The Russia-Ukraine crisis is causing long-term environmental impacts for Ukraine due to its heavy industrialization. The potential environmental impacts could reach beyond Ukraine’s border as well.

Eastern Ukraine is particularly more industrialized. Some of the infrastructure, notably steel industries in the eastern Donets Basin, chemical facilities near cities such as Kyiv and Korosten, and armament factories, including capabilities to make intercontinental ballistic missiles, has fallen into disrepair or mismanagement in recent years.

Furthermore, warfare drastically alters the dangers posed by such facilities. Some risks may be relatively controlled under normal conditions, but if they are damaged by bombs or shelling, they could kill or infect thousands of people. For instance, hydropower dams could fail and flood entire towns and villages. The risk of a toxic waste spill from one of Ukraine’s chemical facilities, such as the plant in Torsk, is one of the greatest dangers.

Nuclear Facilities

Nuclear facilities are a great example, especially after Russian forces invaded the contaminated Chornobyl exclusion zone early in the conflict and fought over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in the country’s southeast, igniting a fire at the facility.

A catastrophic incident at any site may have significant ramifications for Ukraine, the larger area, and potentially the entire hemisphere. If the arc-shaped steel shelter constructed to contain the ruins of Chornobyl’s No. 4 reactor is compromised, radioactive dust could spread throughout the region.

Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine
Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine

A disaster at Zaporizhzhia, which contains immense radioactive material, may be much more catastrophic than the 1986 Chornobyl meltdown, as the current conflict could make it nearly difficult to mobilize a meaningful cleanup response.

As demonstrated by the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, damage to any of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear reactors poses a serious risk to the environment and human life. Damage to reactor containment or cooling systems might result in the emission of radioactive material, rendering hundreds of kilometers of land inhospitable for decades.

The aftermath of Chornobyl Disaster
The aftermath of the Chornobyl Disaster

Chornobyl should serve as a stark warning of the environmental consequences of a radioactive spill.

The aftermath of the Chornobyl tragedy resulted in increased mortality rates and reproductive failure among numerous plant and animal species. Europe was also contaminated due to the transmission of radionuclides to water bodies.

Even if Ukraine’s nuclear plants survive direct damage during the conflict, their safe operation relies on professional people, the electrical grid for cooling systems, and access to other specialized equipment, all of which would be impeded by the conflict.

After the Russian invasion, millions of Ukrainians have already fled the nation, power stations have been destroyed by artillery, and the electricity supply to Chornobyl has been cut off. The Russian control of Chornobyl has also resulted in unsafe working conditions and a lack of appropriate systems and equipment for the workers.

Pollution from military installations and equipment

The Ukrainian conflict has been characterized by the Russian military’s targeting of Ukrainian military assets, many located close to civilian areas.

These facilities were located at Krasnopolye, Kryvyi Rih, Dnipro, and Zhytomyr. Ukrainian targets in Russia include airfields and associated gasoline storage tanks in Hostomel, Gostomel, Chuhuyev, Chernobaevka, Melitopol, Ivano-Frankivsk, Mykolaiv, and Millerovo, as well as naval installations.

This has led to fires that have released dangerous air pollutants. Large plumes of smoke spread overpopulated regions. These include poisonous gases, particle debris, heavy metals, and energetic materials where conventional weapons have been housed.

There will also be extensive soil and water contamination at these locations; however, the extent to which these pollutants can migrate from military facilities varies from site to site.

Firefighting foam residues may have contributed to pollution in areas where efforts were made to extinguish flames. Naval sites that have been damaged have the potential to cause coastal contamination. This new pollution may add to military contamination in areas where facilities have been operating for decades.

On a smaller scale, the charred remains of tanks, vehicles, crashed airplanes, and other war debris contributes to pollution. Intentional or accidental attacks on shipping can endanger the marine ecosystem.

Employing weapons

Russia has extensively used powerful explosive weaponry in metropolitan areas, notably Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. With relatively few precise weapons, it is feared that increasing intensification may have catastrophic effects on people, the built environment, and the vital infrastructure that supports them.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas generates pollution from crushed building materials, which may include asbestos, metals, and combustion products, as well as significant volumes of debris. It can lead to soil and groundwater contamination by causing damage to wastewater pipes.

The closeness of light industry or infrastructure, such as gas stations, to residential areas might exacerbate pollution risks.

Other pollutants consist of remnants from weapons, such as metals and explosives. In addition to rockets and artillery, there is evidence that Russia has employed prohibited cluster munitions in urban environments.

Industrial infrastructure

Ukraine is a strongly industrialized nation with several mines, chemical processing factories, and metallurgical enterprises, putting it at risk of a major technological disaster.

The Odesa Port Plant, among the largest in Ukraine, manufactures ammonia, urea, and other chemical products that could be attacked. These sites are high-risk objects, not just due to direct destruction but also due to forced shutdown, power outages, or lack of personnel to operate them safely, all of which can occur if they become embroiled in combat.

Cyber activities can impact industrial control systems as well. Many of Ukraine’s largest cities are home to potentially hazardous industries, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Mariupol, and Odesa.

In the heavily industrialized Donbas region, there has been great anxiety over the possibility of an environmental catastrophe for the past eight years. Communities and forces on both sides of the line of contact are aware of the threats. Still, the escalation of the conflict increases the likelihood of an incident, especially when the line of contact, which is mainly static, shifts.

Landscape and habitats

The longer the conflict continues, the bigger the effects on the landscape will be. Yet, Russian forces have focused mainly on the road network, which has been the primary battlefield. Nevertheless, this could change. Large military vehicles have utilized fields and cover for launching and concealment, but the effects are likely transitory.

The Ukrainian military has planted explosives on at least one beach near Odesa to thwart an amphibious landing. The extensive shelling of infamous locations such as Snake Island may have left permanent scars on bio and geodiversity.

Fires broke out in the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve due to fighting near Kherson to seize the Dnieper River Bridge. These flames, which were detectable from satellite, may have devastated trees and avian habitats unique to Ukraine’s largest natural reserve.

The situation in Ukraine and its implications for the environment should not be underestimated. Environmental degradation will have far-reaching, long-term impacts. The continued conflict threatens industries that, when endangered, pose a significant threat to national security.

Mines, chemical plants, and nuclear facilities require careful long-term maintenance after they cease operating and can all cause untold environmental harm.

The damage caused by the conflict is also not contained within Ukrainian borders; it inevitably impacts neighboring countries through shared ecosystems and waterways and those further afield due to interruptions to global food supply chains and biodiversity loss.

The environment should not be considered an inevitable war casualty. Environmental security and human security are inextricably interwoven, and the crisis in Ukraine is threatening to cause environmental damage that will remain long after any peace agreement is signed.


*The views presented by the author do not reflect the position of The Diplomatic Insight. Nor does The Diplomatic Insight bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information cited.