Written by Hiroko Tabuchi
Deep below the ground in Ukraine, where Russia continues to mount an aggressive attack, lies vast, untapped mineral wealth that could hold the keys to a lucrative, clean-energy future for the Eastern European nation.
Ukrainian researchers have speculated that the country’s eastern region holds close to 500,000 tons of lithium oxide, a source of lithium, which is critical to the production of the batteries that power electric vehicles. That preliminary assessment, if it holds, would make Ukraine’s lithium reserves one of the largest in the world.
But the Russian invasion has come just as Ukraine, under President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was trying to position itself as a major player in the clean energy transition — an evolution for a country that long built its economy on coal, iron, titanium and other legacy industries.
Late last year, Ukraine started to auction off exploration permits to develop its lithium reserves, as well as copper, cobalt and nickel. All are natural resources that play critical roles in the clean energy technology essential to the shift away from fossil fuels that scientists say is necessary to ward off the worst consequences of climate change.
The move holds a “strategic importance for the establishment of Ukraine on the global stage, in a new role,” Roman Opimakh, head of the State Geological Service of Ukraine, said in May at a flagship presentation for global investors.
Ukraine’s potential for lithium production had started to attract global attention. In November, European Lithium, an Australian firm, said it was in the process of securing rights to two promising lithium deposits in the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine, and Kirovograd, in the center of the country. The company said at the time it aimed to become Europe’s largest lithium supplier.
The same month, the Chinese company Chengxin Lithium also applied for rights to lithium deposits in Donetsk and Kirovograd, according to news media reports, a move that would give it its first foothold in Europe. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
While lithium isn’t a particularly rare resource, it is currently virtually irreplaceable in batteries, and demand is expected to skyrocket as electric vehicles take off, sending automakers scrambling to secure enough supply. Lithium prices have risen by as much as 600% over the past year.
And there are growing concerns that the world’s supply of lithium, as well as other minerals critical to the clean energy transition, are controlled by a handful of countries. China, Congo and Australia account for three-fourths of the global output of lithium, cobalt and rare earths. This week, 17 military experts wrote a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin underscoring the need for the United States to shore up its access to minerals.
“It may not be the motivation for the invasion, but there’s a reason why Ukraine is so important to Russia. And that’s its mineral base,” alongside the nation’s agricultural production, said Rod Schoonover, a scientist and former director of environment and natural resources at the National Intelligence Council, who now heads the Ecological Futures Group. “This invasion puts those minerals into play.”