Russia Should Pay for Its Environmental War Crimes

Russia Should Pay for Its Environmental War Crimes

As Russian bombs and bullets have shattered buildings and ended lives, Ukrainian scientists have scrambled to catalog the war’s effects on the country’s natural biodiversity. Darting outside to check on bat colonies, frogs, or endangered plants, many have risked safety to map hot spots and secure data. Ukraine’s wildlands boast a diverse landscape of dense forests, alpine meadows, grasslands, wetlands, and marine estuaries, which house animals such as bears, wolves, lynx, gophers, grouse, storks, sturgeon, dolphins, and the furry blind mole rat. The country serves as an important waypoint for many species of migrating birds.

If anything, an environment’s value increases as war destroys what was once available, sometimes permanently. Damage to Ukraine’s air, water, plants, and animals will likely persist long after its cities are rebuilt. One day, the information Ukrainian scientists are collecting now may provide evidence for Russia’s environmental crimes. Russia should pay for this environmental devastation. If only the legal system could wake up to reality.

The war is taking its toll on Ukrainian wildlife. “A lot of animals are scared by the noise, by the vibration,” says Oleksii Marushchak, a conservation biologist based in Kyiv. Nesting places for birds have been ruined. Military vehicles have sunk into rivers and lakes, and with them until tones of oil and other harmful chemicals. “They will destroy the food base for small animals like insects. No insects means no frogs; no frogs means no skulls.”

Fires, explosions, and collapsing buildings have filled Ukrainian air, water, and soil with harmful particulates and nitric acid. Poisoned resources can take decades to remediate.

The Ukrainian habitat of the marbled polecat, a rare and gorgeous animal that looks like a gold-speckled ferret is now entirely a war zone. In a national nature park in south-east Ukraine, Russian military crushed a rare and threatened crocus-like flower, the spring meadow saffron. In the Black Sea, military activity is reportedly killing dolphins. At Chernobyl, the Russians have burned over 37,000 acres of forest. According to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, 44 percent of Ukraine’s protected natural lands have suffered damage due to the war.

Global ecosystems depend on biodiversity to survive in times of stress. Before the war, the country was already short on resources devoted to conservation. Whenever the war is over, the Ukrainians will need healthy soil for crops, clean water for drinking and fishing, forests for cooling, and natural spaces to rebuild their biodiversity and for some, mental health. Croplands hollowed out by bombs and poisoned by contaminants will take several years to rake out and replace. Toxic pollutants in rivers and streams will kill fish and their food, and what is left will likely be unsafe to eat. Forests not directly destroyed by bombs, bullets, or fire will be logged for rebuilding, and unexploded munitions will make walks unsafe. More than a decade after the war in Iraq, its effects on environmental infrastructure are evident in sewage filled roads and brackish tap water.

“Facilities like plants, shops, or McDonald’s can be restored with some proper investment,” says Oleh Prylutskyi, a mycologist and professor at Ukraine’s Kharkiv National University, “But natural scientific and cultural heritage can be lost forever.”

Russia must be held accountable for the environmental destruction it’s inflicting. Environmental harm robs a country of its cultural and natural artifacts and creates hardship for its civilians. If no one is held accountable for these acts, they will be perceived as acceptable.

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