Satellite photos show extent of damage to environment in Ukraine from Russian invasion

25 February, 08:00 PM
Dovbushanka - Nature reserve of Gorgana (

Dovbushanka - Nature reserve of Gorgana (

Ukraine is beginning to calculate the environmental damage caused by Russia's full-scale invasion, journalists of Radio Liberty’s Skhemy (‘Schemes’) project have reported, having collected satellite images showing the extent of the damage after Feb. 24, 2022. 

Skhemy asked for expert comments on the impact of the war on the environment.

According to the State Environmental Inspectorate, as of January 2023, the losses during the 11 months of Russia's military aggression amounted to more than UAH 1.743 trillion ($47.6 billion).

"Currently, Ukraine is only able to calculate losses only from the direct damage of military aggression: missile attacks on businesses and civilian objects, large-scale shelling, and fires," said Andriy Vahin, Deputy Head of the State Environmental Inspectorate of the Kyiv District.

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“We are still making a preliminary assessment of the environmental damage. As for the temporarily occupied territories, this is only possible with the help of satellite images – it will be finalized only after there is access to these territories and the relevant research is done. With proper funding, we will be able to fully assess the environmental damage in 10 years, or perhaps less.”

Dam on the Irpin River, Kyiv Oblast

According to journalists, in order to make the movement of Russian troops towards Kyiv more difficult, the Ukrainian army blew up a dam on the Irpin River in the spring of 2022. This helped stop the enemy's offensive.

In a podcast by the Modern War Institute, Colonel John Spencer, who heads the MWI's Urban Warfare Project, spoke about the consequences of the breaking of the dam.

"Only when we arrived on the scene did we realize how ingeniously the Ukrainians used their rivers to defend Kyiv," Spencer stated.

“They could have simply blown up the dams and flooded everything. But they invited water engineers to calculate how much the dams needed to be opened to make the land impassable, but not flood all the villages at the same time.”

In this way, the Irpin River held back Russian troops, but still flooded several villages: Demydiv, Kozarovychi, Chervone, Huta-Mezhyhirska, Horenka and Moshchun.

Using Planet Labs satellite imagery, Skhemy journalists were able to calculate the approximate extent of the flooding at the time — more than 25 square kilometers, which is twice the size of the city of Vyshhorod in Kyiv Oblast.

According to the State Environmental Inspectorate, the flooded area later increased to 46 square kilometers. Pesticides and agrochemicals from agricultural land, construction materials from construction sites, paints from the metalworking shop, and heavy metals from the electrical infrastructure were washed away.

"There was a risk that the Irpin River would be significantly polluted due to the runoff of fertilizers and other chemical elements, but, according to our data, this fortunately did not happen," says Andriy Vahin.

Oil depot, Lviv

One of the first attacks on Lviv took place on March 26, when Russian troops fired a missile at an oil refinery.

According to reports from the Lviv Oblast State Administration, the oil depot was completely destroyed, and the tanks that stored oil products were also damaged. A fire broke out, which rescuers managed to extinguish overnight.

Skhemy journalists compared satellite images of the area: from March 17, before the missile hit, and from May 5, afterwards. The May photos show spills of oil on the ground around the base.

The State Environmental Inspectorate calls the consequences of strikes on such enterprises one of the most dangerous for the environment in Ukraine. They explain this by saying that spilled oil gets into the soil and then into the groundwater, which is why almost all living things in the ground die.

Izyum forest, Kharkiv Oblast

The Izyum forest in Kharkiv Oblast was also heavily damaged by the fighting. Most of it has burned down, especially after the fires in the summer of 2022.

"We need to understand that the trees that burned there were on average 30-40 years old," says Andriy Vahin.

“This is not a (managed wood), but a forest, and it will take decades to restore it. It is not yet possible to fully assess the damage caused to the Izyum forest, but we can already see from satellite images that the environmental damage was significant.”

Hanna Dobchenko, Forests project manager at WWF-Ukraine, adds: "Deforestation is the loss of habitats for various species of plants and animals. But, above all, a forest fire is the release of CO2 equivalent (greenhouse gases), which exacerbates the ongoing climate change. Given the active hostilities in the Izyum forests, this means disturbance of the soil cover, in particular, due to the passage of heavy equipment, compaction occurs, which means disruption of air and moisture exchange processes and deterioration of the prerequisites for forest cover restoration."

Kinburn Peninsula, Mykolaiv Oblast

The peninsula and spit have been completely seized by the Russian forces since June 2022. This territory is still controlled by the Russian military.

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As a result of the hostilities, large-scale fires have repeatedly broken out on the peninsula itself. These included fires on the territory of protected areas, namely the Kinburn Spit Regional Landscape Park, the Volyzhyn Forest area (part of the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve), and the Sviatoslav Biloberezhzhia National Nature Park. The burned areas can be seen from the satellite along almost the entire peninsula.

"It is currently impossible to assess which of the protected areas has suffered the most," Olesya Petrovych, conservation manager at WWF-Ukraine, explains in a comment to Skhemy.

“We do not have access to this area and cannot collect accurate data. The Ministry of Environment has approved a special procedure for determining damage and losses for the nature reserve fund, according to which the figures will be determined after the war. Ultimately, this assessment will help nature reserves receive contributions and organize nature restoration.”

Zaporizhzhya NPP, Enerhodar

As a result of the hostilities in August last year, a fire broke out in the green zone bordering the NPP territory.

Later, another fire broke out due to Russian shelling. According to Energoatom, the ferroalloy line, "that is, the last line connecting the ZNPP/ZTPP node with the Ukrainian power grid, was disconnected."

As a result, reactor No. 6, which supplied Zaporizhzhya NPP's own needs, was temporarily shut down, which could have destabilized the nuclear power plant. However, the power supply was later restored.

Fields of Kherson Oblast

In 2022, due to Russian shelling, fires often broke out on agricultural land throughout Ukraine.

Using Planet Labs satellite imagery, Skhemy journalists compared what the farmland northwest of Kherson looked like in the summer of 2021, before the full-scale Russian invasion, and in the same period in 2022. The consequences of numerous fires in the photo are in the form of dark spots of burnt fields.

The Ministry of Agrarian Policy, together with analysts from the Kyiv School of Economics, calculated indirect losses in agriculture due to the war. As of November 2022, the losses amounted to more than $34 billion.

Areas under fire

Environmentalists consider craters formed by shell hits during bombardment to be another serious environmental problem.

Areas under fire from left to right: Lyman, May 25, 2022; Solvyansk, June 6, 2022; Bakhmut, January 7, 2023; Pavlivka February 10, 2023 (Фото: RFE/RL)
Areas under fire from left to right: Lyman, May 25, 2022; Solvyansk, June 6, 2022; Bakhmut, January 7, 2023; Pavlivka February 10, 2023 / Photo: RFE/RL

The State Environmental Inspectorate explains that pollutants, including metal and chemical residues from shells, get into the soil and subsequently into groundwater.

For example, the mélange contained in Russian projectiles, when released into water, causes a reaction with the release of large amounts of highly toxic nitric oxide, a process that is extremely harmful to the soil and all living things in it.


In a full-scale war, Russia massively uses the so-called "dragon's teeth" — defensive structures in the form of concrete cones laid out in a line to stop light vehicles and hinder infantry advance — and fills the trenches with concrete.

Such fortifications have appeared in most of the temporarily occupied areas of Ukraine. The Skhemy project uses satellite imagery to show a great number of these structures near the village of Baranykivka, Luhansk Oblast, not far from the town of Svatove.

The State Environmental Inspectorate, recalling similar structures used during World War II, says that removing the "dragon's teeth" may not be economically viable and they may remain in place. In Karelia in Russia, the Mannerheim Line built by Finland to protect itself from Soviet attack during the Winter War of 1939-40, such structures still stand.

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