by Erika Weinthal and Jeannie Sowers, authors of “Health and Environmental Tolls of Protracted Conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa“ Current History (2021) 120 (830): 339–345.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the brutal strategy of seeking to bombard cities into submission, in part through targeting civilian infrastructures. Since the invasion began on February 24, Russian forces have used explosive weapons with wide-area effects in large, populated areas. Russian airstrikes have cut off heat, water, and energy for many urban residents.
As has unfolded before in Grozny, Aleppo, and Gaza City, war exacts a heavy cost on cities. Urban centers depend on systems of coupled infrastructure; when a power plant is destroyed, for example, the reverberating effects are widespread, causing harm to water, sanitation, and health care systems. Prior to the latest war, two-thirds of Ukraine’s 44 million people lived in cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mariupol; over the course of two weeks, these cities have experienced incessant shelling. By March 11, the United Nations reported that 2.5 million civilians had fled Ukraine, and that the Russian invasion had displaced another 2 million people inside the country. This constitutes the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Local service organizations, volunteers, and the international humanitarian community have mobilized to assist civilians fleeing the war in Ukraine, many crossing the border into Poland.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine was preceded by Russian troops occupying Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2014. Since then, war has raged between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine, which according to The New Humanitarian had killed more than 13,000 people. Water infrastructure and personnel have intermittently come under fire during the conflict in the Donetsk region. In 2018, Osnat Lubrani, [then] UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, said that there had been “more than 73 incidents affecting critical water infrastructure” and that “if the shelling continues during the winter, people will struggle to keep warm, and frequent water interruption increases the risks of communicable disease outbreaks.” UNICEF noted that in 2019, half a million children in the conflict-affected areas of eastern Ukraine were without running water in their homes. Attacks on civilian infrastructure also were carried out via cyberwarfare. For example, cyberattacks in December 2015 and December 2016 led to large power outages across Ukraine.
As our research on protracted conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa documents, the direct and indirect targeting of essential infrastructures in urban areas directly harms civilian well-being and health, and it has, despite periodic international condemnation, featured centrally in recent wars. The more protracted the conflict, the more devastating the effects on civilian health and local ecosystems. These impacts are often cascading and compounding, and rarely fully documented. Tracking the destruction of infrastructure during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is one step in holding accountable the perpetrators of violence—that is, the Russian military and President Vladimir Putin’s government.
The Chechnya and Syria Precedents
Over the past two decades, images of a flattened Grozny have faded from the world’s collective memory. Yet, during the first (1994–96) and second (1999–2000) Chechnya wars, the Russian military carried out unrelenting strikes on critical infrastructure and the civilian population in Grozny, causing massive internal displacement within Chechnya and to neighboring Ingushetia. The closure of Chechnya’s borders to both international and domestic journalists meant that Russia could carry out attacks with impunity, such as when it destroyed power plants, cutting off Grozny’s water supply. Reporting on Chechnya was deadly for journalists. Most notably, on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the entry of her apartment complex in Moscow. Many attributed the killing to her reporting on the first war in Chechnya, in which she exposed Russian human rights violations. The current war in Ukraine, in contrast, is widely covered by Ukrainian and international journalists. NGOs are leveraging social media and using drone technology and remote sensing to capture the human and environmental costs of the war.
These are not the only conflicts in which Russia has carried out sustained airstrikes against civilian infrastructure. After entering the Syrian war in 2015, the Russian military abetted President Bashar al-Assad’s regime with airstrikes against civilian objects, including repeated attacks on hospitals in opposition-held areas. According to data we have collected, Russian airstrikes targeted markets, bridges, and civilian health, water, agriculture, and energy infrastructures in Syria 140 times between 2015 and 2019. This data does not include attacks on residential areas and neighborhoods.
Russia is thus following a similar playbook that it used in Grozny and in its intervention in Syria. These tactics result not only in deaths and injuries among Ukrainian civilians, but deprive urban populations of access to electricity, heat, mobility, and food.
Health and Food Security Impacts
As they did in Syria, Russian forces have launched attacks on medical care facilities in Ukraine. Insecurity Insight identified 24 incidents between February 24 and March 2 in which explosive weapons damaged health infrastructure across Ukraine, including hospitals and ambulances, hampering efforts to provide regular health care. Clear marking of health facilities has not prevented them from being fired upon, as in the case of an oncology center in the city of Melitopol in Zaporizhzhia oblast on February 25. A few days later, on February 28, Russian shelling damaged a private maternity hospital in Buzova village in Kyiv oblast. Then on March 9, the Russian military bombed a children’s and maternity hospital in Mariupol in which children were being treated. Such attacks are clear violations of the First and Fourth Geneva Conventions, which call for the special protection of medical personnel and facilities. Attacks on health facilities have undercut the Ukrainian government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of electricity and water in urban and rural areas can unleash bacterial contamination and infectious disease.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting Western financial sanctions on Russia are impacting global food supply chains. Ukraine and Russia combined account for 26 percent of global wheat exports in 2021–22 , and also export corn, barley, and seed oils to global food markets. Almost all of Ukraine’s wheat is exported through its Black Sea ports, currently under attack by Russia. The global maritime trade of tankers and bulk cargo ships has been profoundly disrupted in the Black Sea, as sanctions on Russia’s use of international banking systems have limited financial transactions. The war’s direct impact on Ukraine’s agricultural sector has also included many farmers fleeing their fields.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that wheat exports from both Ukraine and Russia will decline this year as a result of the war, with increased exports from Australia and India unable to fully make up the shortfall. The price of wheat increased on global markets by 55 percent in the week before the Russian invasion, while rising oil prices put further pressure on food prices, as most wheat and corn production is a fossil-fuel intensive activity.
As these price increases ripple to importing countries and to households, food insecurity will rise. This is particularly the case in countries heavily reliant on imported staple crops and where many households already lack funds to purchase adequate food. Egypt and Lebanon, which depend on imports of Ukrainian and Russian wheat, are already seeking to diversify imports, but these will be more costly. Egypt’s finance minister, Mohamed Maait, suggested that the country might only have eight months of wheat reserves owing to the impact of the Ukraine war, which may hamper the government’s ability to sustain its bread subsidies.
Setting oil and gas infrastructure on fire generates noxious gases and results in oil spills that can harm both civilians and ecosystems. The organization PAX has documented that the first Russian airstrike in February was against fuel storage tankers at the Chuhuiv air base, causing a fire to break out. In the first two weeks of the Russian onslaught, air bases, fuel tankers and depots, and other energy infrastructure have been consistently bombed; many of these are located close to residential areas. Fires have unleashed significant air pollution. While Ukrainian firefighters have been successful in bringing several of the fires under control, it is unclear how long they can maintain this capacity.
The Ukraine war has, moreover, brought to the fore the dangers of nuclear plants coming under attack. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons thirty years ago in return for security guarantees from the United States, Russia, and the UK, while retaining its civilian nuclear industry. Almost immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in late February, one of the first sites captured by the Russians was the defunct Chornobyl facility. When reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, during the Soviet period, the plant emitted a plume of radiation over Europe and created a local exclusionary zone contaminated by radiation. Russian forces have failed to provide for the safety of the plant and have disconnected it from Ukraine’s power grid. Such energy disruptions could hamper the cooling pools necessary for the more than 20,000 spent fuel rods still stored at Chornobyl, currently fueled by diesel generators. Ukraine’s Ministry of Environment has reported that the movement of military forces is stirring up radioactive dust, resulting in significantly raised local radiation levels as reported by the plant’s automated monitoring system until it shut down due to lack of power. Russian forces have also shelled the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe and ninth-largest in the world.
Even though such plants may be considered dual-use objects, parties to a conflict should avoid attacking nuclear electrical generating stations, according to international humanitarian law, owing to the potential for disproportionate harm to civilian populations—the same principle that applies to health care facilities.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine exemplifies several trends that we and others have observed in recent Middle Eastern conflicts: the besieging of cities and the targeting of energy, water, agriculture, and health facilities without sufficient military purpose. The resulting forced displacement of civilians, within and across borders, is one consequence, as is the mental and physical trauma inflicted on those seeking to stay in place despite the risks.
As it did in Syria, Russia has reportedly been using types of weapons—including cluster bombs and thermobaric rockets (which ignite clouds of aerosols and can penetrate shelters and bunkers)—that are widely condemned worldwide for their indiscriminate impacts on civilians and civilian structures. These Russian tactics are not new, but were rather used previously in Russian actions in Chechnya and Syria. Nor is Russia the only warring party to use these tactics, as evidenced by the wars in Yemen and Syria.
What makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine somewhat distinctive, however, are the hazards to humans and ecosystems posed by the Soviet legacy of nuclear facilities, including Chornobyl, and heavy industrial facilities located close to residential areas in Ukraine. Many of these sites require ongoing environmental management. Russian attacks on fuel depots and other energy sites, the shelling of industrial facilities, and the dust and rubble produced by using explosive weapons in residential areas pose near- and long-term threats to civilian health far beyond the immediate casualties.
These and other environmental and health hazards are often overlooked in the struggle for immediate survival and safety. But as a March 10 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists noted, “The widespread destruction caused by the Russian invasion will inevitably lead to the contamination of land, water, and inhabited environments, where they can persist with a lifespan likely much longer than this conflict. While those risks may pale in comparison to the immediate horrors of war, their risk to human health is real, enduring, and will require focused international attention long after acute violence ceases.”
Russia’s bombardment of civilian objects underscores the necessity of strengthening international humanitarian law to protect civilians and the environment in armed conflict. More immediately, decisive steps should be taken to deter Putin from continued targeting of civilian infrastructures. Since 36 percent of the Russian government’s budget came from the sale of oil and gas in 2021, measures with immediate effect can include banning imports of Russian oil and gas, as the US recently did. The US can further ratchet up pressure on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to increase short-term oil production, while European plans to decrease dependence on fossil fuels, from Russia and elsewhere, need to be more rapidly implemented.