22 May 2023

Ecological Consequences of Russia’s Full-Scale Invasion of Ukraine: Accountability, Compensation, and Sustainable Recovery

This study by the European Liberal Forum covers the key dimensions of EU–Ukraine cooperation from a mid-term (5-10 years) perspective: EU accession process, post-war recovery, and underexplored areas for partnership in which Ukraine can benefit the EU. In section 2, The Legacy of War: Constructing through Reconstruction, Soffia Schevchuk outlines the environmental costs of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and possible legal means to address them. 

Since February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused widespread destruction, ranging from immense human losses and damaged lives to demolished critical infrastructure and fully destroyed cities. One cost which, due to its complexity, remains hard to measure and showcase fully is the environmental one. It is difficult to evaluate because its effects stem not only from the constant military action on Ukrainian territory but also all the inaction, the effects of damaged energy infrastructure, the takeover of nuclear power plants, attacks on thermal power plants, the burning of agricultural land, the shelling of forests and national parks, the flooding of mines, the polluting of air and water resources, and the consequences for the fauna and flora, as well as for the biodiversity of the whole country. ‘The Russian war has destroyed 5 million acres of forests in Ukraine in less than six months’, said Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his speech in Sharm El-Sheikh at the COP27 Summit. The deliberate targeting of industry, civilian buildings, and environmental sites leads to pollution and water disruption, which in turn affects overall public health. For example, the explosion of bombs over farm fields has the potential to increase the amount of heavy metals entering the food chain and therefore cancer rates.

Furthermore, Ukraine is home to 35 per cent of Europe’s biodiversity and possesses one out of three species under protection in Europe, which exist only in Ukraine’s steppes. In some of these territories, military actions are currently being taken that might prove fatal for these species. Furthermore, birds that usually migrate from Central Europe to Africa in summer, with a key stop in Ukraine, have been affected and may not have proceeded with their usual route. Unfortunately, ‘monitoring endangered species and protected habitats has become all but impossible in most cases due to the ongoing combat and risk of landmines‘. The long-term consequences of the war for Ukraine and Europe will be immense, particularly if measures for recovery are not applied.

Ukraine's reconstruction from a long-term perspective

The consequences of Russia’s environmental crimes in Ukraine are enormous and have already affected the lives of people and all other living creatures. Considering transboundary environmental connections, these consequences extend far beyond Ukraine’s borders and even beyond Eastern Europe. Some indirect consequences that have already been felt globally range from rising food and energy prices to grave food, energy, and even nuclear threat crises. For this, the Ukrainian government and civil society, with the support of diverse international, governmental, and non-governmental actors, are and will be seeking justice and compensation. This will serve as an important test case for legal accountability and reparations for environmental crimes. While it remains to be seen what existing or new mechanism will be used in international law, a few options have been discussed that also bring momentum globally to legalise environmental crimes and ecocide in domestic and consequently international legislation.

While it might seem as if not all sectors need to consider the sustainability component, the war in Ukraine has once again highlighted the close intertwining of food, environment, energy, public health, economics, and peace, which forces one to look at the notion of security from different angles rather than considering the military perspective alone.

In addition to possible reparations, enormous financial investments, loans, and funds from the international community will be required to rebuild Ukraine. For these funds to be used in a truly mutually beneficial and sustainable manner, the long-term implications of the reconstruction process must be taken into consideration from the very beginning. It would be wise to explore what is needed to ensure that buildings, roads, infrastructure, and environmental sites are rebuilt in a way that can serve Ukraine and Europe for many decades. The environmental and climate components thus need to be included in all relevant documents. For this reason, while the final vision for Ukraine’s recovery project is still a work in progress, the post-war restoration projects and goals should go hand in hand with developing both a shortand  a long-term vision for Ukraine’s development and growth. Currently existing strategies and ideas remain to be ambitious and more vocal rather than realistic action plans agreed among all stakeholders involved.

Policy recommendations

1. Provide technical and expert assistance to Ukraine on monitoring, documenting, and validating data on environmental crimes. This will require expertise from environmental scientists, data scientists, as well as international lawyers with experience on legal accountability in the area of environmental crimes and ecocide. In the current environment of the ongoing war, gathering and processing data in Ukrainian laboratories that are not sufficiently equipped is problematic and might also be dangerous – thus, technical and equipment assistance on this front might also be required.

2. Develop a legal accountability mechanism for environmental crimes and ecocides. As mentioned in the chapter, it is not only international organisations but also legislation at the local level that contribute to the global recognition of environmental crimes and ecocides. Therefore, recognition and ratification of such legislation in domestic law should be coordinated at the EU level, which would then produce momentum and make it necessary to discuss it as well as legislate at the level of international organisations.

3. Ensure that Ukraine is compensated for environmental damages. The costs of the damages, as mentioned in the chapter, are enormous, and reconstruction will cost Ukraine even more. Some of these costs could be covered by reparations from Russia, yet the timing and readiness of Russia to pay them is unclear. Therefore, other creative ways need to be explored on how Ukraine could receive financial compensation with the support of the EU, US, and Canada (e.g., through frozen Russian assets).

4. Extensively engage with the Ukrainian government but also with international and Ukrainian civil society organisations that work on environmental topics in Ukraine, including the sustainable recovery angle. While many recovery proposals for Ukraine have already been formulated, the final product will have to be co-designed and co-approved in cooperation  with the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian civil society, and local NGOs, as well as Ukrainians themselves. Therefore, proper inclusion of and engagement with diverse stakeholders has to take place immediately, through different platforms and a variety of formats.

5. Engage and monitor the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian civil society and local NGOs when it comes to the future green and sustainable recovery to avoid greenwashing. As there are still different visions of the ‘green recovery’, some of which are more environmentally oriented than others, there should be proper monitoring and accountability to ensure that more harm is not done to the environment during the implementation of sustainable recovery projects.

6. Include Ukraine as much as possible in projects related to implementing the EU Green Deal. While the EU’s Green Deal is primarily an internal policy strategy, it nonetheless has an external dimension. As an EU candidate country, Ukraine, during its recovery process, will be going through stages corresponding to the requirements of EU membership. Thus, including Ukraine in the existing climate and environmental initiatives at the EU level would facilitate this process significantly. This is even more relevant as Ukraine aims to be an equal partner and contributor to the EU rather than a mere recipient of aid.

7. Mainstream the environmental and climate dimension in all areas of cooperation with Ukraine. Considering that it will take time to ameliorate the environmental damage done by the Russian invasion, those would have to be considered in all areas of engagement with Ukraine to prevent double harm. The environmental aspect should not be a separate chapter in the recovery plan or any other process of engagement with Ukraine but rather should serve as a vision that is mainstreamed throughout all strategic goals and actions.


This chapter is authored by Sofiia Schevchuk, it was orginally published by the European Liberal Forum, and can be found here

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