Burned forests and fields. Polluted rivers and soil. Flooded villages and gaping craters.
A year after Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine, Europe’s second-largest country, faces at least 1.74 trillion hryvnyas ($47 billion) worth of environmental damage from the fighting, the Ukrainian State Environmental Inspectorate estimates.
Yet this estimate is only that -- a temporary tally. With Russian troops still occupying all or part of five Ukrainian regions -- Crimea, Kherson, Zaporizhzhya, Donetsk, and Luhansk -- Ukrainian scientists, environmental protection specialists, and state inspectors cannot travel freely throughout the country to assess environmental damage firsthand.
For a more specific evaluation, Schemes, the investigative unit of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, showed Ukrainian environmental experts satellite photos of eight key land sites in Ukraine taken by the U.S.-based satellite imagery company Planet Labs both before and after fighting between Russian and Ukrainian armed forces.
Lviv: Oil Depot
Russian rockets struck Lviv on March 26, 2022, one of Moscow’s first attacks on the western Ukrainian city. The bombardment destroyed an oil depot, damaging storage tanks and igniting a fire. Ukraine’s State Environmental Inspectorate could not determine the exact volume of the spill.
The image below, provided by the State Environmental Inspectorate, shows one oil spill on the depot’s grounds.
The State Environmental Inspectorate considers the consequences of attacks on such facilities among the most dangerous for the environment. Oil spills that soak into the soil and groundwater can kill almost all living organisms with which they come into contact.
When State Environmental Inspectorate employees visited Lviv’s oil depot, they found dead earthworms on the surface of oil spills -- a potential harbinger of environmental problems to come. Earthworms enhance soil fertility by contributing oxygen, various nutrients and clearing space for roots to grow.
Kyiv Region: Irpin River Dam
In mid-March 2022, Ukrainian armed forces blew up a dam to flood the Irpin River, a tributary of the Dnieper, and stop steadily advancing Russian forces from entering Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
Water engineers calculated how “to make the land impassable, but not to flood all the villages [in the area] at the same time,” John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army colonel who heads the Urban Warfare Research Department at West Point’s Modern War Institute, noted in a July 1, 2022 article.
Using Planet Labs’ satellite imagery, Schemes calculated that the released water affected more than 25 square kilometers of territory -- an area twice the size of the regional city of Vyshhorod, home to over 33,100 people, as of January 2022.
Eventually, floods from the destruction of the Irpin Dam entirely submerged seven villages in the Kyiv region -- Demydiv, Kozarovychi, Chervone, Huta-Mezhyhirska, Horenka, and Moshchun -- and washed away a brew of pesticides and other agrochemicals, construction materials, paints from a metalworking shop, and heavy metals from transmission lines, transformers, and other parts of the local power network.
At its peak, the flooded area expanded to 46 square kilometers, according to the State Environmental Inspectorate.
Though the flood could have “significantly polluted” the Irpin River with fertilizers and other chemical materials, State Environmental Institute Deputy Director Andriy Vahin told Schemes, he said that the government’s data shows no sign of that. He did not elaborate on the possible reasons for that.
Kharkiv Region: Izyum Forest
Mass burial sites found in Izyum’s woodlands already testify to the brutality of Russia’s April-September 2022 occupation of this city of some 46,000 people. But the forests themselves suffered from the war as well.
Ukrainians refer collectively to the forests, which include a forestry farm within the city of Izyum and a national park, as the Izyum Forest.
Summer fires caused by the fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces burned 70 percent of the Izyum district’s 53,000 hectares of forests, Oleksandr Lysenko, first deputy director of the Kharkiv region’s Department of Forestry and Hunting, told the media outlet Suspilne Kharkiv in November 2022. Satellite images show that environmental damage from the fighting was “significant,” Vahin said, without elaboration.
The agency cannot not yet access the forests for a complete assessment since the area is within range of Russian military positions and possibly mined.
The damage, however, extends beyond the trees themselves, emphasized Hanna Dobchenko, forests project manager for WWF-Ukraine, the international environmental watchdog. Aside from the loss of habitat for animals and plants, the disruption of soil and air releases carbon dioxide that “exacerbates the ongoing climate change,” she said.
Recuperation from that loss will not be speedy.
“You need to understand that the trees that burned there were, on average, 30 to 40 years old,” Vahin said. “This is not a plantation but a forest, and it will take decades to restore it.”
Mykolayiv Region: Kinburn Peninsula
Before February 2022, the Kinburn Peninsula, a strategic promontory between the Black Sea and the Dnieper-Buh estuary, was known for its more than 60 hectares of wild red orchids, its ponds and lakes, and millions of migratory birds.
Since the invasion, repeat fires have transformed that identity.
In June 2022, Russian forces gained control of the Kinburn Spit, a finger of land that sticks out from the peninsula between the Black Sea and the Dnieper River. Since then, constant large-scale fires from fighting have affected the Kinburn Spit Regional Landscape Park, the Volyzhyn Forest area, which is part of the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, and the Svyatoslav Biloberezhzhia National Nature Park.
Schemes has reported about a Russian brigade of so-called Don Cossacks shelling the nearby Ukrainian-held town of Ochakiv and other population areas from the Kinburn Spit.
Satellite footage shows burned areas along almost the entire peninsula.
For now, without access to the peninsula or its protected areas, researchers “cannot collect accurate data” about which areas have suffered the most environmental damage from the war, said WWF-Ukraine conservation manager Olesya Petrovych.
Zaporizhzhya Region: Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant
The fires that raged around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya region in August 2022 highlighted the war’s international environmental threats.
After Russian shelling caused another fire that month near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine’s state energy company, Enerhoatom, disconnected the plant’s two remaining functional power reactors in late August to avoid a nuclear disaster. Though a connection was restored briefly, the Russian-managed, Ukrainian-run plant no longer generates power.
The risks from shelling linger on, however.
In January 24, 2023, in remarks to the European Parliament, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi, who, along with other IAEA experts, has visited the six-reactor power plant, repeated his call for a safety zone around the facility.
"I don't know for how long we are going to be lucky in avoiding a nuclear accident,” he said, the EU Observer reported.
Both Ukraine and Russia have expressed support for Grossi’s proposal for a safety zone around the plant to reduce the risk of such an accident.
Kherson Region: Agricultural Fields
As Russian troops advanced into Ukraine’s southern Kherson region during 2022, shelling frequently ignited fires in the region’s valuable agricultural fields, rich in cereals and sunflower seeds.
The Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food and the Kyiv School of Economics estimate that, as of November 2022, the war caused more than $34 billion in indirect losses to Ukraine’s agricultural sector, which, before the war, ranked as its most important export sector.
Those losses include fires on farmland as well as lost sales income and other financial burdens.
Schemes compared Planet Labs satellite imagery of land northwest of the regional seat of Kherson from the summers of 2021 and 2022. The site was chosen for the clarity of the satellite images. The latter photos show the consequences of the numerous fires. Dark spots represent burned fields.
Craters formed by artillery strikes pose a looming environmental problem for Ukraine, environmental experts warn. When a projectile explodes, creating a crater, pollutants, including metal and chemical residues from the shell or missile, enter the soil and, subsequently, groundwater.
Western military experts generally estimate that Ukrainian stocks of shells and missiles fall far short of Russian supplies. Satellite images that Schemes studied show a lower density of craters near former or current Russian military positions compared with Ukrainian military positions.
To address the damage, the State Environmental Inspectorate needs information about the chemicals used in more modern Russian missiles, as well as the proper laboratory equipment to analyze them, said State Environmental Inspectorate Deputy Director Vahin.
"For example, we examined a [Russian] Kh-101 missile that did not explode, but the fuel compartment was depressurized,” Vahin recounted. “No oil products were found there. But chemicals such as melange and decylene were detected. We don't even have laboratories that can test for such substances.”
The OSCE has labeled melange “a toxic time-bomb.” When the substance enters water, large amounts of toxic nitric acid are released. The decomposition of containers with melange “can pose a grave threat to human life and the environment,” the OSCE warned in a 2013 article.
Decylene is another toxic missile fuel that the Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group, a coalition of activists, experts, and journalists, deems “highly volatile.”
Russia’s “dragon’s teeth” -- triangular anti-tank obstacles, made of reinforced concrete -- are a throwback to World War II. Russian forces now use them extensively to stop Ukraine’s light armored vehicles and prevent its infantry from advancing.
Such fortifications, not easily moved, have appeared in all four partially Russian-occupied regions on the Ukrainian mainland: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya.
The Planet Labs satellite image below shows a cluster of these structures near the Luhansk region village of Baranykivka, about 100 kilometers east of the Ukrainian-controlled city of Izyum.
Recalling similar structures used during World War II, Vahin added that it may not be economically feasible to remove the "dragon's teeth” once the war ends. Such structures, erected by Finland during its 1939-40 Winter War with the Soviet Union, still stand in the Russian region of Karelia.