The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused serious damage to Ukraine’s economy, infrastructure, natural heritage, and environment. War-related pollution is having a negative transboundary environmental impact on other countries in the region. Some risks threaten the environment on a continental and global scale.
So, along with the great humanitarian disaster created by actions aimed at the destruction of the Ukrainian people as a nation, the Russian military is causing irreparable damage to the environment of Ukraine and to the entire continent.
Days of ecological war
On 11 April 2022, participants in a meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s “Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution” condemned Russia’s barbaric actions in the war against Ukraine, accompanied by humanitarian catastrophe, nature’s mass destruction, and pollution of the environment. Iryna Stavchuk, Ukraine’s deputy minister of environmental protection, wrote on her Facebook page after the meeting that Russia’s invasion has undermined all foundations of international law and deliberately created environmental hazards. She included that the meeting had begun with a moment of silence for all those killed in the military invasion of Ukraine.
In its official briefing on 14 April on the environmental damage caused by the Russian attacks, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine stated that since the beginning of the invasion, the Russian military has fired more than 1,500 missiles into Ukraine, and more than 5,000 units of Russian military equipment of various types have been destroyed. The total weight of all destroyed Russian equipment as of 8 April is approximately 85,000 tons—which includes 75,000 tons of carbon steel and stainless steel, along with 2,500 tons of aluminum, 1,000 tons of copper, and more than 360 tons of titanium and magnesium, as well as 10 kg of platinum, 18 kg of gold, and 1.2 tons of silver. Recycling of military scrap metal is a complex and time-consuming process requiring state control. At a briefing on 11 April, Oleh Bondar, head of the Pyrotechnic Work and Humanitarian Demining Department at the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, said that about 300,000 square kilometers (approximately 50%) of Ukraine’s territory needed humanitarian demining due to a large amount of ammunition and explosives left by the occupiers. Because of large-scale mining by Russian troops, vast areas of arable land in Ukraine cannot now be used for agriculture. Even in Odesa, all the beaches are mined by Ukrainian defenders with anti-tank mines, cutting the seashore off from the townspeople.
Attacks on the atmosphere
On 9 April, the Russians hit a storage tank containing four tons of non-concentrated nitric acid, near the town of Rubizhne, in the Luhansk region. The attack caused an explosion releasing significant amounts of nitric acid into the air; the poisonous cloud was carried away by the wind toward the positions of Russian troops near the villages of Kudryashivka and Varvarivka. Fortunately, there are no reports of civilian casualties. Also on 9 April, Russian troops shelled the town of Lysychansk, in the Luhansk region. The attack caused a fire at a gas station—it was impossible to put out the fire due to constant shelling. On 11 April, Russian troops used a poisonous substance of unknown origin dropped from an enemy unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) against the Ukrainian military and civilians in the city of Mariupol. The victims have developed respiratory failure and neurological problems. Ukraine’s military leadership is currently verifying information about the use of chemical weapons by the Russian occupiers in Mariupol.
Land and freshwater under chemical threat
The Russian military has caused significant damage to water supplies, sewerage, and communications systems, directly threatening freshwater supplies and polluting rivers that are sources of water for industry, utilities, and individual households. This means that sewage systems in many parts of Ukraine have stopped working and water is flowing into water bodies without treatment.
Due to Russian aggression, wastewater treatment has been disrupted in Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizne, Popasna, and part of Zaporizhya, causing pollution of water resources by untreated wastewater. As a result of the destruction of the dam of the Oskol Water Reservoir and the flood caused by it, the Seversky Donets River is being polluted.
Russian troops use incendiary munitions with white phosphorus, banned by the Geneva Conventions for use in civilian areas. In particular, on 9 April, the cities of Mariupol, Avdiivka, Maryinka, Vuhledar, Slovyansk, Pokrovsk, Toretsk, Solodke, Novomykhailivka, Troitske, Stepove, and Katerynivka were bombed with white phosphorus munitions. Such attacks pose a threat of large-scale fires and chemical contamination of the soil, in addition to civilian deaths.
National parks under attack
Currently, dozens of Ukrainian nature reserves and national parks have suffered significant damage as a result of Russian aggression. The destruction of wetlands on the coasts of the Azov and Black Seas and in the lower reaches of the Danube and Dnipro Rivers cause deep concern.
The war has caused great damage to forestries in Ukraine. Many park buildings and vehicles have been damaged and destroyed, and the infrastructure and forests have been mined by the Russians. Parts of the forests in the Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kherson oblasts are currently under the control of the occupiers.
In the first days of the war, hordes of Russian troops tried to go around the city of Nikolaev. They rushed north to Voznesensk, to the South Ukrainian Nuclear Power Plant. But they were stopped and driven back in the southeast, to the territory of the Kherson region. Active combat clashes took place on the territory of the Elanetsky nature reserve. The reserve is designed to preserve and restore the natural steppes—flat grasslands—on the Right Bank of Ukraine, which is the territory west of the main Ukrainian river, the Dnipro. The reserve was created to protect the largest area of the virgin steppe on the northwestern Black Sea Coast. As a result of hostilities, tank caterpillar treads destroyed unique vegetation and valuable virgin land cover, which will not be restored for decades. The lands are littered with rusting Russian equipment and remnants of ammunition. Part of the steppe has been burned out.
In the delta of the Dnipro, which was captured by Russian troops, the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve is located. Oleg Derkach, chairman of the Regional Ecological Network, told me about the fate of nature reserves on the Black Sea Coast: “The historically significant territory is the Kinburn Spit, where the Dnipro River meets the Black Sea. This is a narrow strip of land in the Black Sea connected to the mainland in the Kherson region. It is a very unique natural system. From the first occupation, the Spit was captured by Russian troops, who approached from Kherson. The Spit is divided between the Mykolaiv and Kherson regions. With a remote strike, the Russians moved deep into the Spit. However, a fire broke out in the floodplains and the ancient forest, which is more than 1,000 years old.”
Fire in floodplains is a big factor of concern for birds and animals. On the Kinburn Spit, there is the National Nature Park Beloberezhye Svyatoslav. All of these territories must be protected from impact, but now there is no access for control over them. Unique natural complexes, such as the largest desert in Europe, the Oleshky Sands, are subjected to massive fires and destruction by military equipment.
Blasts from the sea
Currently, sea traffic from all Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea has been suspended. Dozens of commercial vessels are blocked in ports because of the threat of attacks by the Russian navy or the detonation of sea mines. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, citing Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar, reports that 400 dangerous mines might be floating in the Black Sea. The minister has said that since the end of March, Turkish underwater security groups have deactivated three mines, all of them made in Russia.
On the night of 8 April, Russians attacked the icebreaker Captain Bilousov in the port of Mariupol. At the time of the shelling, there was a civilian crew on board; one person was killed and several others were injured. On 11 April, Russian occupiers hit the SMARTA cargo ship and captured the crew and the captain’s wife in the port of Mariupol.
Ivan Rusev, deputy director of the Tuzlovsky Lagoons National Nature Park, in the Odesa region, told me, “Our enemy is the Moscow junta, the Russian fascist regime, which went to war against the peaceful Ukrainian people and the State of Ukraine. Today Ukraine is on fire and burning from east to west, from south to north. And so, in the morning, somewhere near the coast, in the water and above the water in the Black Sea, there was an incredibly powerful enemy aggression. But around me in the National Nature Park Tuzla Estuaries, on the contrary, there was an incredible polyphony of birds and a slight, gentle noise of the waves of the estuary. On April 9, I go on a mission to the shallows of the estuary, through the reeds. Somewhere at 9.30, instantly, as if from the ground, there was an incredibly powerful explosion and immediately the earth and water trembled. A second later, a sound wave followed. It came from the Snake Island, in the Black Sea. A minute passed—again an incredible explosion in the sea and a loud rumble. The next is three more explosions. There were five of them, in total. And as a natural reaction to such a terrible factor, the wildlife has subsided. And instantly, to my right, a red heron flew, different species of ducks, and many waders. Probably you, friends, are familiar with great white and gray herons. And it is known that the white-tailed eagle, a majestic, noble, and proud bird, causes real admiration, a bright and powerful symbol of the spiritual beginning, strength, and power of the spirit, victory. This bird was revered by absolutely all peoples and at all times. So, powerful explosions frighten birds, and in some cases can cause an unusual reaction and destruction of nests and death of these majestic birds, as happened near our National Park.”
Saving endangered zoo animals
Hundreds of thousands of wild animals have been killed by explosions and mines in the fields invaded by Russians. In the cities of Ukraine, thousands of animals in zoos and parks have come under fire as well.
The Yasnogorodka Family Ecopark, located near the village of Makariv, in the Kyiv region, has been destroyed. The buildings burned down. Many animals died, though some remain alive. The owners of the Ecopark are asking for help: “Currently we do not have enough of our own funds, almost the entire park has turned to ashes.” In the village of Gostomel, also in the Kyiv region, the occupiers destroyed the Alexandria stable, along with the horses. Most of the 32 animals were burned alive.
On 13 April, a pair of white lions came to Odesa from the Feldman Ecopark, in the city of Kharkiv, which has been under shelling since early in the war. Because of this, the enclosures were destroyed and the animals would have to be euthanized if a new home could not be found for them. I spoke directly to the hero of the day, Odesa zoo director Igor Belyakov, who personally took the animals out of the shelling in a special vehicle. “The most difficult was the road,” said Belyakov. “There are many checkpoints on the road. And each time, we were asked where we were going. Few believed that in the thick of the war, [we were trying] to save wild animals from the zoo destroyed by Russian shelling. We had phoned the director of Feldman Ecopark, Vitaly Omelchenko, and offered to take the lions that he was going to euthanize. The fact is that the enclosures were destroyed on the first day of the war, on February 24, and the animals were in a cramped unsuitable room for almost a month and a half. During this time, they were given sedatives. It took about two days to get to Kharkiv.”
Feldman Ecopark is an environmental project of the Oleksandr Feldman International Environmental Foundation. From 2011 to 2017, the number of animals in the Ecopark increased from 200 to 2,000. The species diversity of animals kept in the Feldman Ecopark has expanded to 300 species, a significant number of which are rare and endangered, listed on the International Red List of Endangered Species. And now this unique zoo has been destroyed, like many zoos that have found themselves in the zone of occupation.
A little more than a week earlier, People’s Deputy Oleksandr Feldman, owner of Feldman Ecopark, had addressed Kharkiv residents: “The Ecopark is no more. Today, before the end of the day, a decision will be made on the euthanasia of tigers and lions, as their enclosures were broken after shelling by the Russians.” Some of the animals, such as the endangered red wolves, ran away. According to Feldman, three employees have so far died during the war, two from shelling, and a driver died during the evacuation of animals.
But the long and dangerous journey of Belyakov and the Odesa zoo staff was crowned with success. “We drove back faster,” said Belyakov: “What are you carrying?—Lions!” Upon arrival in Odesa, the animals were very stressed. But two days of rehabilitation and the use of drugs aimed at healing wounds passed, and the animals began to adapt to the new environment. “We apply the method of ‘enrichment of the environment,’ something that affects animals favorably,” Belyakov explained.
Tigers from the besieged Feldman Ecopark ended up in the Kyiv zoo. The leopards went to the city of Dnipro. This is how Ukrainians, at great risk to their lives, and sometimes at the cost of their lives, save wild animals.
The government of Ukraine records the occupiers’ crimes against the environment and will use every opportunity to bring the aggressor country to justice. The Russian Federation breaches its obligations under international treaties, including the UN Charter. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine undermines all foundations of the international legal order. Russia’s full responsibility for the crimes committed will come only if Ukraine wins the war, helped by an international alliance led by the United States. Every Ukrainian thanks the fraternal American people in their hearts. Ahead—our common victory and the restoration of beautiful nature. — Odesa, 15.04.2022 ❖
From the first days of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, Oleg Rubel, professor in the Department of Public Administration and Environmental Management of the Odesa State Environmental University, has remained in Odesa and monitored the negative impact Russian troops are having on nature in the south of Ukraine and the Black Sea. Rubel’s latest report was sent to the Voice while he was taking shelter from an air raid.