On Feb. 24, Russian troops launched an illegal invasion of Ukraine that rapidly escalated into full-blown war. On televisions and on the front pages of newspapers, the world watched as families were split apart on crowded train platforms and cities were leveled by bomb blasts. Ukrainian civilians faced the harrowing decision of whether to flee or fight.
But while the political and social aspects of Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis have garnered the lion’s share of media attention over the past two months, there is a less obvious, but no less insidious, threat to Eastern Europe that few are talking about: Irreparable environmental damage.
Too often, pollution, destruction of infrastructure, and biodiversity loss are seen as unfortunate, but inevitable, costs of warfare whose alleviation should come secondary to humanitarian aid. However, no understanding of the human costs of war is complete without also considering the environmental costs.
“People still view the protection of civilians and the protection of the environment as somehow separate from one another, when instead they are two sides of the same coin,” wrote Doug Weir, founder of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, in an email to The McGill Tribune. Weir’s observatory is a not-for-profit research organization that has been reporting on the intersection of warfare and environmental damage since 2018.
Weir described how Putin’s army has indiscriminately bombed industrial zones in Ukraine, releasing toxic fuels and waste into the air, water, and soil. This contamination will present health threats for decades to come. Coal, for example, is produced across Ukraine, and the subsequent release of fly ash from damaged production facilities can cause asthma, cancer, and neurological disorders in humans under direct exposure or consumption.
Even more troubling is Russia’s occupation of nuclear sites such as Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia. In the days following Russia’s occupation of Chernobyl, public monitors showed spikes in radiation readings around the site’s buildings before Russian soldiers cut off access to the plant’s information systems. Some speculate that controlling potentially lethal nuclear sites is part of a long-term Russian military strategy.
Unfortunately, Russia’s tactics are nothing new. As long as there has been human conflict, the environment has been both a victim and a weapon of war. Ancient Assyrian texts reference victors salting the fields of their enemies to prevent future crops from ever taking root even after the conflict has ended.
Political scientists have long studied these tactics, but not always through a purely environmental lens. Daniel Douek, a professor in McGill’s Department of Political Science, teaches courses on African politics and Middle Eastern foreign policy. In an interview with the Tribune, he detailed examples of devastating environmental damage in other wars. In Iraq, for instance, Saddam Hussein responded to dissent from Marsh Arabs by cutting off their water supply, forcing 85 per cent of the population to flee their homes and migrate elsewhere.
“That wasn’t a strategy of conquest or subjugation so much, it’s just a strategy of spitefulness,” Douek said.
He sees similarities between Hussein’s actions in Iraq and Putin’s occupation of nuclear zones.
“[Putin is] kind of intimating that he’s willing to target Chernobyl or target some of the other nuclear power plants, and thus release catastrophic radiation,” Douek said.
It is not only despotic dictators who resort to catastrophic environmental measures in times of conflict. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide, around roads, cities, and agricultural areas in Vietnam, despite knowing that it causes physical disability and damage to the nervous, muscular, and cardiovascular systems. Thousands of civilians and U.S. soldiers are still dealing with the fallout today.
Though Russia has not, and hopefully will not, use chemical weapons, the destruction of coal mines and nuclear power plants is likely to have long-lasting health effects, the likes of which are becoming apparent as reports surface of Russian soldiers suffering radiation poisoning due to the mismanagement of occupied nuclear plants.
Then, there’s the question of climate change, burning hot on everyone’s mind as the world edges closer to the UN’s 2050 deadline for net-zero emissions.
Beyond the toxins released from jet fuel, explosions, and chemical weapons, armed conflict also contributes enormously to fossil fuel emissions. Since 2001, the U.S. military alone has emitted more than 1.2 billion tons of CO2, the same as entire countries such as Portugal or Denmark. And that’s just at the domestic level—the U.S. does not record or publish data on the emissions they produce overseas or on air missions, so the true number is much higher.
Despite the noted effects of war on the environment, some, including Chris Ragan, director of McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy, believe those effects should be understood in the context of broader societal structures.
“Climate change is a long-run problem,” Ragan said. “It is not fundamentally about war—it is not fundamentally about peace, for that matter. It is fundamentally about how our economies are structured, and in particular, the massive use of fossil fuels.”
Though the emissions generated by war may not make or break the long-term environmental damage we’ve done to the planet, the resulting disruption to energy markets caused by sanctions against Russia could lead to new innovations in the energy sector.
“I actually think this moment, and hopefully it isn’t much longer than a moment, […] is going to spark a very serious rethink about our reliance on Russian oil and gas,” Ragan said.
No matter what the future holds for Ukraine, policy makers will need to decide what role the West will play in helping Ukrainians in their recovery. Ragan cited the need for a new kind of Marshall Plan, a reference to the U.S.-led financial and infrastructural rebuilding program that helped Europe recover from World War II. Though there’s a dearth of academic research surrounding war’s impact on the environment, there are few clear strategies for repairing urban or rural environments damaged during conflict.
Jon Unruh, a geography professor at McGill, specializes in migration, resettlement, and environmental change during times of conflict. Unruh is also one of few researchers who tackle the subject of conflict recovery through an explicitly environmental lens. It’s given him insight into the ways that human behaviour changes to inadvertently harm the environment during times of war.
“When very large numbers of people switch into a crisis livelihood, they do things that tend toward a very short-term decision making horizon [….] That’s a problem, because very short-term decision making in terms of one’s livelihood is always […] extracting from the environment,” Unruh said.
Changing one’s fuel source from ordinary gasoline to wood is one example that, along with off-cycle crop harvesting, offers a short-term solution at the expense of the environment. For example, in temporary refugee camps, it’s common to use wood burning stoves using local materials because they are more accessible than natural gas or propane. However, this can deplete the surrounding area of resources.
In a world where 40 per cent of wars result from failed peace agreements, and where climate change will increase the risk of violent conflict, any recovery strategy that does not consider environmental recovery is doomed to fail.
It’s unlikely that the damaging tactics of war will change anytime soon, but the way we respond to them can. Right now, world leaders face a challenge of daunting scale, but they also face an opportunity to chart a new course forward and to pioneer new strategies for conflict recovery that will allow humans and the environment to work in tandem.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Russian forces had bombed over 500 industrial zones. In fact, there exist over 500 industrial zones in Ukraine, but not all of them have been bombed.