A Final Word on...

Russian Ecocide in Ukraine

September 25, 2023

By Oleksandra Matviichuk

Head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

IMAGE: Mykhaylo Palinchak

In the vast tapestry of human history, wars have been documented for their human toll, the loss of life, and the destruction of cities. But in Ukraine, alongside this profound human suffering, another tragedy unfolds. Parallel to the stories of its people, the very essence of the nation—its environment—faces an unprecedented assault. The war, driven by Russia's ambitions, is not just a chronical of human tragedy; it's an ecocide, a heartrending lament of a land and its silenced ecosystems.


Across Ukraine, the war's environmental toll is glaringly evident, with the Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine, Ruslan Strilets, estimating the cost of environmental damage at a staggering $56 billion. But what does this mean in tangible terms? The war's first year alone resulted in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to Belgium's annual emissions. Such figures are not mere statistics; they are the reality of the environmental catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine.


The war has intensified the country's struggle with air pollution. Military confrontations, characterised by bombings, artillery shelling, and the burning of structures, release a cocktail of toxic particulates and gases into the air. Residents in conflict zones face not only the immediate threats of war but also the insidious dangers of polluted air thickened by the combustion of paint, plastic, insulation, and other building materials, which can lead to long-term respiratory and cardiovascular issues.


The ecocide doesn't stop at air pollution. The waterways of Ukraine, which once mirrored the sky and nurtured life, now bear the scars of chemical onslaught. Munitions and chemicals from bombed industrial sites have seeped into the groundwater, contaminating it for generations to come. Oil depots and energy facilities, deliberately targeted by Russian forces, have released over 30,000 tonnes of oil into the water and soil. A single airstrike in Kalynivka led to 6,000 tonnes of oil contaminating the soil and a nearby lake. Such actions are not mere military strategies; they are deliberate acts of environmental terrorism.


Forests, the lungs of our planet, haven't been spared either. The once-majestic forests of Ukraine, echoing with the songs of birds and rustling leaves, now lie scarred and smouldering. The artillery's fury and the relentless fires have not just felled trees; they've silenced an age-old symphony of life. These forests, once teeming with life and serving as carbon sinks, now stand as silent witnesses to the ecocide.


The war's impact on biodiversity is another chapter of this grim tale. Many of Ukraine's protected areas, once sanctuaries for diverse flora and fauna, have been ravaged. The bursting of the Kakhovka dam, a direct result of the conflict, which flooded forests, wetlands, and national protected areas, has not just inundated lands but drowned the hopes of myriad species that found solace in these areas, putting countless species in the Danube Delta region at risk. Shoals of fish gasp on mudflats, while once-rich fields along the Dnipro River are now wastelands. Satellite imagery reveals the Kakhovka reservoir, one of Europe's largest and a vital regional water source, dwindling alarmingly. This calamity not only threatens Ukraine's rich biodiversity but also poses significant risks to global food security, as the region serves as a vital breadbasket for the world. Such actions don't just disrupt local ecosystems; they have ripple effects that challenge the very foundation of humanity's sustenance and alter the balance of our global environment.


Amidst this environmental apocalypse, the shadow of a nuclear disaster looms large. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, under Russian control and reportedly mined, teeters on the brink of disaster. A potential mishap here could trigger an event eclipsing even the haunting legacy of Chernobyl, casting a radioactive shadow across whole continents.


Ukraine's biodiversity, a rich tapestry of life woven over millennia, is being torn asunder. Protected areas, once sanctuaries of life, now bear the scars of war. This is not just Ukraine's cross to bear; it's a dirge that resonates with each person and every heartbeat of our planet. Every shattered edifice, every poisoned stream, every scorched earth patch stands testament to a world under siege, an environment crying out for mercy.


The environmental degradation resulting from this war is a stark reminder that in the age of climate change, no war is local, no conflict isolated. As global citizens, we cannot afford to view the Ukraine crisis as a distant conflict. The ecocide committed by Russia in Ukraine is a crime against all of humanity and our planet. It's high time the world recognises this and acts unitedly to halt this environmental catastrophe. It's high time the international community takes a united stand against ecocide and recognises it as an international crime once and for all. Only by holding perpetrators accountable on a global stage can we hope to not only prevent such profound environmental tragedies in the future but also send a clear message: our planet's well-being is non-negotiable.


Yet, in this global outcry, there lies a subtle irony. It's a gentle nudge to environmental groups and charities worldwide. While their efforts in various arenas are commendable, one cannot help but wonder: If we truly champion the cause of our planet, how can we overlook the environmental catastrophe unfolding in Ukraine? It's a reminder that true commitment to our Earth requires us to prioritise crises where the planet bleeds the most. In the haunting echoes of Ukraine's environmental agony, we find a plea, a desperate cry for intervention. As the land cries out from its deep wounds, it reminds us of an inescapable truth: our planet's pain is our pain, and its healing, our collective redemption. Now, more than ever, we must rally as guardians of our planet, recognising that the fate of Ukraine is intrinsically tied to the future of our world.

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