Ambushing the Environment: The Russo-Ukrainian War

Tanvi Sharma

The discussion of the environmental impact of Russia’s continuous offence against Ukraine may seem small or purely insignificant in the face of severe abuse of human rights, violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), war crimes, the discovery of mass burials, refugee crisis and other extreme transgressions as accused by Ukraine on Russia. Yet, one must not ignore the brewing climate crisis that rains heavily not only on the civilians of Ukraine but also can transcend state boundaries and contribute to the global climate detrimentally. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 began on 24th February 2022 and continues today. Although Ukraine has reclaimed around 54% of its territory from Russian Forces, the scars of the war left on Ukraine’s landscape and ecosystems run deep. 

It is reported that more than 5% of global emissions are linked to conflict and war, which is testimony to the growing need to emphasise the relationship between security and climate change today. This unrecognised issue is problematic, as it underscores the consequences of landscape fires, water contamination, global food crisis, and the devastating destruction of biodiversity. Emissions in Ukraine caused by the Russo-Ukrainian War explicitly account for around 150 Metric tons of CO2e, which is shockingly equal to the total emissions of a country like Belgium.  Hence, this war raises the threat of Ukraine being much more susceptible to climate change than in general circumstances.

The scale of Russia’s environmental offences in Ukraine is so vast that Ukraine’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources launched a website – ‘EcoZagroza’, translated from ‘ЕкоЗагроза’, to record these environmental crimes committed by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine. This application cum website was developed as a part of the European Union-funded project- ‘Apena 2’ and launched in July 2022. This application gives Ukrainians another platform to hold Russia accountable by allowing them to report environmental crimes they have personally witnessed, such as leakage of poisonous substances and burning of military equipment. It also lets them monitor other ecological indexes. The official website of EcoZagroza furthermore states that the blowing up of the Kakhovka HPP dam in July 2023 has been, at large, the most extreme act of ‘ecocide’ the Russian military has perpetrated. The explosion, which destroyed 11 sections out of the 28 sections of the dam, had many negative consequences. It flooded many villages, affected Ukraine’s agricultural sector, and had a detrimental impact on the fish resources that will take a minimum of 7-10 years to restore. It also led to the disappearance of aquatic plants from the reservoir. The nature of the explosion and its aftereffects were catastrophic that they have been compared with the Chornobyl Disaster of 1986. It is well known that the aftermath of even a single bomb or explosive falling in an area has disastrous consequences- it leaves the fields burning and barren, releases toxins in the air, water and soil, creates craters in the earth and erases life. Hence, one can only imagine the painful extent of environmental assault, as Ukraine has withstood innumerable explosives that have been pounded on them- burning national parks, forests and hazardous sites. Ukrainian authorities have estimated a cost of almost 58,376,767,240 USD of environmental damage that has been caused as a consequence of military action since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

While Ukraine is being subjected to a literal ‘toxic’ legacy by the Russian military, the paradox lies in the pro-climate commitments that the Russian authorities claim for Russia. Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has committed to Russia reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2060. The importance of fostering and expanding ecosystems to provide a solution to the climate crisis is something that Russian authorities have continuously highlighted. Russia has been a flagbearer of ‘green diplomacy’, yet this is quite contradictory with the massacre of the ecosystems that Russia has been executing in Ukraine. 

Global emissions cannot be considered without talking about the elephant in the room, that is, military emissions. It has been claimed that if the world’s militaries were clubbed together as a single nation-state, it would almost account for the 4th highest GHG emitter globally. While this article emphasises the Russo-Ukrainian war and its environmental degradation aspect, the entire conversation is left incomplete without further mentioning other military interventions and/or wars which have also wrecked havoc on various ecosystems. How wars and military conquests can affect environments is no better illustrated than the tragic Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombing of 1945, which resulted in emitting tremendous amounts of radiation into the air, altering the DNA of floras and faunas, and turning the water bodies into hazardous, radioactive contamination. The Israel-Hamas war has also ensured a catastrophic turn of events for Gaza’s biodiversity and environment, where the emissions generated within the first two months of the war exceed the global annual emissions “for more than 20 of the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations.” When talking about the US military intervention in Iraq, the harmful substances found in the air, dust and toxins released from military vehicles and arms have been intensely detrimental to the environment. Today, according to the United States Agency for International Development, Iraq ranks as the 5th most vulnerable country to climate change.  

The glaring gap in literature recording the climate cost of war, therefore, needs to be emphasised, as it is the first step towards increased awareness in mainstream discourse and plants the realisation that emissions by fighter jets and explosives do not simply disappear in thin air, nor are they minor enough to not be held accountable for. Circling back to Russia’s environmental offence in Ukraine and its extreme impact on local ecosystems, Ukrainian authorities have been pushing hard to throw the limelight on this severe issue and demand Russia to pay for the environmental damage. Perhaps no time has been better than today for a formal, legal instrument to combat ‘ecocide’ to be formed on an international scale that operates and sits alongside genocide. The universal criminalisation of ‘ecocide’ is the need of the hour and a significant stride towards ensuring accountability and responsibility for actions that eradicate the environment and contribute adversely to climate change.

Questions for Thought

  1. What are the challenges the global arena faces in constructing a legal framework for universal criminalisation of ‘ecocide’ ?
  2. Due to the absence of a legal instrument to combat ecocide, how can the international community hold Russia duly responsible for the environmental crimes Russia perpetrated in Ukraine?
  3. In what ways can states, interntional organisations, pressure groups and other elements come together to raise awareness about the aspect of severe environmental degradation in wars and military conflicts?

Suggested Readings

  1. Doug, W. (2024). The climate costs of war and militaries can no longer be ignored. The Guardian.
  2. Gabija, L. (2023). Russia’s War on Ukraine: High Environmental Toll. European Parliamentary Research Service, 2, PE 751.142.
  3. The amount of damage is estimated in trillions: how russia’s aggression has harmed the nature of Ukraine, (2023).

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Ambushing the Environment…

by Tanvi Sharma time to read: 5 min