Senior Western officials have received “sobering” reports on the counteroffensive in Ukraine. As both sides continue to rain artillery shells and missiles across the country, Ukrainian forces have struggled to make progress on the front lines in both the south and the east.
Meanwhile, a different but related struggle is occurring across the country. Ukraine’s environment is being poisoned by the by-products of this war; polluting the land, water, and air, and exposing humans, plants, and animals to high levels of toxins.
Russia’s devastation of Ukraine’s environment—and the health of Ukrainians—is not a new phenomenon. It represents an extension of Soviet-era practices that exploited the environment of Russia’s near abroad in pursuit of its expansionist and geopolitical ambitions. The rapid industrialization pursued by the Soviet Union ingested high volumes of natural resources and spewed pollution into the environment—with industrial centers (including regions in the southeast of Ukraine) subjected to particular harm.
Ukraine has spent the past thirty years recovering from these policies. But now Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine echoes the Soviet Union’s expansionist zeal as it is replicates the catastrophic destruction of Ukraine’s environment. The environmental abuse—both deliberate and unintentional—will continue to harm the health of Ukraine’s land and people for decades to come.
Soviet Industry and Environmental Annihilation
The June 2023 collapse of the Kakhovka dam in Kherson invoked strong parallels to the 1941 destruction of the Dnieper hydroelectric power station. Red Army forces demolished that dam on the Dnieper River as they retreated across Ukraine, fleeing from the Nazi army. The explosion released massive waves of water that flooded the land downstream and killed thousands of civilians. (Some estimates put the total number of deaths as high as 80,000 to 100,000.) The dam powered agricultural and industrial pursuits on both sides of the river—and the structure was seen as a symbol of Soviet progress.
A popular slogan during the early years of Soviet industrialization was: “We cannot wait for favors from nature; our task is to take from her.” During the seventy-year reign of the USSR, Soviet leadership obsessed over rapid modernization and progress.
In an effort to quickly expand the USSR’s economic and military power, many Soviet republics were forced to build industry that poisoned their soil, water, and air. Manufacturing, mining, and accelerated agricultural activity resulted in massive air and water pollution. Summer destinations on the Black Sea grew quiet as the water became too polluted for swimming. Ukraine’s Donetsk region—now known as the Donbas—was classified as “catastrophic,” due to primarily industry-related damages, indicating conditions so severe that specialists considered them irreparable. Most famously, the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in northern Ukraine in 1986 spread radionuclides and other toxic materials throughout the ecosystems in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.
In order to keep up with the high rate of production demanded by Soviet leadership, managers opted to pour resources into production—land, energy, and manpower—at a higher rate, rather than develop more efficient methods. Additionally, the Soviet economy concentrated industrial production as project planners and industrial managers thought it would help raise efficiency and lower costs. This led to certain areas being acutely impacted.
The USSR also frequently invested in new infrastructure, rather than updating existing facilities. Thus, by the 1990s, many facilities in operation were inefficient and did not meet current environmental standards. They were also more prone to accidents that could leak pollutants into the surrounding environment. Rampant corruption meant that the environmental regulations that were in place were frequently ignored . These practices aggravated the environmental impact of industrialization.
When Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Soviet practices had left the country with inefficient, poorly constructed infrastructure—including energy-inefficient housing, and outdated transportation systems and mining practices. A 2015 report found that Ukraine’s energy and CO2 production was exceptionally high compared to its neighbors—and that the country’s mortality rate tied to air pollution was high relative to other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
In the years prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion, Ukraine renewed its efforts to address environmental challenges. The efforts were largely effective, and energy, air, and water conditions improved markedly. However, Russia’s war in Ukraine has ended these efforts, and brought about a new round of externally imposed environmental destruction.
Russia’s Assault on Ukraine’s Environment
The present war in Ukraine is harming the country’s ecosystem and ecology, as well as triggering environmental health impacts through air, water, and food pollution. The Ukrainian government has received 2,507 reports of military actions that have impacted the environment. They have verified 2,321 reports. The war also has caused an estimated $56 billion in environmental damage. Some have dubbed the Russian treatment of Ukraine as an “ecocide.”
The territorial impacts have been immense. About 30 percent of Ukraine’s protected land has been negatively impacted by military operations. Some of the damage is brought about as unintentional side-effects of the conflict (the presence of land mines and trenches along the front lines), while some is more intentional (such as the destruction of the Kakhovka dam). Ukraine’s waterways are now slick with oil spills. Toxic chemicals have seeped into once farmable soil. Forests have been burned.
Clean up and recovery from the conflict may take decades. In the meantime, Ukraine’s population will be exposed to hazardous toxins in their air, water, and food, which will threaten their health. The twentieth-century style fighting in this current conflict is particularly damaging to the environment. Artillery shells filled with chemicals are now littered across areas once used for farming. Tank movement and trenches scar the front lines, and combatants have incinerated forests to smoke out hidden troops.
Some of the remaining Soviet infrastructure that brought immense environmental pollution to Ukraine is now being destroyed by missile strikes—one of the key tactics employed by Russian forces. This reckless strategy has only intensified throughout the conflict, causing damage to nuclear facilities, nuclear waste disposal sites, and other areas containing toxic and hazardous chemicals. Attacks on oil depots have caused oil to leak into both soil and water. Russian attacks on electrical transformers and substations are releasing toxic chemicals and heavy fuel oil into the surrounding areas.
When buildings are destroyed by missile strikes, they release pollutants, including asbestos—a material that was commonly used in Ukrainian buildings—which is widely known to cause cancer in the liver, colon, and other organs. Experts fear that the environmental damage and massive release of pollutants could increase risk of cancers and other illnesses for years to come. For instance, after missile attacks in Kalynivka, scientists examined soil and water samples and found that oil-product contamination was 40-60 times the legal government standard. The water supply has also been polluted with raw sewage, chemicals, and oil.
Prior to the conflict, Ukraine supplied 10 percent of the world’s wheat supply. The conflict has damaged at least 40,000 square miles of Ukraine’s agricultural land. High levels of soil and water contamination mean it will be difficult for farmers to return to their fields, even after the conflict ends. This could have a devastating impact on Ukraine’s economic viability going forward and could impact food security in Ukraine and other parts of the world.
Beyond the destruction, the war has also put most environmental protection efforts on hold. Ukraine’s biodiversity is at risk, massive fires threaten bird breeding habitats and oil spills coat critical marine ecosystems. “Nearly 160,000 animals and 20,000 birds are under threat because of the catastrophe,” said Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, Ukraine’s deputy minister of environmental protection and natural resources.
Repeating Historical Harm
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union pushed rapid manufacturing and progress in its regions in an effort to stay competitive with the United States geopolitically, technologically, and militarily. Today, Russia is trampling Ukraine in pursuit of its geopolitical goals and claims of countering U.S. and NATO expansionism. While the forms of pollution and damage then and now look different, the imposition of environmental degradation on Ukraine by its eastern neighbor is reminiscent of Soviet exploitation.
As long as Russia continues to subjugate Ukraine through military aggression, Ukraine will face challenges in undertaking comprehensive and effective environmental evaluations and reconstruction. And environmental health in inextricably linked with economic viability. The longer that Ukraine is a victim of Russia’s aggression, the more damage will be done to the health of both its land and its people.
Caroline Kapp is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sources: AP; CNN; EcoZagrosa; European Parliament; Foreign Policy; The Guardian; Nature; New York Times; OECD; Politico; Rand; UNDP; Washington Post; WHO
Photo credit: Ukrainian rescuers clear mines at the site of recent fighting, courtesy of home for heroes/Shutterstock.com.