Russia’s Destruction of Ukraine’s Environment Is a War Crime, Too

Each month, the scope and scale of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine expand almost exponentially. There are now millions of refugees, tens of thousands of deaths, and a devastated Ukrainian economy that the World Bank estimates will contract by 45 percent by the end of the year. Russia’s Dresden-level infrastructure destruction has created a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with widespread poverty, misery—and grave long-term human health consequences.

Beneath the human and socioeconomic catastrophe is an evolving array of environmental disasters that will afflict Ukraine’s ecosystems for generations to come.

Environmental damage falls under two broad categories, both of which are relevant in Ukraine: the direct adverse impacts on ecosystems and ecological bioreserves, and the associated human health effects on populations dependent on the services of the environment for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Each month, the scope and scale of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine expand almost exponentially. There are now millions of refugees, tens of thousands of deaths, and a devastated Ukrainian economy that the World Bank estimates will contract by 45 percent by the end of the year. Russia’s Dresden-level infrastructure destruction has created a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with widespread poverty, misery—and grave long-term human health consequences.

Beneath the human and socioeconomic catastrophe is an evolving array of environmental disasters that will afflict Ukraine’s ecosystems for generations to come.

Environmental damage falls under two broad categories, both of which are relevant in Ukraine: the direct adverse impacts on ecosystems and ecological bioreserves, and the associated human health effects on populations dependent on the services of the environment for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

The wanton destruction by constant indiscriminate Russian artillery volleys and missiles includes energy infrastructure, oil storage tankers, oil refineries, drilling platforms, gas facilities, gas distribution pipelines, mines, industrial sites, agro-processing facilities, wastewater treatment plants, water supply treatment facilities, pumping stations, and other pipelines.

Most prominently, according to U.N. Environment Program reports, nuclear facilities have been damaged, as well as nuclear waste disposal sites and other sites storing hazardous and toxic chemicals. After each flood and heavy rainfall, these toxic chemicals infiltrate into groundwater and spill over into Ukraine’s waterways. These destroyed sites will become Ukraine’s equivalent to the nearly 1,900 toxic Superfund sites scattered around the United States.

Hundreds of industrial facilities, warehouses, and factories have also been damaged, some storing a range of hazardous substances ranging from toxic chemical solvents to ammonia and plastics. Hazardous substances have been released from explosions in agro-industrial storage facilities, including fertilizer and nitric acid plants. Billowing clouds of orange noxious fumes could be seen for miles after attacks on such chemical plants. These poisonous gases are extremely hazardous to humans and livestock.

War, an anarchic and lawless activity, is nonetheless superficially governed by international conventions, such as the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit drastic and permanent damage to the environment. Under certain circumstances, the International Criminal Court considers such actions as war crimes.

For example, during the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq set fire to hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait and dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf. Kuwait sought reparations from Iraq. Because there were numerous U.N. Security Council censures on which to build a case, the U.N. Compensation Commission ordered Iraq to pay nearly $53 billion for the damages it caused, a part of which went for environmental and human health related damages.

The problem is that international environmental laws are vague and largely unenforceable by the U.N. system. The International Criminal Court tries individuals for war crimes. Ukraine’s case, which is unable to rely on censures from the Security Council due to Russia’s veto power, would have to go through the U.N. International Court of Justice. And, in any case, it would be difficult to separate Ukraine’s prior diffuse environmental degradation during the Soviet era from current wartime damages.

Work is underway at the U.N. to better define a set of legal principles that would guide future prosecution. A division of the U.N. called the International Law Commission has developed a set of 28 nonbinding principles that clarify how international war laws apply to the environment and the conduct of invading and occupying forces, as well as responsibility for post-conflict reparations and reconstruction.

The recent U.N. International Law Commission Report on protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts covered many of the causes of environmental harm during a conflict. A great many directly address Russia’s clear culpability in destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure and its environment.

For example, Draft Principle 17 on protected zones states that “An area of major environmental and cultural importance designated by agreement as a protected zone shall be protected against any attack, as long as it does not contain a military objective.” Russian forces stationed in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, along the southern coast near Kherson, caused fires that could be seen from space.

Documentation of such war crimes is essential. To that end, on April 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky established a National Council for the Recovery of Ukraine from the War. A working subgroup on environmental security has been formed within the council and is headed by Minister of the Environment Ruslan Strilets. As a first step, the environmental security group is recording all cases of environmental crimes by the occupying Russian forces, aiming to seek future compensation for damages in international courts.

When Russia invaded the Donbas region in 2014, it included the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are at the center of Ukraine’s coal-mining and industrial region. At that time, the separatist administration shut down and abandoned many coal mines. As a consequence, many mines were flooded through normal rainfall, and rising groundwater levels resulted in overflows of acidic mine waters into the receiving rivers.

Acid mine drainage is one of mining’s most serious threats to aquatic ecosystems. Without continuous pumping and treatment of mine drainage waters, the acidic waters can devastate rivers, streams, and aquatic life for more than a generation.

Destroyed wastewater treatment plants are spewing raw sewage into Ukraine’s rivers, and the Russian devastation of Mariupol, centered on the Azovstal steel plant, poses a grave threat to the nearshore coastal ecosystems of the Sea of Azov. The siege of Mariupol began on March 2 and ended May 20, when the remaining Ukrainian forces at Azovstal surrendered. During that time, the Azovstal plant was bombarded mercilessly, destroying all the ground-level infrastructure, along with chemical storage facilities and waste disposal sites. Toxic chemicals have leaked from those sites into the groundwater and the Sea of Azov.

Wastes from iron ore processing and smelting generate a broad array of toxic chemicals and waste byproducts called slag. Under the best of circumstances, the treatment, disposal, and storage of such waste imposes a wide spectrum of environmental hazards and human health risks, if not managed properly. Neglected and unmanaged toxic waste disposal areas that have been collaterally or intentionally damaged by heavy shelling greatly amplify those ecological risks.

On May 18, the Mariupol City Council said that a leak from a waste storage facility at the Azovstal plant could result in thousands of tons of concentrated hydrogen sulfide solution ending up in the surrounding waters, potentially causing an ecological catastrophe in the Sea of Azov. The slag and waste storage site sits precariously at the very edge of the sea. The site is enclosed by retaining walls, called berms, that have been weakened by the constant proximate monthslong Russian bombardment and require repair.

When the invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, Azovstal took measures to reduce the potential environmental damage in the event of being hit. Coke oven batteries and blast furnaces were shut down, no longer posing a danger to the residents—though most fled the ensuing bombardment.

But while Ukrainians are doing what they can to curb the damage to environmental infrastructure, Russians will use all means of propaganda and misinformation to deny and deflect attention for their own culpability in these environmental war crimes. Russian propaganda is high-volume, rapid, repetitive, and continuous.

A recent Rand National Defense Research Institute study calls it “the firehose of falsehood” because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages, and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.

A little-known but catastrophic event occurred on Aug. 18, 1941, when the Dnipro hydroelectric power station, located near the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, was destroyed by the Red Army as it retreated eastward before the advancing German army.

It is estimated that the resulting flood surge from the dam killed as many as 100,000 unsuspecting civilians downstream, who were given no warning to evacuate. The destruction of that dam was one of the war crimes listed at the Nuremberg trial, implicating Germans, although the Soviets were actually to blame. The world cannot allow such blatant falsifications to smear Ukraine when it comes to accounting for Russia’s war crimes.

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