyond Ukraine’s borders, with Belarus shutting down conservation NGOs and the EU delaying its biodiversity plan due to concerns about food security.

No Peace for the Environment

The situation in Ukraine and the implications for the environment should not be underestimated. Environmental degradation will have far-reaching, long-term impacts. The continued conflict threatens industries which, when endangered, pose a significant threat to national security. Mines, chemical plants and nuclear facilities require careful long-term maintenance after they cease operating and can all cause untold environmental harm.

The damage caused by the conflict is also not contained within Ukrainian borders; it inevitably impacts neighbouring countries through shared ecosystems and waterways, as well as those further afield due to interruptions to global food supply chains and biodiversity loss.

The environment should not be seen as an unavoidable casualty of war. Environmental security and human security are intrinsically interlinked, and the conflict in Ukraine is causing environmental harms that threaten to persist long after any peace deal is signed. Addressing these threats must be a fundamental part of the international community’s response to the conflict.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Genevieve Kotarska

Associate Fellow | SHOC Network Member - Researcher

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Lauren Young

Former Research Fellow

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