Ukraine: unprecedented crisis, humanitarian aid at a loss?

Ukrainian refugees from 2022, crossing into Poland, 2022 @Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine/ (CC BY 4.0)

Sixth week of war in Ukraine: let’s try to give an update on this unprecedented event, and while massive war crimes were committed in the vicinity of Kiev (Bucha commune, and apparently other cities) during the withdrawal of the Russian army. Unprecedented, because it is the first time in the history of humanity that a conventional war of high intensity between two states (one of which has nuclear weapons) is played out on a territory where there are about fifteen active nuclear reactors. This unprecedented crisis leads humanitarian aid to grope its way forward.

The only similar examples are the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya. But despite the intensity of the fighting and destruction in Bosnia and Chechnya, or the three and a half years of siege of Sarajevo, one cannot compare the Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian forces, or the Chechen armed groups, to the Russian and Ukrainian armies. Finally, there is no active nuclear reactor on Bosnian or Chechen soil.

What is the humanitarian situation today? According to the latest Sitrep of the UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), the war in Ukraine has generated more than 4.1 million refugees, mainly in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, and 6.5 million internally displaced persons. In six weeks! The only precedent is the flight of millions of Germans before the Red Army at the fall of the Third Reich. The needs are massive: according to OCHA, 12 million people are in need of assistance, hundreds of thousands of encircled inhabitants no longer have access to food resources (according to the World Food Program, one in five Ukrainians ration their food), drinking water, electricity, gas and means of communication. Hospitals are overwhelmed, short of equipment and medicines… and sometimes hit. The destruction of civilian homes is high, as well as water treatment and distribution infrastructures.  Nearly 300,000 children from 0 to 11 months of age need adapted nutritional products, as do a very large number of pregnant and nursing women. In terms of logistics and access, things are mixed: outside the front lines, it is possible to “do humanitarian work” almost normally; in the combat zones, access is extremely difficult and risky, and only local NGOs, who are very willing, manage, sometimes in partnership with international NGOs, to provide a little humanitarian aid “at the end of the last mile”. It is important to note that, to date, UN agencies have been more daring and risk-taking than many international NGOs that have been slow to deploy outside the western part of the country.

Second stand, in the main square of the Lviv train station. Here hot drinks and sandwiches, and fruits are distributed to people who have just arrived with the evacuation trains. A girl waits for a meal and tea. @Solidarités International

Finally, the displacement and concentration of populations fleeing the war in the host areas favors the emergence of epidemic outbreaks (COVID 19, cholera, polio, tuberculosis, diarrhea…), hence the need for preventive interventions in WASH (Water, Hygiene and Sanitation) and vaccination.

Finally, the risk of a nuclear leak, if ever one of the fifteen Ukrainian reactors was hit, would revive the nightmare of Chernobyl… How can we provide humanitarian aid in an irradiated area, and what level of movement of populations fleeing radioactive releases should we face?

This crisis, although unprecedented, has points in common with previous conflicts, such as the siege technique. This technique was used in Sarajevo (where there was a United Nations presence and minimal supplies), in Syria in Homs and Aleppo, and in Grozny in Chechnya; for the latter two cities, the Russian army was already at work. The use of siege, by depriving the inhabitants of food, water, medicine, communication with the outside world, leads them to compete for resources and breaks their morale. By then playing cat and mouse, promising, organizing, then cancelling or bombing humanitarian corridors, the besieger makes the defenders bear the distress of the population at bay… However, as in Marioupol, evacuation corridors for civilians have occasionally been able to function. Let us recall that international humanitarian law obliges States to protect civilians in times of war and to allow access to humanitarian aid. The initiative of France which, in partnership with Greece and Turkey, wished to carry out an operation to evacuate civilians from the town of Marioupol, which proved impossible, as well as the difficulties encountered by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) to evacuate several hundred civilians from the town of Marioupol, are evidence of the non-respect of this international humanitarian law.

An image from a video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Tuesday, March 9, 2022, shows a convoy of Russian Armed Forces combat and logistics vehicles heading to an undisclosed area in Ukraine. (Photo by EyePress News / EyePress via AFP)

Let us examine the dynamics of this war. Intended as a “blitzkrieg” campaign, it has failed to penetrate deep into the Ukrainian defenses and quickly reach its supposed objectives, the conquest of the major cities east of the Dnieper, including Kiev, and the land connecting them, the whole of the Donbass, and as far southwest as Odessa. Looking at a map, one can see the crescent enveloping and “eating” Ukraine, from Belarus to Transnistria (where a Russian army is present, and could advance towards Odessa to take it in pincer). The Ukrainians, helped in material by the West and Turkey, defend themselves fiercely. The Russian army does not have control of the sky from which the Ukrainian drones strike. Russian losses in men (the precise figures are not known, but NATO estimates them at 7 to 15,000 soldiers killed, including seven generals, which is very heavy in six weeks: Russian losses in ten years of war in Afghanistan are estimated at 26,000 killed). The attrition in equipment is very important: according to the specialized site Oryx, at least 2,394 vehicles, including 410 tanks, were destroyed or abandoned by April 4. By way of comparison, the French army has 222 Leclerc tanks in its inventory… The Russian army has already lost almost twice as many tanks as France… In addition, there are serious logistical problems, coordination problems between units, a communication system jammed by the Ukrainians, low morale and soldiers often left to their own devices without discipline. The Russian army, for want of a blitzkrieg, is going back to what it knows how to do: siege, bombing and slow but inexorable progress, concentrating, according to the Russian general staff, on the “East” of the country, while continuing the strikes of opportunity on the whole territory… It remains to define this East: the whole of the Donbass oblasts at least (including Mariupol, depriving Ukraine of access to the Sea of Azov), but as far as Kharkiv? Is the abandonment of assaults on Kiev, Odessa, Chernihiv, Sumy, permanent or temporary? In some of these areas, the Russian army is entrenching itself, reconstituting its forces, or withdrawing, as around Kiev and as far as the Belarusian border… Let’s hope that during future battles it will not use thermobaric weapons (vacuum bombs killing by asphyxiation) or chemical weapons, which would be a further leap in barbarism, after the war crimes (executions of many unarmed civilians) committed around Kiev as well as in Bucha, during the withdrawal of the Russian troops Finally, the British Ministry of Defense announced the arrival in Ukraine of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group…

A glimmer of hope had appeared with the latest negotiations in Istanbul: the lines seemed to be moving, with, on the Ukrainian side, the proposal of a status of neutrality for the country accompanied by a mechanism of international guarantees for its security… But this was the umpteenth disappointed hope, and how to negotiate after the war crimes committed in Bucha and elsewhere?

7A Koshytsia Street, Kyiv, 25 February 2022. Photo: Oleksandr Ratushniak /UNDP Ukraine

It remains to reflect on the roots of the disaster. Could this mess have been avoided? Without clearing Putin of his crushing responsibility (or irresponsibility…), is it possible to examine our own share of responsibility, as Westerners and NATO members, for what is happening today? Have we not, for thirty years, considered Russia as “the loser of history”, whose demands were useless to consider? Was the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders justified by anything other than the hubris of a Cold War victor? What did we understand about the Russian feelings when NATO bombed Belgrade in 1999 and then unilaterally recognized Kosovo? Finally, did we really put pressure on Ukraine to implement the Minsk agreements in their entirety?

In any case, Putin has made an irreversible strategic error. He may win the war, but he has “refounded” NATO, which is no longer “brain dead” and will probably expand further.  He has allowed a “second birth” of the European Union, which has never been so united, and uses the EU’s “Peace Facility” mechanism to deliver arms to Ukraine (1 billion euros), and has connected this country’s electricity network to the European network to support it! Countries such as Switzerland, Finland and Sweden are abandoning their neutrality to react in tune with the West. There remains the uncertainty of China: it is worried about the Russian “failure” in Ukraine and the global economic consequences of the conflict. Will it choose to maintain its partnership with Russia, taking advantage of it to obtain supplies of rare minerals, oil and Russian gas at low prices for its industry (as India does…), or will it distance itself from a Putin considered too dangerous? China’s opposition to Russia’s exclusion from the next G20 seems to indicate that Beijing will continue to support Moscow for the time being. Finally, let us beware of a boomerang effect of the sanctions imposed on Russia in addition to the very heavy price that the world economy will pay, while the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, considers that the war in Ukraine is “a major threat to the world economy” the seeds of a « hurricane of famine » in many countries): a reawakening of the Russian patriotic feeling, which could have the feeling that the West wants to destroy it…

For the rest, humanitarian aid must continue to advance and act, groping, in Ukraine.

Pierre Brunet

Writter and humanitarian 

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