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Russia should pay for its environmental war crimes

Like the Russian bombs and bullets have shattered buildings and ended lives, Ukrainian scientists have been quick to document the war’s effects on the country’s natural biodiversity. Dashing outside to check for bat colonies, frogs or endangered plants, many have risked their safety to map hotspots and secure data. The wild lands of Ukraine offer a diverse landscape of dense forests, alpine meadows, grasslands, wetlands and sea estuaries, which are home to animals such as bears, wolves, lynxes, ground squirrels, grouse, storks, sturgeons, dolphins and the furry blind mole rat. The country serves as an important transit point for many species of migratory birds.

Rather, the value of an environment increases as war destroys what was once available, sometimes permanently. The damage to Ukraine’s air, water, plants and animals will likely persist long after its cities are rebuilt. One day, the information that Ukrainian scientists are currently collecting could provide evidence of Russia’s environmental crimes. Russia should pay for this environmental devastation. If only the justice system could wake up to reality.

The war is wreaking havoc on Ukrainian wildlife. “A lot of animals are frightened by noise, by vibrations,” says Oleksii Marushchak, a conservation biologist based in Kyiv. Bird nesting places have been destroyed. Military vehicles sank into rivers and lakes, and with them untold tons of oil and other noxious chemicals. “They will destroy the food base of small animals like insects. No bugs, no frogs; no frogs means no cranes.

Fires, explosions and building collapses have filled Ukrainian air, water and soil with harmful particles and nitric acid. Poisoned resources can take decades to repair.

The Ukrainian habitat of the marbled polecat, a rare and beautiful animal that resembles a gold-spotted ferret, is now entirely a war zone. In a national nature park in southeastern Ukraine, the Russian military crushed a rare and endangered crocus-like flower, spring meadow saffron. In the Black Sea, military activity would kill dolphins. In Chernobyl, the Russians burned over 37,000 acres of forest. According to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, 44% of Ukraine’s protected natural lands have suffered war damage.

Global ecosystems depend on biodiversity to survive in times of stress. Before the war, the country already lacked resources devoted to conservation. Once the war is over, Ukrainians will need healthy soil to grow crops, clean water to drink and fish, forests to cool off in, and natural spaces to rebuild their biodiversity and for some, their sanity. Cultivated land hollowed out by the bombs and poisoned by contaminants will take many years to be raked and replaced. Toxic pollutants in rivers and streams kill fish and their food, and what’s left will likely be unfit for consumption. Forests that are not directly destroyed by bombs, bullets or fire will be exploited to be rebuilt, and unexploded ordnance will make walks dangerous. More than a decade after the war in Iraq, its effects on environmental infrastructure are evident in sewage-filled roads and brackish tap water.

“Facilities such as factories, shops or McDonald’s can be restored with proper investment,” says Oleh Prylutskyi, mycologist and professor at the Ukrainian National University of Kharkiv, “but natural scientific and cultural heritage can be lost to never”.

Russia must be held responsible for the environmental destruction it inflicts. Environmental damage robs a country of its cultural and natural artifacts and creates hardship for its civilians. If no one is held accountable for these acts, they will be seen as acceptable.

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Post expires at 12:03pm on Sunday July 3rd, 2022