Translated by Alastair Gill
The past year has shown that fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine is highly likely to continue for a long time yet. It was clear to UWEC Work Group experts even in the early phases of the full-scale invasion that studying the environmental impacts of the war would also be a long-term project and could span decades. After the guns fall silent, time will be needed to collect and analyze data and advocate for the country’s green recovery. Beyond this, data collection and any research will be hampered for a long time by the need to de-mine huge swaths of land and clear former combat zones of military debris.
Catastrophe writ large: Destruction of the Kakhovka dam
The destruction of the Kakhovka hydropower plant’s (HPP) reservoir system, which also fed the cooling system of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was naturally the landmark event of 2023. The disaster not only dominated the attention of the media for several weeks, but was also the subject of intense discussion between experts from various countries.
At a webinar held with Reporters Without Borders immediately after the disaster in June, experts from UWEC Work Group said that it would only be possible to carry out a full analysis of the consequences several months later. In this regard, they were right. Today it is clear that the direct negative consequences unleashed by the explosion were not as catastrophic as was originally feared at the time of the disaster.
The draining of the reservoir, however, has raised new questions and challenges for conservationists and ecologists alike.
At the end of June, alongside International Rivers, Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, and other organizations, UWEC Work Group issued a joint statement that environmental groups do not support rebuilding of the HPP. The return of the river to its natural channel could facilitate the rebirth of ecosystems, while reconstruction of the HPP would only increase the negative consequences of the initial catastrophe.
A study carried out in the fall of 2023 showed that the worst fears – pollution and desalination of the Black Sea as a result of significant volumes of freshwater from the Dnieper River entering it – fortunately did not come to be. The marine ecosystem has absorbed this shock.
However, military activity continues to have an extremely negative impact on marine ecosystems. The overall environmental load on the Black Sea has increased several times over since hostilities began, boosting existing water pollution levels as a result of chemical discharges into large rivers, including the Dnieper, Danube, and Don.
- Impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the Black and Azov seas
- Black Sea heals its wounds: 4 months after the Kakhovka catastrophe
The ongoing debate over whether to restore the Kakhovka reservoir has been a far more important and principled issue. The area’s natural ecosystems have shown astonishing capacities for regeneration, and the site of the drained reservoir is already home to an actively recovering young forest, in an area known historically as Velykyi Luh (“the Great Meadow”). Trees began to grow rapidly over the course of several months following the disaster, forming a thicket of young willow and poplar. In view of the overall loss of ecosystems as a result of the war, the incredibly successful recovery of nature at the site of the reservoir led Ukrainian environmentalists to advocate for the preservation of the young forests – and, in fact, for the entire recovering ecosystem – on the site of the drained reservoir, and call for the authorities not to reconstruct the hydroelectric power station.
However, the Ukrainian government has already announced its intention to flood the site of the former reservoir and rebuild the dam and hydropower plant, though for now these plans remain on paper: such reconstruction will only become possible after the left bank of the Dnieper has been liberated and the war is over. Environmentalists and conservationists see this window of opportunity, and they plan to take advantage of it.
An independent coalition, Kakhovka Platforma, has been created to stop the ill-conceived plan to rebuild the hydropower plant, which independent hydropower experts argue has neither economic nor energy benefits. The goal of Kakhovka Platforma is to continue to apply pressure on Ukrenergo and the ministries so as to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Soviet past, when excessive regulation of the Dnieper River first created the conditions for the Kakhovka disaster.
The destruction of the Kakhovka hydropower dam raised another important topic: the issue of ecocide. Although ecocide is an established criminal offense in both Ukrainian and Russian legislation, the legal system has not yet been adapted to reflect this. At the international level, meanwhile, ecocide remains more of a concept than an effective mechanism for ensuring accountability for crimes against nature. The result is that a large number of deliberate acts of destruction across the planet have gone unpunished. This issue is relevant not only in conflict zones, but the whole world.
The greatest challenge: Collecting and verifying data in war zones and occupied areas
There has been no significant movement along the frontline over the last year. Since Ukraine liberated much of the land it lost in the first months of the full-scale war, the two armies have been forced to switch to positional warfare in the east and southeast of Ukraine, essentially turning vast areas into scorched wasteland.
It is difficult to conduct analysis of the environmental consequences in areas where fighting took place only in the first months of the war. Most of these lands are still closed to the public, making it impossible to carry out full soil and biodiversity studies. It is clear that collecting and analyzing data on the war’s environmental consequences could take years.
Ukraine’s environmental losses as a result of the invasion are not measured only in the pollution caused by shelling or the destruction of infrastructure, forest fires and environmental disasters. Lost access to ecosystem services, such as recreational use of forests, is difficult to quantify. Additionally, the war is leading to the destruction of Ukraine’s flora and fauna. Many unique endemic species are suffering, and may well disappear completely (if they have not already done so) if the war goes on for many more years. Another serious problem for Ukraine’s biodiversity is the rapid increase in the number and volume of invasive species in areas whose natural ecosystems were destroyed as a result of fighting. These zones could become bridgeheads from which invasive species can spread not only into Ukraine and neighboring countries, but even across Europe as a whole.
- Military combat impacts on ecosystem services in Ukraine
- Threats of Russian invasion for protected small mammals in Ukraine
As we have repeatedly noted, however, most data on the environmental consequences of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine can currently only be obtained through satellite imagery and open source intelligence, known as OSINT. Working with open-source data requires a careful approach, as false and unverified information continues to proliferate – the war is not only being waged on the frontlines, but also in the information field.
UWEC Work Group experts are especially concerned about the increasing frequency with which Russia’s propaganda machine weaponizes the environmental and climate agenda. As a result, Ukraine is finding itself more and more the target of criticism and even outright accusations, though these are unjustified and quickly fall apart upon detailed examination. It is crucial to remember that it is Russia that started the full-scale war. Moscow must be held primarily responsible for the consequences of its aggression.
In 2023, with support from Reporters Without Borders–Sweden and Svea, UWEC Work Group has hosted a webinar series intended as a forum for journalists covering the war’s environmental consequences and other participants craving reliable information. During the series UWEC invited experts from organizations such as the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), Pax for Peace and Ecoaction, and experts analyzing data collection on the environmental consequences of the war to share their approaches and discuss the issues. For now, OSINT, satellite imagery, and insider information continue to be the most accessible sources of data.
- Gathering and analyzing data on the environmental consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (video)
When it comes to analyzing the environmental consequences of the war, one of the biggest problems is the lack of any information about the environmental situation in Russia-occupied territories. Scientists can only guess what is happening, for example, in Askania-Nova, one of the largest nature reserves in Eastern Europe. In 2023, the Ukrainian reserve’s management were allowed to leave by the occupiers, but some of the researchers remained. Russian authorities have decided to restructure the reserve and install a new administration and are even considering repurposing Askania-Nova as a tourist site.
- Askania-Nova biosphere reserve captured by invaders
- Fires in Askania-Nova: Consequences of military occupation of a reserve
Reliable information about goings on in the territories occupied since 2014 is also generally either inaccessible or unverifiable. UWEC Work Group has published a series of articles about the environmental consequences of the war for both Crimea and the Donetsk region.
- The Crimean Bridge: Environmental impact of Russia’s ‘project of the century’?
- Unregulated coal mining destroys Donbas nature
To make working with open data and analytical centers more convenient, UWEC Work Group experts have created a special list of data sources from monitoring centers that collect information on environmental damage as a result of military operations in Ukraine. The publicly available list is constantly updated, which not only allows us to obtain an independent picture of the environmental consequences of the war, but also makes it possible for us and other truthseekers to verify data.
Beyond Ukraine: Environmental consequences in the wider region
Although the fighting is taking place primarily on Ukrainian soil, the impact of the war has had a deleterious effect on environmental programs throughout the region, and nowhere has this been felt more than in Russia.
The outgoing year will be remembered as one which dealt a serious blow to the Russian environmental community, many of whose representatives condemned the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine from the first days of the invasion. The Russian government’s subsequent designation of international organizations such as Bellona, Greenpeace, WWF International, and the Altai Project as “undesirable” has seriously jeopardized the implementation of environmental, climate and environmental programs across relatively large areas.
Such events also distract attention from what is happening in Ukraine itself. In addition, the latest escalation of another major international conflict, the confrontation between Israel and Palestine, also began to have a significant impact on global media and the social and political agenda, pushing Ukraine into the background. Many of the protests by climate activists at COP28 in Dubai were devoted specifically to the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
- ‘Under the guise of defending nature… they tried to influence government decision-making’
- Greenpeace: Instead of an epilogue
- Bellona: Undesirable openness and the sanctions war
In Russia itself, meanwhile, the environmental consequences of the war have become increasingly obvious. For example, the militarization of greater Moscow (the placement of anti-missile batteries, etc.) has threatened to destroy the natural and historical heritage of Kolomenskoye Park, a site under UNESCO protection. At the same time, the Kremlin’s desire to diversify its energy market by building a new gas pipeline through Mongolia to China could have a devastating impact on the nature of the Baikal region. These are just two examples of the war’s negative impact on the Russian environment that our experts are analyzing.
- Moscow turns rocket sights on its own heritage
- Gas intrigues: Pipelines, nature preserves, NGOs, and the war
In Belarus, the persecution of environmental organizations and activists began back in 2020-2021, before the start of the full-scale invasion. It was then that many experts and activists, including members of the UWEC Work Group, were forced to leave that country. This restricted the possibility of analyzing, for example, the consequences of the militarization of Polesia, which essentially closed off a region that is important for biodiversity research. We discussed the persecution of environmental activists and experts in Belarus and Russia in a recent webinar.
- Environmental activists in Belarus and Russia– Before and after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine (video)
One important and extremely negative consequence of the war is the militarization of border areas in the region. The construction of a fence on the border of Belarus and Poland has already divided one of the largest national parks in Europe, Białowieża Forest, a move which could have serious long-term consequences for the region’s ecosystem. Ukraine is also actively hardening its border with Belarus, a process which not only blocks scientific research and transboundary wildlife movements, but also diminishes the effectiveness of environmental practices. Discussions are also under way in Kyiv on future construction of fortified fences along its border with Russia. All these actions lead to the separation of entire ecosystems, threatening the conservation of biodiversity.
The war has put an end to some cross-border projects and significantly complicated the implementation of others. Today it is difficult to find transboundary environmental projects in the region that can continue without problems, despite the fact that it is precisely these types of projects that the environmental community continues to see as the most effective and strategic means to addressing environmental and conservation issues.
- UNESCO condemns construction of border fences
- Beasts and barriers: Obstacles along international borders and their impact on land-based vertebrates
- Dniester River – Evolution of transboundary river basin management in the post-Soviet space
This review is not able to cover all the topics that UWEC Work Group’s experts and authors covered in 2023. For instance, we have also begun to analyze Ukraine’s present and future green recovery. This topic is likely to become a key priority for UWEC Work Group in the coming year.
UWEC has also analyzed the war’s influence on environmental practices in Ukraine, including the difficulties experts and researchers face in their work.
The next year will require renewed efforts by UWEC Work Group experts and contributors to analyze and document the ongoing environmental and climatic impacts of the war. It is clear that it will take decades to solve the problems the invasion has inflicted upon the environment. However, ensuring that these consequences are studied and analyzed as thoroughly as possible now, will support creation of detailed restoration plans for Ukraine, plans that focus on the needs of nature and people alike. That approach offers the best hopes for the sustainable development and prosperity of Ukraine and its neighbors.