Analysis of the environmental consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine facilitates understanding of military anthropogenic impacts on the environment and how (and whether) nature adapts in response. Some consequences, such as the desalination of the Black Sea as a result of the explosion of the Kakhovka hydroelectric power station, turned out to be less dangerous in the short term than experts had expected. Not much is said about other consequences, for example, the possible “seizure” by introduced and invasive species of areas most affected by military operations.
Our Work Group analyzes cases of the war’s impact on the environment, and this allows us not only to understand the consequences, but also to identify adaptation strategies.
The explosion of the Kakhovka hydropower station dam on 6 June 2023 has been described as an example of ecocide during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Even earlier this summer, UWEC experts noted that we will only be able to begin a full analysis of these consequences in the coming months.
For the time being, it seems that the disaster has not had serious negative impacts on the Black Sea ecosystem. Freshwater dilution of the sea’s salinity was not as radical as expected, and local species, such as dolphins, suffered no more greatly than usual since the beginning of the war. However, clearly this is only a preliminary analysis, and more detailed research is ongoing. Of particular concern is the wartime release of heavy metals, nitrates, and phosphates into the Black Sea. Large rivers such as the Dnieper, Danube, and Don are continuously polluting the sea, and the additional anthropogenic load is problematic for the Black Sea:
As for the now-dry Kakhovka reservoir, we see active regrowth of forest at an impressive rate of growth. In just a few months, two- to three-meter-tall willows and poplars have appeared. There was even talk of the possible restoration of the forests of the “Great Meadow” (Velykyi Luh), the area flooded as the complex’s dams were erected. And although power engineers are determined to restore the Kakhovka hydropower station, environmental experts are categorically against it, unable to find any economic or energy argument in favor of rebuilding:
Another topic in need of particular analysis is ecosystem restoration plans in Eastern Ukraine, especially those areas affected by hostilities. As the head of Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and UWEC Work Group expert Oleksiy Vasyliuk notes, there is a high probability that war-affected lands will become hubs for the spread of invasive species, as well as centers experiencing ecosystem change. Full analysis must wait until peacetime; for now, the war is ongoing. Meanwhile, satellite monitoring allows us to make preliminary assumptions:
Our fifth webinar, held jointly with Reporters Without Borders – Sweden and Svea Green Foundation, was dedicated to the use of satellite data, open source data, and information-gathering on the environmental consequences of war. During the event, Olexander Opanasenko of Ukrainian NGO Ecodia, OSINT Analysis Specialist Wim Zwijnenburg, and expert Linas Svolkinas of CEOBS gathered to discuss techniques for understanding and assessing the environmental consequences of the invasion of Ukraine. The webinar recording and presentations can be viewed on our website:
- Webinar 5: Gathering and analyzing data on the environmental consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Another important issue is the state of occupied territories – a situation in which very little information is available. One of the largest nature reserves in Europe, Askania-Nova Nature Reserve, not only remains within the occupation zone, but also suffers negative impacts. In September, almost 2,000 hectares of its protected steppe burned from fires caused by combat operations. Instances involving construction of military structures on the reserve’s territory have been recorded, in part using satellite data. Despite this, it remains difficult to understand the impacts on the reserve’s animals and remaining protected areas workers and to what extent work is continues inside the occupied reserve:
As we have written more than once, the war in the region is not limited to Ukraine and it has been going on for quite a few years. Hybrid warfare negatively impacts Europe’s protected areas as a whole, often dividing them, for example the unique Białowieża Forest. These impacts are also recognized at the international level. For example, construction of border fences was condemned during the UNESCO World Heritage Session that occurred in late September. Read more about how the session on World Heritage went in the context of a growing global political crisis in expert Eugene Simonov’s article:
We wish you strength and peace!
Alexej Ovchinnikov, editor, UWEC Work Group