Let’s stop Putin from creating a contaminated, uninhabitable Ukraine
We arose before dawn in Kyiv, in September 2022, to race our ambulances to the Russian front. Blazing eastward toward Kharkiv, through beautiful expanses of grain beneath an azure sky, the scenes reflected in Ukraine’s flag gave way to the apocalypse of war: cratered farms, bombed-out ghost towns, collapsed bridges in rivers, shattered apartment blocks and twisted heaps of factories. A kilometer from the Russian border, we in the Volunteer Ambulance Corps linked up with a Territorial Defense Force unit — the citizen-soldiers standing guard for their nation, far from their past lives, dodging concussive blasts of artillery and the buzz of enemy drones.
Ukraine has been changed forever, with tens of thousands killed and immense environmental damage. As the war continues in its second year, environmental destruction has become as much an element of Vladimir Putin’s war plan as the murder of civilians. A contaminated, uninhabitable Ukraine would be that much more vulnerable to conquest. The international community must reckon with this environmental crisis and the global challenges it will present long after the guns fall silent.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russia’s “ecocidal policy” is a threat beyond his borders. A preliminary United Nations assessment, prepared at Ukraine’s request, found “substantial damage to urban and rural environments across a wide geographic area” — this, on top of legacy chemical contamination ubiquitous in former Soviet republics.
So many places where people lived and worked have been obliterated, with homes razed and weeds growing in blast-strewn backyards. Around the corner from one home in Moshchun, down a dirt lane bounded by a field, nature worked at the blackened ruins of a Russian tank in a narrow drainage ditch. A shred of uniform, fused to flesh and hair, entangled itself above a fetid pool of chemicals and chunks of rusted metal. There are thousands of such scenes.
Russian forces have destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 housing units and 400,000 cars, generating millions of tons of debris whose toxic residue slowly leaches into soil and water. So, too, with the shelling of dozens of major industrial sites, including the Azovstal refinery, where intense combat released extraordinary levels of toxins. Abandoned coal mines in the east are filling with polluted groundwater, which impacts drinking water supplies and pushes methane to the surface. All that contamination threatens the health of Ukraine’s 43 million citizens — 6 million of whom now have limited or no access to safe drinking water.
Combat has killed more than 50,000 dolphins in the Black Sea and destroyed 3 million acres of protected land. In a pine grove outside of Lyptsi, we came upon the detritus of a recent battle where trees had been snapped like matchsticks; a demolished rocket launcher rested among Russian trenches scattered with empty vodka bottles. “Walk in my footsteps,” warned a soldier, wary of unexploded shells beneath the forest floor.
On the edge of a nearby pasture, soldiers had arranged piles of antipersonnel mines, a scene that is replicated across the country. Lingering explosives have defiled more than 39 million acres of farmland, an area larger than the State of New York. Russia is targeting Ukraine’s agricultural sector, the lifeblood of the nation and one of the world’s largest suppliers of nutrition. Ukraine produces 10 percent of the world’s wheat, 13 percent of its barley, 15 percent of its corn, and half of all sunflower oil. The war has disrupted all of that and driven up commodity prices worldwide.
Environmental concerns seem a distant luxury when civilians are being shelled in their beds. But the extraordinary sacrifices of Ukraine’s military have enabled leaders to consider the implications of the devastation as they peer into the rebuilding that’s ahead.
After World War II, the Marshall Plan helped transform ruined countries into stable democracies. Ukraine will need its own such plan, a reality that has been the subject of intense discussions with American and international allies, businesses and civic groups.
Funding to restore Ukraine’s environment must become a central component of that plan; Ukraine estimates that Russia has caused $51 billion in damage to its environment so far. Based on my experience as New York State’s top environmental official, that likely will be a fraction of the ultimate cost.
Ukraine also will need many willing hands to do the work. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt mobilized millions of Americans under the Civilian Conservation Corps to reverse the deterioration of the landscape and create “future national wealth.” Nearly a century later, Corps projects can be found in every corner of the country and still serve as the foundation for America’s half-trillion-dollar outdoor economy.
Ukraine can cement a path to its own future wealth by mobilizing volunteers from the Territorial Defense Force as they return from the front, affording them a chance to swap guns for shovels and dig in for the nation’s rebuild. Crews could help rebuild water infrastructure, remove debris, and revitalize protected places. They could help reclaim Ukraine’s status as a global breadbasket by clearing mines, restoring soil and repairing port infrastructure. It would be an investment for not just Ukraine but the entire world.
In decimated regions, where Ukraine must start from scratch, crews perhaps could be trained as renewable energy installers to help the country become more energy-independent and transition away from the fuel sources that partly enabled Russia’s invasion.
A nation that protects its environment, protects its sovereignty. A nation whose environment is laid to waste becomes inherently unstable, especially one like Ukraine whose natural resources serve as the spine for national wealth and identity. With an unstable future, Ukraine once again would become a target of Russian conquest, re-inflaming geopolitical tensions.
The war hangs in the balance. The urgent priority, of course, is continued military and humanitarian support, but the West also must prepare to help Ukraine restore its environment — for the sake of its sovereignty and world security.
Basil Seggos (@BasilSeggos) is commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and served as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. He writes this in his personal capacity, having taken personal leave to travel to Ukraine in September 2022 with the Volunteer Ambulance Corps. Follow him on Twitter @basilseggos.
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