How Russian War Impacts on Ecology, Energy and Food in Ukraine and Europe
Special Project of Zaborona
Collage: Kateryna Kruhlyk. Photo: Getty Images
Collage: Kateryna Kruhlyk. Photo: Getty Images
The main tragedy of any armed conflict lies in its consequences. Today, we are already seeing significant losses in population, infrastructure, and the economy. Much less attention is usually paid to the environmental, social, and food impacts of war. However, these and other losses in the long term may lead to more deaths, both in Ukraine and in other countries. In addition, the war also affected the global energy trade, in particular, due to the refusal of some European countries to buy the resources from the Russian Federation. Zaborona spoke with Ukrainian and international experts and explains how Russian aggression right now affects the environmental, energy, and food spheres in Ukraine and Europe and what to expect in the future.
Author: Anastasia Opryschenko
Editors: Katerina Sergatskova, Maria Pedorenko
Infographics/illustrations: Kateryna Kruhlyk
Photo editor, layout: Pavlo Bishko
Literary editor: Alina Tymoschuk
The material is made with the support of the Media Network
Published: 23.06.2022
What environmental damage has Russia inflicted on Ukraine?
Even before the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Ukraine ranked low in terms of air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem health, according to the Environmental Performance Index. After the end of the war, the environmental situation in Ukraine is likely to be worse than ever, in particular, due to a large amount of destroyed military equipment. The head of the board of the Ukrainian environmental group Oleksiy Vasylyuk, in a conversation with Zaborona, explains that fuel that has entered the soil and atmosphere is harmful to the environment.

Explosions have the same consequences, each of them is already a chemical reaction in itself. "After the explosion of the Grad projectile, at least a pound of sulfur is falling into the ground. And from the contact of sulfur with water, all living things simply burn out in sulfuric acid. And when they lyrically say about the scorched earth remained in the places of hostilities, it is really scorched - only not by flame, but by acid," Vasylyuk emphasizes.

Oleksiy Vasylyuk.
Photo courtesy of Oleksiy Vasylyuk
Moreover, many particles enter the atmosphere after explosions, so polluting the sky not only over Ukraine but over the entire planet. At the same time, we are talking not only about sulfuric acid but also about heavy metals.
A mortar explodes next to the road leading to the city of Lysychansk in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas, on May 23, 2022, amid Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
Sofiya Sadohurska, an expert in the climate department of the Ecodiya NGO, in a conversation with Zaborona, emphasizes that the pollution provoked by the hostilities is directly related to the growth of various serious diseases.
"A striking example is the situation with the Ikva river [flowing through Lviv, Ternopil, and Rivne regions]. Due to a missile hitting warehouses where fertilizers were stored in the Ternopil region, mineral fertilizers leaked into the Ikva river. The State Inspectorate checked the water, and the ammonium levels were exceeded by 163 times. People who live nearby were strongly advised not to drink water from wells [because of the risk of chemical poisoning]. In addition, a large number of dead fish were reported," Sadohurska notes.

Sofiya Sadohurska.
Photo: Sofia Sadogurska / Facebook
Since February 24, the Ecodiya NGO has been recording cases of pollution and environmental impact. Some of these cases relate to environmental crimes. From the first days, shelling and bombing of industrial and energy facilities, arson of forests, explosions of oil depots, and pollution of the Black and Azov Seas (primarily due to the flooding of ships) were recorded.
Illustration: Kateryna Kruhlyk / Zaborona
Also on February 24, an enemy shell exploded on the territory of the Trypilska TPP, which is located on the Dnipro river bank 45 km south of Kyiv and is the largest supplier of electricity to the Kyiv, Cherkasy, and Zhytomyr regions.

According to the expert, these and other actions of the Russian army on the territory of Ukraine can be considered ecocide, and such a term has even been introduced into Ukrainian legislation. Of course, some of Russia's actions during the war may not be classified as ecocide, but they also have a very heavy impact on the environment. Ecodiya has already counted 277 cases.
View of Trypillya TPP in Ukrainka (Kyiv region), October 13, 2018.
Photo: Yevhen Kolesnyk / UNIAN
"According to the data that we have, the largest number of cases of environmental impact was recorded in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Kyiv regions. These are the areas where active hostilities directly took place and are going on. But also in almost every region of Ukraine, there are certain recorded cases of environmental pollution. Each explosion of an oil depot, industrial facilities, chemical plants, damage to fertilizer tanks - all this can and does pose a threat to the environment and human health throughout Ukraine, "explains Sadohurska.
Will neighboring countries suffer?
Do not forget about the radiation threat, which has not lost its relevance even 36 years after the accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. In the early days of the Russian invasion, gamma radiation in the Chornobyl zone was about 28 times the annual limit. This happened as a result of the movement of heavy vehicles during the advance of Russian troops, who kept the nuclear power plant under their control for more than a month.
Ukrainian troops prepare in case the invaders return to Chornobyl. After Russian troops left Chornobyl, the Ukrainian army has taken control of the site. Radiation levels rose due to earthworks in places such as the well-known Red Forest, where Russian troops dug trenches. June 3, 2022. Photo: Raul Moreno/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
There are currently 15 nuclear reactors operating in Ukraine in 4 different locations. The debris and radiation ejected during an attack can scatter thousands of kilometers, which will lead to serious health problems (for example, thyroid cancer) not only in Ukraine but also in neighboring countries.

Sadohurska explains that Russia, through its military actions, exercises influence on nuclear facilities in Ukraine. The movement of Russian equipment in the Chornobyl zone probably expanded the area of contamination. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Energodar is still under Russian occupation. Any serious damage could lead to a catastrophe not only in Ukraine but throughout the world, since Zaporizhzhia NPP is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and the fifth in the world.
Military operations on the territory of Ukraine will harm neighboring countries, the expert emphasizes. Atmospheric pollution and especially water pollution will manifest themselves not only within Ukraine. All water resources are moving objects, which means that polluted water from rivers and lakes will sooner or later fall into the sea.

"Even now, experts are recording the pollution of the sea and marine ecosystems. In particular, scientists talk about the negative consequences of an oil spill, which can affect not only the coast of Ukraine but neighboring countries. If we talk about the Black Sea, there are already data on dolphins beaching themselves near Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania. In particular, the situation is associated with the constant movement of Russian ships in the Black Sea and the use of sonar, which affects marine mammals. Mines and underwater explosions can also threaten dolphins", says Sadohurska. "As we can see, the fact that the war is taking place on the territory of Ukraine has a significant impact on neighboring countries. And not even in the long term, but today."

Doug Weir, research and policy director at Britain's Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), explains that the location of war and its duration have their characteristics and consequences on the environment. If terrorist attacks and similar incidents cause direct damage to the environment, then long-term wars also lead to social changes.

In a conversation with Zaborona, Weir draws attention to the fact that the world today has witnessed policies that could negatively affect the European environment. As an example, he cites the food crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which diverts attention from decisions aimed at improving biodiversity. At the same time, world governments are once again turning their attention to the environmental consequences of war. This is also important in the context of the completion of new norms of UN international law on the protection of the environment in connection with armed conflicts. According to the expert, this is the only positive moment in the current situation.
How to make the area free from pollution?
Ecodiya experts believe that after the end of the war, it will be necessary to work according to the principles of green restoration: first of all, the environment, then resources - sand, gravel, and wood. All this should be extracted so as not to harm the environment even more.

According to Sadohurska, it will not be possible to quickly clear the territory. Issues of environmental pollution will be raised for several generations. And Ukrainians will feel the impact of pollution for a very long time. It is important to record the impact of the Russian invasion and its consequences to know what will need to be worked on after the war.
Infographics: Kateryna Kruhlyk / Zaborona
"Lawyers and experts are already discussing compensation issues. And they explain that it is critical to record all the effects of war on the environment. The experience of other countries shows that information should be collected now to make it easier to confirm the negative impact later. Unfortunately, we will be able to assess the impact and understand the full scale only after the war," says the expert.

Although Ecodiya did not investigate the issue of waste disposal, Sadohurska notes that the Ukrainian Ministries of Community and Territory Development and the Ministry of the Environment are developing programs to understand the mechanisms for recycling and reusing waste after the war. For example, some construction waste can be used to restore the country.

"What cannot be used will be disposed of. But, first of all, it is important to dispose of everything so that the residues do not harm the environment in the future," Sadohurska sums up.
Doug Weir, in turn, notes the need for a different approach to handling post-war waste - whether it be broken equipment, parts of missiles, or construction debris. The latter, for example, requires a special approach due to the prospect of contamination from asbestos and other materials. At the moment, the scale of pollution in Ukraine is still unknown, but based on the experience of the war in Syria, the disposal of such a mass of waste may require incredible resources and funding.

Doug Weir. Photo courtesy of Doug Weir
"There is international experience with garbage from places like Mosul and Aleppo, but the scale and urgency of recovery in Ukraine may mean that environmental standards are not as high as they should be," Weir said. "In the case of damaged military vehicles, this will be a difficult undertaking, many of them will contain dangerous chemicals or explosive residues that need to be handled properly."
Does the war trigger food shortages in Ukraine?
In addition to the environmental situation, the agricultural sector was also in question. Due to the war, a significant amount of land where crops were previously sown is now either under temporary occupation or has become the site of hostilities or the place for the movement of Russian troops. However, to date, all vacant plots have been sown with grain in full, explains Mariya Kolesnyk, deputy director of ProAgro Group, in a conversation with Zaborona.
Zaborona has already written that a full-scale Russian invasion will not greatly affect the domestic agricultural market, since Ukraine has always produced agricultural products with a large surplus sent for export. Before the war, Ukraine was one of the leading grain exporters, Mariya Kolesnyk explains. Whereas the champion's title in the export of wheat and corn belongs to Russia and the United States, respectively. But the main leaders in the European market are the EU countries, the USA, partly Argentina, and Ukraine. The latter is the leading exporter in the wheat, corn, and barley markets. Almost half of the world trade is occupied by Ukrainian sunflower oil.

"Before the war, at least our equipment and technologies made it possible to grow enough food and breed enough cattle for both the domestic market and for external export. Our internal needs are generally much smaller than the amount that we create," Kolesnyk notes.

Mariya Kolesnyk. Photo courtesy of Mariya Kolesnyk
However, starting from 2022, the Ukrainian agricultural sector has been significantly affected by Russian aggression. According to the deputy director of ProAgro Group, 25 million tons of grain remained from the last harvest in Ukraine. Until July 1, 2022, this grain had to be exported, but Ukraine was unable to do this due to the Russians blocking ports in Odesa and temporarily occupying ports in Berdyansk.
Also, according to the expert, at the beginning of the year in Ukraine, there were about 55 million grain storage capacities, of which 13 million have already been lost. Partly they were bombed by the Russians, partly they are in the occupied territories. That is, part of the capacity is lost, it is impossible to take out grain from the ports, while all the other elevators are filled with old grain. At the end of June, a new crop will begin to arrive - it will be a little less than last year since farmers sowed grain in the spring in full and wherever possible. But Ukraine simply cannot sell it.
A member of the local territorial defence is seen inside a destroyed farm complex dedicated to the cultivation of grains in the surroundings of the village of Temyrivka, Ukraine, on June 22, 2022.
Photo: Matteo Placucci/NurPhoto через Getty Images
"Russia is stealing the grain that is still in the ports. Today there are official thefts. Russia is proud of it, it exports grain from Kherson, Donetsk region. Some countries refused to buy it, including Lebanon and Egypt. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed a note of protest, and so these countries refused to buy. But there is Syria, which is ready to buy everything and become such a transshipment hub in order to "whitewash" this grain and further transport it around the region," Kolesnyk emphasizes.
What should Europe and the world expect?
Before the full-scale invasion, Ukraine had a wide logistics and geography to export its products. Its importers were not only EU countries - grain and wheat went to the Middle East and North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh, India). But due to the closure and mining of ports by Russia, some of these countries may not receive the necessary grain, which may turn into a food crisis for them.

Mariya Kolesnyk notes that Europe (particularly Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands) consumed only corn. In the export of wheat to North Africa and Asian countries, Ukraine competed with France. Moreover, in recent years, Ukraine has increased its presence in the grain market in China. That is, in fact, the EU countries will not suffer as much from the Russian invasion as the most vulnerable countries in Africa.
Finnish cargo-ship Alppila, carrying 18,000 tonnes of grain for animals from Ukraine, is unloaded at the port of A Coruna, on June 13, 2022. A Ukrainian grain shipment arrived in Spain today after being shipped via the Baltic Sea to circumvent Russia's blockade, imposed following the outbreak of war.
"Although we do not have ports now, we are trying to transport products by trains. There is a significant problem that our trains cannot transport all the grain to Europe and then to European ports. It's just physically impossible. Now, these trains will try to take out approximately one and a half million tons of export per month. But we need to transport 7 million. Imagine how difficult it is. The volumes that we cannot export are what the world is not getting. That is, our 25 million tons are just lying here, and we will not eat them inside the country," Kolesnyk notes.

She also draws attention to the fact that the food crisis in the world existed before February 24, but now, with the rise in grain prices, it is only getting worse. Russia, on the other hand, uses grain as a weapon and as a lever of pressure to lift sanctions from the country.
The Medusa S general cargo ship is loaded with grain, destined for Turkey, at the UkrTransAgro LLC grain terminal at the Port of Mariupol in Mariupol, Ukraine, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Photo: Christopher Occhicone/Bloomberg via Getty Images
For Ukraine, the need to sell last year's grain is very acute - this is money for farmers and the country, food for the world. If Russia does not open ports or Ukraine cannot export grain, prices will only rise.

"We appeal to both the UN and the leading countries with requests to organize so-called humanitarian convoys for us, which will go to our ports in the Odesa region and help take out the grain. But several foreign ships were simply shot, so insurance companies refuse to let ships enter the Black Sea," explains the expert.

Today, the government of Ukraine is trying to negotiate with Europe on the establishment of so-called dry ports in Poland. These hubs would increase the capacity of the Ukrainian railway. In addition, Poland has already allowed the import of grain through transit without additional certification.
"The problem is that in Europe about 10% of the cargo is transported by trains, the railway is not such a significant channel for transportation for them. And we want to move our volume of grain into this narrow channel. Because it will cost its weight in gold to transport grain to Rotterdam," concludes Kolesnyk.
How did the war affect Ukraine's energy policy?
For a long time, Ukraine tried to separate from the energy systems of Belarus and Russia. And only on the eve of a full-scale invasion, this plan was implemented, says Kostiantyn Krynytskyi, head of the energy department of the Ecodiya NGO. Ukraine began to plan the separation process in 2017. A lot of money was invested in technical modernization and improvement of the system structure.
"To test how the energy system, separated from Russia and Belarus, works, it was planned to conduct two test periods in 2022. One in winter, one in summer - each for three days. We were supposed to detach for three days, work in isolation, see how stable our system was, and then join back. On the evening of the 23rd, we switched off, in a conditional 7 hours a full-scale invasion began, and for three weeks we worked as an isolated island. Because, firstly, there was an obvious risk that we would not be connected back, and secondly, the Minister of Energy [of Ukraine] made a political decision that we are not joining the system back," explains Krynytskyi.

Kostiantyn Krynytskyi. Photo courtesy of Kostiantyn Krynytskyi
According to the expert, all three weeks in isolation after the disconnection from Russia and Belarus went well. The Ukrainian energy system coped without accidents or strong drops. This was a surprise both for Ukrainian power engineers and for European ones.

And already on March 16, Ukraine became a member of the so-called energy European Union - we joined the ENTSO-E European energy system. Zaborona previously reported on the main advantages of European energy integration. However, Krynytskyi notes that the connection is partial, and the Ukrainian energy system is still not fully integrated. In the event of an accident or breakdown at coal and nuclear thermal power plants, Europe in an emergency can support the Ukrainian energy system and provide electricity.

"Thus, we have secured ourselves in case of Russia bombs all our thermal power plants and nuclear power plants. In this situation, we will at least have electricity in our homes. However, more work is now required to modernize our energy system so that we can buy and sell electricity on commercial terms. The [Ukraine's] Ministry of Energy is counting on this since this is one of the components of replenishing the state budget. But all this is planned after the end of the war. Today, Ukraine is cooperating with the Poles to expand our ability to import electricity to the EU," adds Krynytskyi.
A Russian serviceman patrols the territory of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in Energodar on May 1, 2022. The Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in southeastern Ukraine is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. Photo: ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images
According to him, today the situation with energy resources in Ukraine is difficult. The Russians have seized the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, which is 40% of the total nuclear power of Ukraine, so there is a risk that the supply of electricity from there will stop altogether. Russia is already demanding payment from Ukraine for the use of the resources of the plant. In addition, the risk of damage to other nuclear power plants in the country remains.

At the same time, Krynitsky stressed, Ukraine plans to transfer all nuclear power plants from Russian fuel to American fuel and completely abandon any Russian resources.
For more than 100 days of the war, the Kremenchuhska, Okhtyrska, and Luhanska thermal power plants were destroyed in Ukraine. Zaporizhzhya and Slovyansk thermal power plants have suspended their work. The expert notes that now in Ukraine the demand for electricity has decreased due to the war and the needlessness of heating, so there is more of it inside the country than needed. And although the extraction of coal used by the thermal power plant as fuel continues, Ecodia and other public organizations have been considering the possibility of decommissioning part of the mines for some time.

"Over the past four years, we have been working with coal towns in the Donetsk region — Pokrovsk, Dobropillia, Myrnohrad, and other cities in the Donetsk region — to transform their economies in the event of a future closure of coal mines. We communicated with local authorities, and [discussed] what are the options for the local economy and what they can be switched to in order to ensure energy efficiency. For example, mines in Myrnohrad are still working and production has even slightly increased. But at the same time, some mines were flooded at the beginning of the war, and I don't think that they can be reanimated and brought back to life. There is also a study on the possibility of abandoning coal [in Ukraine] until 2030 and replacing it with renewable sources. The study showed that it is possible to close a third of the coal stations in Ukraine, and no one would feel a thing," says Krynytskyi.

In his opinion, now Ukraine should develop decentralized energy generation. That is, not to create large stations, but to focus on small individual communities and use renewable energy sources for them: sun, wind, water, and biomass.
A man stands by a huge crater caused by a rocket explosion at the solar power plant in the small town of Merefa, Kharkiv region on June 1, 2022 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Photo: SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images
A separate issue is preparation for the heating season. While the war is going on, it is not clear which energy capacities will work exactly. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky noted that Ukraine is already preparing for the heating season, and this year all domestic gas and coal production will not be sold abroad.

"The Ministry of Energy is now trying to make oil and gas production the basis of Ukraine's energy independence. As an NGO, we do not agree with this. We emphasize that energy must be renewable. But while the war is going on, the opportunities for strategic advocacy are somewhat limited. At the same time, the state needs to decide what our energy system will be like in the long term. When we get the status of an EU candidate, the transition to renewable energy should accelerate, because this is one of the main EU energy policies - the European Green Deal," says Krynytskyi.
Українські водії стоять у черзі до АЗС, намагаючись купити паливо в Одесі, Україна, 18 травня 2022 року. Фото: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images
He also notes that the issue of pumping Russian gas and oil through the pipeline through Ukraine to Europe remains open. Ukraine in this situation emphasizes that it is a reliable partner and diligently fulfills its obligations. If the EU agrees to the embargo on Russian fuel, Ukraine will immediately block access. There is no question of unilaterally shutting off the pipe - Ukraine is not going to escalate relations with the European Union.

"All experts understand that we will not be able to pump energy resources from Russia forever. As an option, the Ukrainian government has proposed making Ukraine, especially the western part, a hub for gas and oil from other countries. This is one of the plans to remain a player in this market. It is also possible that in the future we will be able to transport our hydrogen through these pipes instead of Russian oil and gas. But it is precisely its transportation through the existing gas transmission system that raises doubts because of the risk of huge losses," the expert explains.
Collage: Kateryna Kruhlyk / Zaborona
Collage: Kateryna Kruhlyk / Zaborona
Can Europe refuse Russian energy resources without loss?
Kostiantyn Krynytskyi believes that yes, it is possible. But, in his opinion, it is important not to replace the oil and gas of one country with another, but to gradually introduce energy-efficient means, and reduce the consumption and use of gas and oil in the EU.

"First, you need to reduce energy consumption and use, then switch to renewable energy sources (RES). The EU has presented its RepowerEU plan, where they want to increase their use of the green (renewable) generation (RES) soon. But in this plan, the use of a small amount of gas, oil, and nuclear energy is still prescribed. For the EU, on the one hand, this is a replacement of the supplier of fossil fuels, that is, the rejection of Russia's resources. On the other hand, this means the development of green energy.

However, there must be prioritization, and the country must choose. For example, there is Russian oil and there is Qatari oil, the regime in Qatar is not much better than in Russia, and who knows where this money will go, maybe for another war," explains Krynytskyi.
A Ukrainian flag waves on top of a mountain of dirt outside a coal mine near Lysychansk, Ukraine, Sunday, June 5, 2022. Photo: MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES
The expert hopes that the European Union will take a more prudent approach to phasing out fossil fuels. Even before the war, there were discussions about making gas a transitional energy source between fossil and green fuels. However, if not for the war, the transition would have been with Russian gas.

According to Doug Weir, the situation in Ukraine has made most politicians think about the insecurity that dependence on fossil fuels creates. However, the expert is not sure whether they have the wisdom and courage to accelerate the transition to renewable energy sources: "The Russian invasion, financed by oil and gas, should be a wake-up call for Europe and the whole world.

Dependence on fossil fuels makes us more politically exposed and accelerates the climate crisis, our collective security requires us to accelerate the transition to renewable energy."

Although Ukraine is demanding an immediate withdrawal of Russian energy resources, this will not happen quickly. The coal ban will start working only from August 2022, that is, Russia continues to receive funds today. An oil embargo might start next year, and a gas embargo is not being considered at all.
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