Vladimir Putin, Ukraine, Oil and the Marine Environment

09/08/2014 08:07 pm ET Updated Nov 08, 2014

It is to be hoped that a recent ceasefire between Ukraine and separatist rebels will hold, yet as tensions are ratcheted up few have given consideration to how military conflict could affect the local environment. It's hardly an idle thought, since Ukraine and Russia are now battling over oil and gas-rich territory lying within ecologically sensitive areas. Indeed, recent hostilities have placed the Black and Azov Sea ecosystems in the crosshairs, with local wildlife set to pay a heavy price. It's a regrettable state of affairs, since marine life has long suffered at the hands of the energy industry and Putin's gambit only stands to exacerbate long-standing contamination.

Perhaps, in light of recent events, the world will finally wake up to the possibility of a wider and dangerous war which could extend offshore. According to the New York Times, the first sea battle between separatists and Kiev forces occurred on September 1 when rebels fired artillery at a Ukrainian ship sailing in the Azov Sea, which lies just adjacent to the Black Sea and Crimean peninsula.

Then, for good measure, the rebels shelled Mariupol, a shipping terminus on the Azov Sea. If the rebels manage to take over the town, this would connect their region with nearby Crimea, a territory which Putin annexed from Ukraine back in March. By controlling such a key seaside corridor, the separatists along with their Kremlin backers would take over vital oil and gas fields.

Black Sea Oil Stakes

Recent conflict in the Azov Sea must be seen within the wider regional context and rush to secure energy resources. When Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, oil and gas may not have been his primary concern, yet Russia has undoubtedly benefited from military developments. Put together, the Black Sea and Azov Sea shelf are thought to contain around 57 trillion cubic feet of gas. Prior to Putin's annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian state-owned energy company Chornomornaftogaz owned oil and gas fields in the Black and Azov Seas in addition to 13 offshore platforms.

Following his seizure of Crimea, Putin nationalized Chornomornaftogaz. Furthermore, by annexing Crimea the Kremlin may lay claim to a vast offshore maritime zone along with the rights to exploit underwater Black and Azov Sea resources to the tune of trillions of dollars. Losing the Crimea, then, represented not only a crippling diplomatic defeat for Ukraine but also a devastating economic loss which set back Kiev's hopes for energy independence.

It's unclear what kind of impact all of this political and military back and forth will have upon the local environment. Prior to Russia's seizure of the Crimea, western energy giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell had developed joint plans with Chornomornaftogaz to exploit offshore Black Sea hydrocarbon assets. Following the recent fighting, however, Ukraine's foreign partners have pulled out. Perhaps, Russia's state-owned Gazprom can fill the energy vacuum, though mounting sanctions on Moscow could slow the Kremlin's plans by cutting off western financing and technology.

Fragile Azov Sea

Whatever the case, local waters are in dire need of environmental protection, and the prospect of further hostilities must be treated with considerable concern. According to the United Nations Environment Program, the shallow Azov Sea had one of the richest fisheries in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, the area was considered pristine since local Cossack communities merely practiced small-scale fishing and farming. Unfortunately, the Azov Sea has suffered in recent years due to oil pollution, amongst other causes. Petroleum contamination is linked to accidents during oil extraction and transportation, oil tankers, and offshore oil.

Pollution threatens the wider ecosystem which is home to a great concentration of wetlands. Interestingly enough, NATO itself has warned of oil contamination: in a recent study, experts point out that the Sea of Azov includes 300 invertebrate species including sturgeon and Black Sea dolphin. Biodiversity has deteriorated over the years, and the sturgeon is now on the brink of extinction. Indeed, a high level of contamination within fish tissue has been observed, and the Sea of Azov has reportedly become almost devoid of the animals. Fishing population in the neighboring Black Sea has fared little better.

A History of Oil Contamination

It is to be hoped that further hostilities do not give rise to environmental disasters like a killer storm in 2007 which sank or forced aground 10 ships and literally split an oil tanker in two. The storm battered vessels which were passing through the narrow Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea and Azov Sea. The tanker spilled more than 500,000 gallons of oil which polluted a 30 mile stretch of Black Sea coastline.

Outraged environmentalists claimed that negligent officials had allowed the disaster to happen by allowing oil transport ships to use outdated and useless equipment. Perhaps, though the Kerch Strait is normally known for its calm and tranquil waters. Experts believe that the storm could have been a strange and freak event exacerbated by global warming.

Reportedly, the catastrophe killed thousands of bird and fish. The Kerch Strait is an important site for migrating birds, and oil soaked cormorants flailed in the water. Meanwhile, a flock of about 1,000 rails, a type of wetland bird, struggled to fly on the beach after their feathers became soiled with oil. Sensing vulnerability, wild dogs attacked the birds and dismembered them. As if that was not bad enough, the oil killed off Black Sea dolphin, a creature native to the Kerch Strait already on the verge of extinction.

Since the 2007 disaster, the situation hasn't improved very much. Reportedly, oil slicks still cover hundreds of square miles of the surface of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, the result of ongoing pollution and petroleum operations in the area. Moreover, in the midst of ongoing hostilities between Ukraine and Russia, Azov Sea ecology and the plight of the Black Sea dolphin are hardly big ticket items on the agenda of top policymakers. It is to be hoped that future conflict can be avoided, not only to avert a costly human toll but also to protect vulnerable wildlife.