The Ukraine War and the Environment: What History Can Teach Us

War is hell; it cuts into the people, wildlife, and the landscape of a nation and rips lives to shreds. The human cost of war is so terribly possible to calculate, yet how it affects the natural world is harder to quantify.

As the war waged on Ukraine by Russia rages on, there are already clear signs that ecosystems, as well as cities, are being torn to pieces. It’s not the first time that war has ravaged nature.

From the landscapes of the Western Front by Paul Nash from World War 1 to the napalmed tree lines of Vietnam and burning oil wells in Iraq, we’re used to seeing the effects of war on mother nature. Here, we’re going to explore:

  • How war has impacted the environment around the world;

  • The immediate effects of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine’s environment;

  • The potential long-term effects the current war could have.

Image by Paul Nash

The history of conflict and the environment

In modern history, how war damages the environment can be as important as how many people are killed and injured. Indeed, in some cases, damaging local ecosystems can even be a direct act of war.

Here are just some of the environmental impacts of war in the modern era:

  • World War 1 saw “scorched earth” policies and chemical warfare, with heavy metals like copper and lead present in battlefield soil 100 years after the guns fell silent;

  • World War 2 was the first – and so far only – time nuclear weapons have been used, and even into the 1980s, radiation levels in the soil around Hiroshima were above normal background levels;

  • The Vietnam War has had long-lasting human and ecological effects following the use of chemical defoliants to make it easier for air forces to find Vietnamese fighters. These chemicals still persist in the soils more than 50 years later;

  • The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia attempted to crudely alter the landscape with irrigation ditches to boost agriculture but ended up chopping down trees and draining natural lakes. Subsequent wars left landmines across the country, with clearance only expected to be complete in 2025;

  • The Angolan Civil War that started in 1977 meant anti-poaching efforts were halted and warring factions even started slaughtering megafauna for sale – animal populations collapsed and 77% died, with long-term difficulties restoring populations;

  • The Mozambique Civil War meant that once thriving national parks like Gorongosa collapsed with whole food chains decimated. This video by ecologist Sean B. Carroll shows the effects of war and how the park managed to recover.

It’s clear that war can damage the soil, plants, and animals immediately and for decades into the future. Loss of the environment for animals can also devastate their populations which will struggle to recover without intervention.

Which of these effects are we seeing in Ukraine and what can we expect to see in the future?

The current environmental effects of the Ukraine war

There are 49 nature reserves in Ukraine – the country is an ecological transition zone covered in forest, wetlands, and virgin steppe. One of those wetlands is the Black Sea Biosphere which is home to over 120,000 birds that winter here.

The current state of the reserve isn’t known, but there were huge fires visible from space in March. Reports of the current situation in the biosphere are patchy, but experience in Angola and Mozambique tells us it could take years for wildlife numbers to return to normal.

By Ig0r1982 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Yelanets Steppe Nature Reserve has been the backdrop of active fighting. The steppe – or flat grasslands – is supposed to be protected in this area, yet tank tracks litter the land, and fires have burnt through the grasses.

The image source

Effects on agriculture have been immediate. Ukraine’s population is less than 40 million yet its fields produce food for over 400 million around the world. Crops are being left in the ground and fields are being left fallow with farmers fighting for their freedom.

The lasting environmental damage from the war in Ukraine

The war may only have started at the end of February 2022, but we can already see some of what is happening to the plants and animals of Ukraine. The future is much harder to predict.

There have already been concerns about nuclear reactors across the country. Ukraine has 15 nuclear reactors spread across four power plants – one of which has been occupied by the invading forces.

Can these reactors remain safe, with sufficient power, water, and expertise? The memory of the Chornobyl disaster looms large in this question. Swathes of Ukraine remain uninhabitable and the effects on people and animals are still not fully understood.

The future of agriculture is also a huge unknown. Landmines have been laid by the Russians which could render chunks of farmland out of action for years, just like we saw in Cambodia.

Finally, there is an ever-present threat of chemical war. We’ve seen how chemical weapons stick around long after the aggression ends in places like France and Vietnam. If Russia unleashes chemical attacks against Ukraine, the clean-up and environmental restoration could take generations.

The war is being fought on many fronts. Coders, software developers, and hackers are battling online – you can learn more about staying safe from the overspill of cyberattacks here – and soldiers are fighting on the ground.

The birds, plants, and animals of Ukraine have been caught up in the fight. How they will emerge from the other side remains to be seen, but it looks less than positive right now.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.