The Ecological Scars of War

The human casualties of Russia’s war in Ukraine are counted daily, while the damage done to animals, plants, water, soil, and air gets ignored. How does war impact ecology? What are the most pressing environmental concerns for war-torn areas? Eco-activist Boris Georgiev discusses the effects of deadly military technology on the natural world.


Source > Posle

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,

In 1920, in the wake of the First World War, American poet Sara Teasdale wrote the poem “There Will Come Soft Rains”: after all the war and destruction, she wrote, nature will recover, but humanity may destroy itself — and there will be no one left to grieve over this unpleasant reality. Later, Ray Bradbury borrowed the title of this poem for a short story included in his collection “The Martian Chronicles.” Bradbury tells the story of a house emptied of people after a nuclear war, in which businesslike robots nonetheless continued to maintain “life.” These robots diligently carry out their pre-programmed tasks until a fire destroys the last reminder of their former owners. In 1984, the studio “Uzbekfilm” created a beautiful and original cartoon based on this story.

Of course, humanity is quite resilient, and it is unlikely that any major war would be capable of destroying our species on its own (unless this war is nuclear). However, the conditions of human existence could change drastically, resulting in a lifestyle with few of our usual comforts. The ecological state of our planet might play a considerable role in this change. We are already facing serious, urgent environmental crises. Greenhouse gasses, global warming, melting glaciers, air, water, and soil pollution, as well as a rapid decline in biodiversity threaten to make the majority of the planet literally uninhabitable for human life.

There are many reasons for this catastrophe, and most world leaders (at least, according to the statements regularly made at environmental summits) insist on their desire to fix the problem somehow, whether by building a carbon-free, renewable, and sustainable economy, reducing emissions, limiting plastic production, etc. Indeed, there are some steps being taken in this direction, although, as scientists and environmentalists continue to point out, they are insufficient and overdue.

However, there is one problem we frequently overlook in our “ecological turn” — war, that scourge of humanity that, for thousands of years, has devoured lives and resources for the sake of ambition, power, and capital.

Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, war has blazed over Ukraine. Every day brings fresh casualties, destroyed livelihoods, economic losses, and a growing bitterness between peoples. In addition to all of this, the war in Ukraine is devastating the environment, likely constituting one of the most ecologically damaging conflicts of our time. It is well-known that natural processes are finely organized and interconnected, so that even “minor” disturbances in the ecological balance can have exceptionally serious consequences. The conditions of the current war — its territorial scale, high intensity, usage of heavy weaponry, and proximity to large cities and industrial production zones — indicate that the social and environmental scars of this conflict will be deep and long-lasting. It is also worth noting that, when it comes to nature, there is no such thing as “fair” or “unfair,” “offensive” or “defensive” wars. In environmental terms, war can only mean death, destruction, and the disruption of balance. The ideas, whether noble or ignoble, that lead one person to fire another round at their enemy have no meaning here.

The whistling bullets, the exploding grenades and missiles, the smoke of fires — it is not only people that die from these things. There is no counting how many animals and plants become victims of human aggression. Ukraine, which occupies less than 6% of the area of Europe, accounts for 35% of the region’s biodiversity. The Red Book of Ukraine lists 542 animal species and 826 plant species as endangered, and each and every one of these threatened populations is at risk of being wiped out by the ongoing conflict. Alongside the threat of death, war also brings disruptions to animals’ natural habitats and migration routes. After all, only man is unreasonable enough to voluntarily enter a war zone, where everything rumbles and erupts, is swept away by waves of explosions, rattling as it spits more and more bullets and shells.

Six long months have passed since the start of the war. The Grim Reaper’s scythe slices through Zhytomyr, Kiev, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, and Krivoy Rog, as well as Lugansk and Donetsk. Even as Russian troops withdraw from a number of regions where their military aims have been unsuccessful, the front line still stretches 2,500 kilometers, with active combat continuing along about 1,000 kilometers of this territory. As is often the case in modern warfare, this “front line” is quite contingent — artillery and rocket fire can extend tens or even hundreds of kilometers deep. Meanwhile, in Ukraine (and occasionally in Russian territory) military objectives like critical infrastructure, production facilities, and fuel and ammunition depots are being destroyed every day. The crisis is compounded by the fact that Ukraine, in addition to being a major producer of agricultural products, has also retained advanced industrial production since the days of the Soviet Union. Every ammunition depot, every fuel tank, every feedstock or fertilizer stockpile that gets destroyed poisons the air with combustion products while the spillage pollutes the soil and water. In addition, the country’s factories contain fuel reserves and various chemical compounds that are often hazardous. Explosions at these facilities lead to significant emissions of dangerous chemicals. One example is Mariupol’s Azovstal iron and steel works complex, completely destroyed by Russian artillery and aircraft fire. Analogous situations are taking place in the industrial zones of all Ukrainian cities currently under siege. One can often determine exactly what is burning in a given place by the color of the smoke emanating from the fires. White smoke generally does not pose a serious threat, thick black smoke indicates petroleum products, and toxic nitrogenous compounds produce a yellow-brown smoke with a metallic taste.

Of all weapons, small arms generally cause the least damage to nature, given their limited firepower. However, the use of such weapons inevitably leads to broken branches, mangled trees, killed and maimed animals, as well as loud sounds that frighten wildlife. Still, nature could probably cope with these disturbances on its own, but, alas, in the process of capitalist development, humanity has learned much more destructive means of killing. The war in Ukraine is a high-tech war. Both armies make regular use of both ballistic and rocket artillery, tanks and mechanized infantry combat vehicles, aircrafts and warships, as well as the weaponry necessary to counter these technologies.

It is precisely this military technology that should be considered a key cause of pollution. The production of tanks, aircraft, and artillery requires massive expenditures in metal and energy processing (the production of high-quality steel is, in general, an extremely energy-consuming process). While the civilian economy is straining to rebuild itself along carbon-neutral and renewable lines, tons of fossil fuels are being pumped out and carried from the bowels of the earth in order to keep the war machine running. In addition, аll such technology must be transported, supplied, and repaired. It is no coincidence that logistics account for a significant share of the military-industrial complex’s carbon footprint, especially when militaries must transport equipment, components, and ammunition across considerable distances (say, from the USA to Ukraine). When it arrives on the battlefield, military technology does not last long — and yet pollution from explosives, fuels, lubricants, metals, and plastics means that every spent piece of military equipment has a long-term effect on nature. This waste accumulates every single day that a war drags on.

After the complete failure of Phase 1 of the “Special Operation,” which consisted of amphibious landings and attempts by the Russian army to make rapid, deep breakthroughs into Ukraine, the war became mainly artillery-based. Lacking a sufficiently trained and motivated infantry, Russia has taken up the tactic of carpet bombing all AFU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) supporting and defensive positions, only moving in infantry after literally plowing the entire territory with artillery. This a tactic that heavily consumes both time and resources, and as a consequence, Russian propaganda portrays every advance of several hundred meters as a new victory. This kind of victory is unspeakably destructive to nature. Every shell poisons and depletes the soil, annihilates plant and animal life, and releases carbon emissions and poisonous gasses into the atmosphere. Because of the relative inaccuracy of modern ballistic artillery, and the heavy shelling required to penetrate fortifications, thousands of rounds of ammunition may saturate a small territory. Numerous images depicting the consequences that circulate both in news media and online show whole fields of ruptured craters where intact land used to be. Even taking into account the weapons sent by Western countries as aid, the Ukrainian army still does not have as much artillery as the Russian army. Nevertheless, they are striking back at Russian positions and equipment — with the same unfortunate and predictable result for the natural environment.

Multiple rocket launcher (MRL) systems pose an even greater threat to the environment. Such systems launch dozens of rockets in a single shot, compensating for accuracy with saturation fire that bombards a large area, and each rocket fired from one of these systems has its own jet engine that releases fuel combustion products into the atmosphere throughout the duration of its flight (often tens of kilometers). The destructive potential of these missiles is higher than that of most howitzers. One “Grad” MRLfires 40 120-millimeter rockets with each volley, not enough to destroy fortifications or armored vehicles, but blanketing a significant area and razing “everything that is not hidden.” Of course, plants and animals do not have the recourse of hiding. The even more powerful MRL “Hurricane” fires 220-millimeter shells at 16 missiles per salvo. Recently, the Ukrainian army has also used the mobile and accurate “HIMARS” and other, similar weapons supplied by their allies.

However, while all these destructive systems damage the environment, both directly and through lingering consequences, they still pale in comparison with the thermobaric warheads mounted on the heavy flamethrower systems “Buratino” and “Solntsepek.” On top of causing direct fire damage, thermobaric weapons not only emit a blast wave, but rapidly burn away oxygen, creating a deadly vacuum, and a sharp jump in air pressure upon detonation — an environment that no living thing can survive. The affected area can be up to 40,000 square meters. These systems are actively in use by the Russian military, and there have been isolated reports of captured “Solntsepek” systems being used by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

MRL systems, much like conventional ballistic artillery, struggle to destroy well-fortified positions. Cruise missiles of various types are used against such targets.  Larger, faster, longer-reaching and more powerful, such weapons also require and burn more fuel, and carry a larger explosive load. For instance, the mobile rocket launcher platform “Iskander” fires a 7.3-meter-long missile weighting 3800 kg, whose payload alone weights 480 kg. One such rocket armed with cluster munitions can affect an area of up to 15000 square meters. The hypersonic air-to-ground “Kinzhal” is similarly devastating. Various cruise missiles in the Kalibr family weight upward to 2000 kg, while their payload reaches 450 kg. Tactical ballistic missiles like “Tochka U”, used by both Russia and Ukraine, weigh about 2000 kg, with a payload of 500 kg. Practically each and every embattled region in Ukraine faces daily strikes from these and similar weapons.

Aviation is also key in this war. Although soon into the invasion, the briefs issued by the Russian ministry of defense were full of bravado declarations about having destroyed the whole of the Ukrainian air force and ant-aircraft defenses, both types of armaments are still actively used by both sides in the conflict.

Helicopters are the primary means of striking with rockets, which unlike missiles, lack a guiding mechanism and must be consequently used at much closer range. Such rockets are smaller, weighing between 3.6 and 12.1 kg, with a destructive payload of 1.1 to 7.4 kg, depending on the model. Airplanes can carry an even wider range of horrifyingly effective weapons, from air-to-ground missiles, to heavy air-dropped bombs like the 500 kg FAB. All such flights have a massive carbon footprint due to the high speeds and fuel expenditures involved, even before considering the devastating impact of their ordinances.

Strikes with rockets, missiles, artillery and aviation all play key roles in this war, destroying infrastructure, fortifications and grinding up people and machines from both sides. To hold and retain territory, however, other specialized weapons are used. Mobile infantry units and armored transport vehicles are used to rapidly move soldiers across large distances, in both offensive and defensive operations alongside tanks.

Depending on model and modifications, tanks weight between 26 and 80 tons, while armored transports weigh up to 44 tons. During manufacture, such vehicles take enormous amounts of fuel and metal, including rare metals used for internal electronics, as well as plastic and rubber. During transit, such vehicles, especially when tracked, devastate the surface of the soil, and consume incredible amounts of fuel. When these machines are destroyed or damaged, their polluting ecological impact is only aggravated.

The war in Ukraine is not only fought on land and in the air, but on the water. If Ukraine practically lacks a significant navy (aside from cruisers and other small ships), Russia is wringing as much benefit as it can out of its Black Sea fleet. Outside the range of Ukrainian shore defense, Russian ships and submarines use the sea to launch missile strikes on Ukrainian territories. The constant movement of large, fuel-demanding ships produces heavy pollution, in addition, Ukrainian forces have successfully sunk several major Russian navy vessels, including the flagship rocket cruiser “Moscow.” Consequently, a large amount of fuel and other chemicals deadly to marine life ended up in the water. Even without the direct consequences of military action, war at sea is devastating to marine biodiversity. Scientists have long ago established that radar and sonar systems can confuse and disrupt dolphins, hampering their ability to navigate in the water, leading the intelligent and social animals to perish from hunger or accidental beaching. As such, it is not surprising that this year, the Black Sea coast has seen record numbers of beached dolphins, not only on Russian and Ukrainian territory, but also in Bulgaria and Romania. Russian media outlets insist that the dying dolphins are unconnected to the war, blaming either an unspecified infection, or fishermen’s nets. Western media outlets, conversely, directly link the tragedy with military actions disorienting and scaring dolphins.

It is worth mentioning the horrifying possibility of nuclear fallout. In this case, the major threat is not even the possibility of Russia deploying a nuclear weapon — one hopes that the Russian leadership will have the courage to refuse to use it.  The pressing danger comes from the threat the war poses to nuclear power plants. In the first days of the invasion, Russian forces occupied the Chernobyl and Zaporozhye Nuclear Electro-Stations. Any military maneuvers near these sites pose an acute danger, and if Russian forces have had to leave Chernobyl, the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant is constantly under threat. The fact that Russian troops and equipment are still holding ground in and around the power plant greatly complicates the situation. Although a catastrophe on the scale of the Chernobyl meltdown is unlikely due to modern safety systems, a localized catastrophe might very well occur. In such a scenario, the waters of the Dniepr would be contaminated and would carry highly radioactive water into the Black Sea. Damage to the station might create spills or leaks of contaminants, or compromise the storage of toxic or radioactive materials, leading to the irradiation of nearby residential centers. A serious incident at the Zaporozhye Nuclear Electro-Station could become the most devastating ecological catastrophe of the century. 

Every war ends, sooner or later, and this one is no exception. However, the trenches and craters, the unexploded ordinance and the mines will linger and remain for many years to come. Still, above the fields and forests and cities of Ukraine, tormented by war, there will come soft rains. We can only hope that the ecological consequences of war will not bring sudden catastrophe. If humanity plans to keep nature and its biodiversity alive, all must refuse to settle conflicts through devastating war, and reduce greatly the size of armies and redirect the colossal resources they consume towards resolving social problems and forming a new ecological economy.

The Anti*Capitalist Resistance Editorial Board may not always agree with all of the content we repost but feel it is important to give left voices a platform and develop a space for comradely debate and disagreement.  

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