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War against nature: the environmental damage of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine

Bomb tracks on the Ukrainian field
A field near Sloviansk in Eastern Ukraine, barely any land is left unscarred by Russian artillery. ₴
Photo: Maxar technologies satellite company

The Russian war in Ukraine has dealt enormous damage to the Ukrainian people and infrastructure, the scale of which is hard to calculate at the moment. And while damaged infrastructure is visible here and now, environmental harm is harder to evaluate and its consequences may last for generations. However, specialists are already working to document ecological harm to make Russia pay for all the damage caused by its war. So let’s see how the war affects the environment.  

Zebras in Askania
Askania-Nova is a unique biosphere preserve (128 square miles, about the size of Philadelphia city), now under Russian occupation in Kherson region, running out of resources to care for the dozens of species from all around the world.
Photo: Askania-Nova administration

At the beginning of March, the State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine reported 5 cases of massive damage done to the land resources of Ukraine that will cost us $77 mln in total. In less than a month of the full-scale war, Ukraine lost over $20 mln in water resources – they were basically stolen from Kakhovka Reservoir by the Russian army after the seizure of the North Crimean Canal. The warfare caused air pollution equivalent to what one metallurgical plant causes in a whole year of operation, the Ministry of the Environment estimates.  

The Ecoaction NGO team documented more than 337 cases of potential environmental damage caused by the war, including the shelling of industrial objects and oil depots that may cause environmental pollution, violation of nuclear safety at Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPPs, oil pollution of the seas, etc. Data was gathered from public sources and now is represented on the constantly updated online map. The highest number of such cases were documented in Luhansk, Kyiv, and Kharkiv regions. 

Bombing of oil depots   

Smoke from shelling in Ukraine
Oil refinement factory near Lysychansk in Eastern Ukraine, bombed by the Russian army. Photo: Paweł Pieniążek

Since the first days of the war, Russian aggression has been focused on the destruction of fuel warehouses. As of May 10, the destruction of 27 oil depots was estimated at $227 million in damages. On February 27 and March 12, an oil depot in Kryachky village near Kyiv exploded after a rocket attack. Environmental damage from that incident alone is estimated at $25 billion.  

On March 3, six fuel reservoirs combusted at the oil depot in Chernihiv. For two months, explosions at oil facilities were reported all across the country: in Zhytomyr, Sumy, Luhansk, Lviv, Rivne, Volyn, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Fires at oil depots cause soot, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, carbon dioxide, and other harmful emissions to be released into the air. Burning products affect human health and may get into the soil, poisoning surface and underground waters. In addition, such fires may lead to acid rains as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide may react with water vapor producing sulfuric and nitric acids.   

Attacks on industrial facilities  

A chemical plant is on fire due to the war in Ukraine
Explosion at SumyKhimProm chemical plant. Photo: State Emergency Service of Ukraine

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end. Russian occupants attack industrial facilities, particularly chemical and metalworking factories, as well as warehouses with fertilizers, paints, varnishes, etc.  

On March 18, warehouses with 200 tons of paint and varnish were set on fire after a Russian attack in Sumy. On March 21, an ammonia leak happened at the SumyKhimProm chemical facility, causing pollution to the nearby village of Novoselytsia. The State Emergency Service neutralized the ammonia cloud.  

Red ammonia cloud
Red ammonia cloud, hundreds of meters high, rises above Kramatorsk after the Russian army bombed the city’s factory. Ammonia gas is highly toxic to most living organisms, exposure can result in blindness, lung damage, or death. Photo: Donetsk Regional Administration

Nitric acid leaks were documented in the Luhansk region twice: on April 5, in Rubizhne, and on April 8, near Kudriashivka and Varvarivka. Nitric acid vapors irritate the respiratory tract and cause dizziness, drowsiness, bronchitis symptoms, headaches, and ocular lesions, that may even lead to sight loss.  

On April 10, Kherson Region stood on the brink of an environmental disaster caused by the death of 4 million chickens at the Chornobayivka poultry farm. Occupants damaged the local power plant and impeded the staff from feeding the fowls. On March 2, the aggressor applied the same tactics at three other poultry farms: two in Kharkiv and one in Kherson regions.    

On May 11, a warehouse with ammonium nitrate in the Donetsk region was shelled. Citizens were asked to close their windows for 24 hours to avoid poisoning.  

Temporary occupation of Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia NPPs 

Mykola Bespaly, director of the Central Analytical Laboratory in Chornobyl
Mykola Bespaly, director of the Central Analytical Laboratory in Chornobyl gives an interview after its liberation. He recounts how the Russian army stole or destroyed massive amounts of critical equipment needed to maintain the power plant. Photo: Kasia Strek for Washington Post

The seizure of Ukrainian nuclear power plants threatens not only Ukraine but the environmental safety of the whole world. Chornobyl NPP was temporarily occupied for more than a month. On March 9, Russians damaged a power line and de-energized the plant. Cooling systems that prevent spent nuclear fuel in pools from heating stopped working without energy. That could cause overheating of nuclear waste and water in pools potentially leading to evaporation and release of radioactive substances into the environment. 

Read about the international response to Russia’s nuclear terrorism here.

A destroyed bridge near Chornobyl
A bridge near Chornobyl, blown up during the Russian occupation of the NPP. Photo: Kasia Strek for Washington Post

Those substances could have been blown by the wind onto the territory of Belarus, Russia, and other countries in Europe. Thankfully, Ukrainian experts managed to fix the power line. On March 31, the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management reported that occupants had left the Chornobyl area. Unfortunately, Russian nuclear terrorism continues on the site of the largest NPP in Europe: the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

Zaporizhzhia NPP is still under the control of Russia, which keeps threatening the world’s nuclear safety. Specifically, since the beginning of the occupation, several incidents at the power plant were documented including fire, Russian ammunition explosions, and power line damage. A particular danger to nuclear safety is posed by Russian cruise missiles that flew extremely close to Khmelnytsky NPP on March 16, Pivdennoukrainsk NPP on March 25, and Zaporizhzhya NPP on March 26.  

You can find the story of the occupation of the Chornobyl NPP in our dedicated article.

Massive contamination by explosives 

Ukrainian bomb disposal specialists have been working without rest since the start of the war. Tens of thousands of unexploded bombs and shells need to be neutralized to save people’s lives and allow farmers to gather the harvest. Photo: Julia Kochetova

From February 24 to June 24, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine reportedly disarmed almost 145,425 explosive devices and more than 602 kg of explosive substances, including 1996 aviation bombs. On the whole, the aggressor launched 2800 rockets into Ukraine specifically targeting different ammunition warehouses to exhaust Ukrainian reserves. These kinds of explosions may result in emissions of soot, carbon, lead, their compounds, and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

CJ, a British bomb disposal specialist volunteering in Ukraine says: “We [our squad] have stopped counting how many explosives we’ve found.” Photo: Liam Kennedy

Explosions and further spreading of ammunition remains may also cause environmental risks and lead to acute and chronic health impacts. Projectile remains mainly consist of iron and carbon, but also contain sulfur and copper. When penetrating the soil, these substances pollute water and then poison people and animals.  

Water pollution and impacts on water supply 

During the failed Russian blitzkrieg of Kyiv, fighting damaged the dam near Demidiv village. The Irpin River flooded several nearby towns, resulting in terrible living conditions and water pollution. Photo: Danil Pavlov

Damaging municipal and infrastructural objects leads to water pollution that endangers the environment and public health. On March 14, Russia shelled sewage treatment plants in Vasylivka city in the Zaporizhzhia region. The pump station was destroyed and wastewaters flowed directly into the Dnipro River without any filtering. Unfiltered waters contain lots of organic compounds, helminth eggs, pathogenic bacteria, sulfates, chlorides, and other harmful substances that may cause a large-scale algal bloom in the Dnipro River and the Black Sea when the warmer weather comes.  

In another instance, the debris from a Russian cruise missile damaged 6 reservoirs with organic fertilizers in the Ternopil region, releasing chemicals into the environment. The State Environmental Inspectorate of Ukraine reported a dangerous level of ammonia concentration in the Ikva River – it was 163 times higher than the maximum safe level of this substance. Abnormal numbers of dead fish were recorded in the river and people were prohibited to use water from wells due to possible poisoning.

On May 8, the shelling of the municipal company Popasniansky District Water Canal damaged its filter station. One million people were left without access to clean water. The supply can be renewed only after the warfare ends.  

Impact on wildlife and biosphere preserves 

Askania-Nova preserve in Kherson has 260 employees ensuring the well-being of the animals. They are currently funding it all out-of-pocket and with the help of donations. The situation is desperate. Photo: Askania-Nova administration

The war not only pollutes our environment but also affects Ukrainian wildlife directly. Experts say that 44% of the most valuable wildlands have now turned into zones of open warfare. Rendering care to animals and ecosystems remains impossible due to the Russian occupation. These territories are crucial to preserving biodiversity and tackling the climate crisis. The habitats or pastures of some rare and endemic species are also in the middle of warzones, meaning that their survival is under threat: untilled steppes, chalk slopes in the Donetsk region, coastal habitats in southern regions, and swamps in the north.  

The movement of heavy machinery, construction of fortifications, and active battles harm the soil. This leads to degradation of vegetation and worsens wind and water erosion. Warfare disturbs the life of the wild animals:  they either die or try to escape the warzones. Fires in ecosystems, caused by shellings, are also a severe threat. Ukraine’s State Emergency Services cannot provide the necessary help and liquidate fires on the territories occupied by Russians. We`ve already lost thousands of hectares (hundreds of square miles/kilometers) of forests of Polissia and Slobozhanschyna. Satellite images documented numerous wildfires, including those in the Chornobyl area.

Impact on the marine ecosystem  

Dead Black Sea Harbour
Dead Black Sea Harbour Porpoise at the coast of the Odesa region. Photo: Ivan Palachkov

Naval warfare also affects the environment. Azov and Black Sea marine ecosystems suffer from naval mines, sunk ships, damage to coastal infrastructure, and chemical pollution of seawater. Russian troops attack port infrastructure and anchored ships on the Black and Azov seashores, causing water pollution and spreading poisonous substances into the sea. Oil products harm marine biocenosis by forming pellicles on the water surface and disrupting the natural exchange of energy, heat, humidity, and gas between the sea and atmosphere. Moreover, they directly impact the physical chemistry and hydrologic conditions, killing fish, marine birds, and microorganisms.  

On March 26-28, drifting naval mines, laid by the Russian army, were found in the Black Sea near Turkey and Romania. Those mines endanger navigation, as well as marine life. There have already been reports of deaths of aquatic mammals (dolphins, porpoises, etc.), presumably from warfare, powerful missiles, or disorientation from sonars.

Russian naval cruiser Minsk. Twelve Russian ships, including massive cruisers like this one, are still polluting the Black Sea while blockading Ukrainian ports. Photo: Getty Images

Ornithologists also stress that the Azov-Black Sea coastline plays a significant role in preserving the populations of many bird species in Europe. Now environmental protection services are not able to fulfill their functions, as some parts of the shore are temporarily occupied by the Russian army. Moreover, many bird flight paths lay above the warfare zones. Forced changes of flight routes and loss of rest-stops may cause dangerous exhaustion of the birds, while shootings and shellings may cause direct death. These factors disturb the birds’ normal environment and may impact their survival and reproduction. 

All of the above is just a tiny part of the damage done to the Ukrainian ecology and nature by Russian aggression. It is also impossible to evaluate or verify what’s happening in the temporarily occupied territories, as the Russian army is blocking all access. 

We will be able to understand the full scope of environmental damage only after Ukraine is completely freed from the occupying army. Even then, the consequences will affect Ukrainian and European ecology for years to come. To protect the environment and recover what`s been ruined, Ukraine needs global support in achieving its victory.

For people, for peace, and for nature.  

Maryna Ratushna, industrial pollution coordinator, Ecoaction NGO