The Russian occupation has created a number of risks for the unique wildlife of Crimea. The construction of the Kerch Bridge and the Tavrida Highway, as well as permanent large-scale military exercises, led to the destruction of rare species, protected areas, and landscapes, and chemical pollution of the sea, soil, and air. The occupying authorities sanctioned uncontrolled logging and fishing in Crimea. Large-scale construction projects and fencing sanctioned in the coastal areas destroyed the natural habitats and interrupted migration patterns of the species whose wellbeing is tightly connected with the seashore. Dozens of hectares of protected natural areas have been deprived of this status due to the difference between Ukrainian and Russian legislation. The unique flora and fauna of these areas were left without protection, some species are in danger of extinction.
Perhaps the most devastating impact on the wildlife of Crimea was caused by the construction of the Kerch Bridge and the Tavrida highway. To avoid the need for environmental expertise approval of the bridge construction, Russia has even adopted special legislation. The traffic on the bridge pollutes the sea and the bridge itself threatens to destroy the fragile ecological balance of the Sea of Azov. The bridge causes irreversible changes in hydrogeological processes – water level fluctuations, heating and cooling sequences, patterns of flows, and water salinity level. The unique flora and fauna of the Sea of Azov are hypersensitive to the slightest changes in the environment and now are under threat of gradual destruction. These are, in particular, two species of dolphins, several species of fish, crabs, and birds migrating through the Kerch Strait. The noise pollution (vibrations) created by vehicles going through the bridge causes ever more dolphins to throw themselves ashore. In winter, the bridge blocks the flow of ice, which can lead to its destruction and, hence, even greater damage to the environment.
Dozens of quarries have been developed to provide construction materials for the Tavrida highway. Crushed stone quarries destroyed small Crimean mountains. Sand quarries led to the destruction of a large number of natural landscapes. The Bakalska Spit, which is part of the Crimean Nature Reserve, was destroyed due to sand mining. Highly toxic sand from the protective shaft of the Kerch sludge storage facility was also used in the construction. A large number of forests were destroyed along the highway.
Russia's uncontrolled sea fishing threatens to radically change the ecosystem of the Azov and Black Seas due to disruption of the marine food chains. Russia regularly conducts military exercises which have a devastating impact on Crimean nature. Hundreds of hectares of natural areas turned into proving ground for military equipment and ammunition, which led to the destruction of virtually all vegetation and animals. Military exercises are held even in protected areas, such as the Opuk Nature Reserve. This threatens the complete extinction of rare Ukrainian bird species and the world's only population of wild Didier's tulips. The use of ammunition leads to extreme chemical pollution of soil and air, making the land completely unsuitable for recreation and farming. The largest amounts of ammunition are tested in the sea, which leads to the destruction of the sea flora and fauna, as well as the chemical pollution of seawater.
Due to the application of Russian legislation in Crimea, thousands of hectares of natural territories were stripped of their protected status. Now, 8.3% of the territories that belong to the Nature Reserve Fund of Ukraine (NRF) have weaker legal protection. In some NRF territories, these changes in status lead to construction or logging under the guise of landscaping, and some grounds became landfill sites. Ukraine has lost control over more than 30% of all its nature reserves – the category of NRF with the strictest protection regime. One of the most valuable reserves in Ukraine – the Crimean Nature Reserve – has been deprived of this status since 2018. Now logging, recreation, and construction are allowed there.
The application of Russian legislation has weakened the protection of rare species and in some cases caused their extinction. Of all Ukrainian endangered species, Crimea is the habitat of 37.4% plants; 57.8% fungi and lichens; and 57.8% of animals. On the territory of Ukraine, almost half of them are found only in Crimea. 44 species of plants, one species of lichen, and 19 species of animals exist only in Crimea and nowhere else in the world. Most of the Crimean endangered flora and fauna are not listed in the Russian lists of endangered species. They lost their protected status. For instance, Stankevich pine, which grows only in Crimea, is being unrestrictedly cut down for the sake of wood and to clear the area for construction. Due to the destroyed habitat of two rare Crimean mollusks, they became extinct. Mountain river diversion projects aimed at tackling the Crimean water crisis pose a threat to the existence of river flora and fauna, which occurs only in Crimea and is under threat of extinction.
Construction projects and fencing sanctioned in the coastal areas in addition to the indignation of the local population and tourists have a devastating effect on the flora and fauna of the Crimean coast: it is harmful to biodiversity and contributes to the reduction of populations of coastal wildlife. Construction leads to the destruction of biotopes and disrupts migration patterns for birds depending on coastal food and shelter. The creation of promenades and fences on beaches restricts the movement of terrestrial animals and causes their death.
If Russia does not urgently stop the thoughtless exploitation of Crimean nature, the described negative consequences of the occupation will steadily worsen. At the same time, the damage that has been already done to the unique Crimean wildlife is catastrophic and in most cases irreversible. The Ukrainian government and civil society must unite the efforts to document cases of environmental damage to Crimea. An interdepartmental working group has to be set up for the coordinated interaction of state bodies, ecologists, and human rights activists. It should document environmental damage and violations of environmental human rights, as well as calculate the economic damage to the environment caused by the occupying authorities. Such systematized information will be a lever against Russia within the framework of UN mechanisms. It can be a basis for new lawsuits against Russia in international courts. Consistent advocacy of the Crimean environmental issues on international platforms will increase diplomatic pressure on Russia with regard to occupied Crimea. It should be applied to end military exercises, deforestation, and fishing, to admit Ukrainian and international environmental monitoring mechanisms, and to make Russia comply with its international obligations in the humanitarian, environmental, and human rights spheres.