Russia’s Provocations with Ukraine Provide an Opening for Renewed Cooperation on Climate Defense During War

John Norris
7 min readDec 7, 2021

Recent reports about the Russia-Ukraine relationship have sent worrying chills across the world. Specifically, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made claims of an attempted coup, NATO has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin about his nation’s military build-up along Europe’s eastern borders, while Latvia has begun calling for permanent US military presence in its territory over fears that Russia might enlarge its borders even further than the already coveted Donetsk and Luhansk regions within Ukraine.

These unsettling developments threaten to devolve into a full-blown conflict where Russia continues to support further separatists fighting in parts of eastern Ukraine already suffering from tremendous social, economic, and environmental damage and then annexing even more territory from Ukraine, despite this violating the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty. Preventing war will be complex, but in the meantime, stakeholders in both Russian and Ukraine should seek to find common ground in protecting the viability, productivity, and health of the natural resources within the regions likely to be subjected to warfare. Prearranged assurances made surrounding environmental protections during times of conflict, which I will call ‘environmental rules of engagement,’ will help establish terms of war that emphasize the safety of large swathes of the public and the ecosystems within which they live and from which they still obtain economic or social benefit.

Eastern Ukraine still bears scars from the 2014 separatist conflict, which likely has further exacerbated many other regional security issues, including the ongoing Polish-Belarusian migrant crisis and exposed concerning weaknesses on Europe’s and NATO’s flanks. Initial United Nations (UN) reports indicate that significant waterways, such as the Seversky Donets River, have been significantly polluted, the destruction of arable lands and suspension of major farming activities have cut down agricultural output, while the continued breakdown of industrial mining capacity has stripped Ukraine of one of its most crucial mineral wealth resources. Russia and Ukraine are parties to the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which doesn’t explicitly call for nations to avoid senseless destruction of the environment in war but does prohibit militaries from modifying ecosystems for hostile reasons that cause long-lasting effects. And yet, an assessment carried out by UN Environment’s Science-Policy Platform on Environment and Security found that the 2014 conflict has affected, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems within an area of at least 530,000 hectares, including 18 nature reserves covering an area of 80,000 hectares.

Therefore, Russia and Ukraine’s ability to find an agreement on environmental rules of engagement would be simply bolstering ENMOD and avoiding repeating past environmental mistakes while preserving ecosystems which both countries appear intent on controlling and leveraging. Presidents Putin and Zelesky have both taken promising actions to support the conflicted region; thus, it only seems natural that both leaders would want to avoid further damage to an already wartorn area, even if they come to blows. The necessity for agreeing on protecting critical natural resources becomes particularly apparent when we further closely examine how much environmental risk pervades across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014.

Evidence has shown that the ongoing clashes in eastern Ukraine have left the territories with lower productivity, extensive water and ground contamination, and declines in environmental services. The region used to host nearly 5,500 industries, provided critical natural benefits, including the prevention of wind and water erosion, high plant biodiversity, including pine forests for sustainable agroforestry practices, as well as an abundance of natural resources, such as deposits of rock salt, gypsum, raw cement materials, flux limestone, dolomite, granite, and clays. Sadly, however, anthropogenic-related disruptions and consistent operational damage to industrial centers have caused severe devastation to many natural protected areas, critical mining enterprises, and socioeconomically important waterways, some of which may never become fully operational again. Disruptions caused by uncontained fires, banned weapons like cluster bombs or chemical weapons, and poorly regulated industrial pollution of the local air, soil, or water are all avoidable, so these potential environmental emergencies fall on regional powerbrokers to resolve.

Continuous conflict, irresponsible agroforestry and mining practices, as well as infrastructural alterations have transformed Eastern Ukraine into a shadow of its former self. The elimination or minimization of environmentally harmful weapons and termination of illegal resource acquisition practices could provide a significant geopolitical signal to other warring nations that future wars should not only seek to limit the loss of blood and treasure but also aim to prevent the erosion of habitable land and preserve healthy environments from warfare — guaranteeing the security of local environments and its inhabitants could at the very least limit long-term consequences stemming from bloody conflict, while simultaneously potentially providing a gateway for future peace, reconciliation or economic talks that might prevent war entirely.

Specific ways that these environmental rules of engagement could be established would be through nations agreeing to not attack or use particular critical natural infrastructures, such as national forests, freshwater systems, or mineral quarries, as zones of conflict, similar to how the Geneva Conventions treats hospitals. These revamped bilateral environmental conventions accords would require trust between opposing armed forces and for leaders to inherently agree that specific natural features are off-limits, which will be tough to maintain since capturing and exploiting natural resources is inherent in war. Unfortunately, we as a collective society must account for the diminishing supply of Mother Earth’s bounty, and that future conflicts will likely be fought not over borders but over potentially life-saving yet dwindling resources. Nations on the verge of war must begin enacting some standard assurances on the environmental rules of engagement or risk the loss of the very lands that they are fighting to secure.

It will be challenging to bring down the existing tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Thankfully, however, news that President Putin will be speaking with American President Joe Biden by phone and President Zelensky has called for direct talks with Russia are welcome reports and may help lower temperatures throughout Europe. These high-level discussions should emphasize political, economic, and cultural disagreements. Still, they should also place significant importance on protecting the local communities and the ecosystems in which they live since securitizing the regional environment during times of war will be critical to ensuring the longevity of the climate. Global armed forces are often the largest contributors to harmful greenhouse gas emissions. So any progress in limiting the use of polluting materials across the battlefield would be admirable in our attempts to delicately balance our ability to pursue geopolitical goals and successfully tackle climate change.

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John Norris

Graduate student from NYU's Center for Global Affairs interested in the intersection between climate change and security, with an emphasis in disaster relief.