How is Russia weaponising ‘ecocide’ in Ukraine?

Landmine decimation of Ukraine’s farmlands, forests, rivers and the Black Sea ecosystem “will take decades to address”. Alex Blair reports.

Flooding from Russia’s targeting of the Nova Kakhovka dam contaminated the Black Sea. Credit: Yan Dobronosov/GettyImages

Attention has (rightly) focused on the grim number of casualties inflicted as the Russia-Ukraine conflict heads into its third year, but Russia’s offensive has decimated Ukraine’s habitat and nature on an unprecedented scale. 

Moscow’s targeting of rivers, forests and crop fields has led Ukraine to file multiple ‘ecocide’ cases in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which currently only prosecutes four specific acts as wartime crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression and war crimes. 

Ukraine and its Western allies may begin pushing for ecocide to be made the fifth wartime crime. 

“We have witnessed the devastating environmental impact of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June and the degradation of landscapes, forest fires, Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on industrial facilities and the extensive use of landmines,” UK Ambassador Neil Holland said yesterday (29 April). 

This, Holland told the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), is “destroying Ukraine’s tools for sustainable development”. 

Campaigns for ecocide to become part of international wartime law have also been echoed by the Stop Ecocide Foundation. 

Kate Mackintosh, a legal expert and part of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, has previously said the Ukrainian prosecutor-general would have the power to prosecute Russian leaders should they ever be captured and proved responsible for the above environmental crimes. 

Meanwhile, Doug Weir, director at the UN-backed Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), tells Army Technology: “Russia’s devastating tactics in Ukraine have caused widespread and complex damage to Ukraine’s environment, much of which will take decades to address.” 

A landmine crisis

By rendering vast swathes of land unfit for habitation, farming or industry, landmines have been particularly damaging. 

Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have used at least 13 types of anti-vehicle mines (most frequently the hand-emplaced TM-62 series), while Russian troops have operated at least 13 types of antipersonnel mines since February 2022. 

Of Ukraine’s 27 oblasts, landmines have been documented in 11: Chernihiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Sumy and Zaporizhzhia. 

Since February 2022, landmines have inflicted 1,671 casualties, killing 491 people and injuring a further 1,166, according to research from the Halo Trust shown to Army Technology. 

This has turned eastern Ukraine into “the most heavily mined region of the planet right now”, Wilson Jones, defence analyst at GlobalData, tells Army Technology. “And of course, landmines primarily kill civilians – disproportionately children.” 

Both sides have used landmines to devastating ecological effect.   

In April 2022, Ukrainian troops blew up the floodgates for the Oskil reservoir dam, releasing more than 350m3 of water to slow Russia’s advance across the Donets River. 

This caused water levels to dip drastically, exposing the reservoir’s bed and causing local wells to dry up. Birds that once nested in the Oskil disappeared, and around two million fish are estimated to have died. 

While Russian forces are suspected of finishing the demolition job on the Oskil dam as Ukraine’s counteroffensive advanced later that year, Moscow’s targeting of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June 2023 has been confirmed by investigations. 

Russian operatives are suspected to have set charges inside the Nova Kakhovka, one of the biggest water reservoirs in Europe. 

Water flooded dozens of towns and villages in the surrounding areas, causing thousands of people to flee. At least 59 people drowned – although an AP investigation says hundreds of deaths were covered up. 

The dam’s destruction also “impacted the Black Sea’s ecosystem”, according to Jones. “Millions of tons of water were expelled into the sea, likely contaminated with pesticides and agricultural waste, fuel, trash, plus silt and dirt swept up in the rapids, which affects ocean life,” he says.

Ukraine’s reconstruction will cost more than $411bn – how can it be green?

The impact of ecocide in Ukraine stretches beyond landmines and water supply. 

Scorched earth tactics have left Ukrainian farmers unable to cultivate produce – and unable to make a living. Prices worldwide have increased as a result. 

Ukraine produces roughly 6% of all calories traded on the global market. Prior to the war, Russia and Ukraine accounted for a combined 34% of global wheat and grains exports and 55% of sunflower oil exports. 

Ecocide is not the same as the more familiar concept of scorched-earth campaigns, which are already punishable under international law. 

Intentionally destroying the environment is a tried-and-tested military strategy – seen when Iraqi soldiers spilt 11 million barrels of Kuwaiti oil onto the Persian Gulf when forced to retreat by the US coalition during the Gulf War. The ecocide still contaminates Kuwait’s soil to this day. 

A firefighter walks next to burning oil well on 9 August, 1991 at Greater Burhan oilfield in Kuwait. It remains one of the largest oil spills ever. Credit: Per-Anders Petterssen/GettyImages

Russia’s approach has been more multifaceted than Iraq’s. 

Ukraine’s ecology has been one target; the energy grid has been another, with severe outages seen across Odesa, Mykolaiv and other regions. 

“In addition to the harm created by damage and disruption to energy and industrial infrastructure, the intensive use of explosive force has caused profound damage to both ecologically and economically important landscapes,” Weir tells Army Technology. 

Concerns of an imminent nuclear accident also linger. Multiple drone strikes have hit the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to sound the alarm. 

Any breach of Zaporizhzhia’s six nuclear reactors (Chernobyl, for context, had four reactors), would result in catastrophic environmental fallout. 

Meeting Ukrainians’ immediate needs and the country’s environment in the long term will be a tricky and politically unenviable balancing act. 

“It is typical for post-conflict recovery to prioritise the economy and immediate human needs over the environment,” Weir says. “While understandable, this ignores the vital role that a healthy and functioning environment plays in supporting human needs, whether that is health or livelihoods.” 

The World Bank’s latest estimation of Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction cost is around $411bn, or just under half a trillion dollars. 

Climate groups have implored that Ukraine and a much-needed international consortium of donors prioritise sustainability. 

But as seen with the prolonged dispute in the US over Ukraine military funding, enthusiasm for continual financial support to Ukraine is waning.   

“Plans are emerging for a green recovery in Ukraine, and it is vital that international donors give these plans the long-term support they will need,” Weir concludes. “The environmental costs of war have rarely been more apparent than in Ukraine and translating this into a green recovery will be a key test for the international community and for Ukraine.” 

Lying in the balance will be the lives and livelihoods of millions of Ukrainians in ecologically decimated, landmine-filled oblasts across the country.