The Civilian Impacts of a Possible Russian Invasion of Ukraine
February 2, 2022
As concerns rise over a possible renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine (for CSIS political and military analysis of the situation, please see here and here), so too do concerns over the impact of such an invasion on civilians. The invasion would likely precipitate an acute crisis on top of existing post-2014 humanitarian challenges. Civilians will be negatively impacted no matter the nature of an eventual conflict, though the location, length, and lethality of potential military operations will determine just how bad that impact will be.
Q1: What is the current humanitarian picture in Ukraine?
A1: Since the onset of armed violence in eastern Ukraine in 2014, humanitarian efforts have targeted vulnerable populations—particularly the elderly and separated families—on both sides of the contact line, a 250-mile stretch of land between government-controlled areas (GCAs) and non-government-controlled areas (NGCAs). As of February 2021, an estimated 3.4 million people needed humanitarian assistance, 1.67 million of whom were in NGCAs. Despite a public narrative focused on impending conflict, armed violence has in fact been a persistent reality for the last eight years, with commensurate impacts on civilian populations. Even prior to the recent rise in tensions, Ukraine was considered to be among the most underreported crises in the world.
The financial scope of the humanitarian response in Ukraine is relatively small, with an annual appeal of $168 million—compared to a $4.4 billion recent appeal for Afghanistan. It targets the over 3 million people in need of assistance because of the violence and disruption of civilian access to basic services, a number that could rise significantly in the event of military conflict. Humanitarian operations have focused primarily on supporting a weak and deteriorated health infrastructure, including the provision of mental health services. Other priorities include basic food assistance and support to water and sanitation infrastructure severely impacted by direct and indirect shelling and a lack of necessary maintenance. Though small, the appeal remains only half funded with an even more serious humanitarian crisis on the horizon.
Protection for the civilian population remains a concern due to ongoing acts of violence and a high concentration of armed actors. Ukraine is also considered the third-most-contaminated unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) country in the world, behind only Afghanistan and Syria. The government of Ukraine reports an estimated 2,703 square miles of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to be impacted by the presence of UXO/ERW. Although the absence of a national tracking system for victims and inability to adequately survey limits a precise picture, as of 2019 over 1,000 individuals were known to be killed by land mines or other explosives. The so-called buffer zones on either side of the contact lines are of particular concern, with international mine clearance organizations only permitted to work on the GCA side.
Armed violence has in fact been a persistent reality for the last eight years, with commensurate impacts on civilian populations.
Before 2014, Ukraine was host to a small number of asylum seekers and others seeking refuge. The simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014 has changed that dramatically. As of July 2021, there were 1.47 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) registered by the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy (MOSP). Though experts have raised questions over whether this figure—which differs significantly from the 734,000 IDPs estimated by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre at the end of 2020—includes people who are “not actually in a situation of displacement,” the fact remains that internal displacement is both a significant and relatively new reality in Ukraine. Even at the lower IDP figure, Ukraine already ranks in the top 20 countries globally for internal displacement. According to the MOSP data, the largest concentration of IDPs has been in eastern Ukraine, which has been at the center of the protracted conflict: roughly 54 percent of all IDPs in Ukraine are in GCAs of the Donetsk region (35 percent) and Luhansk region (19 percent) alone. Many displaced people from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions have moved from NGCAs to GCAs in those regions, while others moved to central Ukraine, and a smaller number to western regions.
Hundreds of thousands of IDPs remain in need of humanitarian assistance, and IDPs living in conflict-affected areas suffer from insecurity in the form of limited access to basic needs, such as housing, water, education, and healthcare (including mental health) services. Those living in NGCAs face additional hurdles in obtaining or renewing official documents, since those issued in NGCAs are no longer recognized by the Ukrainian government. To maintain social benefits such as pensions, Ukrainians must physically register as IDPs in GCAs, an additional barrier for those without the ability and resources to travel across the border.
The United Nations’ Humanitarian Needs and Response Plan for 2022 also included funding for transitioning the humanitarian component of the response to more sustainable development programming. Current tensions will likely prevent such a shift away from humanitarian programming. Even in the absence of increased violence, the escalation of tensions has already limited freedom of movement and exacerbated existing humanitarian issues. Humanitarian organizations, already struggling to meet civilian needs, are also now focusing on contingency planning. The international presence in Ukraine is somewhat limited, and engagement with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society partners in preparation for multiple scenarios of a deterioration of the security environment is essential.
Q2: How are local civil society actors thinking about a possible invasion?
A2: Civil society organizations have developed contingency plans in case of a renewed invasion of Ukraine, but the current arrangement of Russian forces poses a challenge on how to put those plans into action. Organizations providing assistance to people in need in eastern Ukraine are hesitant to relocate their resources and personnel before knowing whether an invasion will happen and, in that eventuality, whether their fallback locations themselves are safe. Additionally, there is a sense among civil society actors providing humanitarian assistance that responding prematurely to the risk of a Russian invasion would adversely impact conditions for people already living in conflict-affected areas who rely on their support to meet basic needs.
If Russia does launch a new offensive, some groups have expressed concern about whether civilians would have sufficient warning to conduct an orderly evacuation. They worry about the availability of emergency shelters and the capacity of the authorities to transport the elderly and persons with limited mobility to safety. These concerns are compounded in rural areas, which could be the first areas to experience conflict in the event of an invasion. Overall, there is a general sense—particularly in areas not already affected by conflict—that members of the public do not know what to do in case of a Russian invasion and are looking for guidance. Battling Russian disinformation campaigns, civil society groups are working to address these concerns and are engaged in frequent information sharing, both informally and through the United Nations’ in-country cluster system.
There is a general sense—particularly in areas not already affected by conflict—that members of the public do not know what to do in case of a Russian invasion.
One thing seems abundantly clear: residents of Ukraine’s NGCAs would face disproportionately negative consequences. Humanitarian access to these locations has been a persistent challenge during eight years of conflict; in the event of a new Russian invasion, humanitarian organizations may be expelled or compelled to break off their operations in these areas entirely. This would leave vulnerable people cut off from the United Nations, NGOs, and civil society organizations, completely dependent on support from the self-proclaimed authorities.
Finally, of considerable concern to local civil society is the forced displacement of potentially millions more civilians.
Q3: In the event of an invasion, what could forced displacement look like in Ukraine?
A3: Were Russia to invade Ukraine—a country of more than 40 million people—forced displacement is almost certain to increase significantly. The scale of the displacement will depend on the location, length, and lethality of the invasion. Ukraine’s social services network already struggles to support the hundreds of thousands of IDPs and is not prepared for increased levels.
The threat of invasion is particularly problematic for individuals who will need to relocate from NGCAs to GCAs. The 250-mile-long contact line separates approximately 3.5 million people living in the NGCAs of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions from the rest of Ukraine. Today the contact line is harder to cross than many international borders, with only two of seven entry-exit checkpoints (EECPs) open on either side of the contact line, one of which (the Stanytsia Luhanska bridge in the Luhansk region) facilitates 95 percent of people crossing and the other of which (Novotroitske in the Donetsk region) is only open two days per week. The other EECPs and international border crossing points in the NGCAs are not equipped to manage significant influxes of people, much less vulnerable people fleeing conflict. Unless preexisting restrictions are eased, the most immediate concern would be a bottleneck at crossing points, forcing some to attempt dangerous irregular passage to GCAs or other countries and others to seek temporary shelter near contact-line crossings during winter with little humanitarian access for those able to help them. Authorities on both sides of the contact line have repeatedly blocked crossings due to periodic shelling and Covid-19 concerns (real or invented), so such an easing at crossing points seems unlikely in the event of further conflict. This is particularly the case at the Stanytsia Luhanska EECP, through which almost all people currently pass from NGCAs to GCAs, and which is situated mere miles from a Russian air base in Milerovo. New displacements could also trigger spikes in Covid-19 cases, further locking down crossing points and taxing a healthcare system that may be forced to deal with traumatic injuries and other direct consequences of armed conflict.
With few other options, some people may seek refuge in neighboring countries. Between 2014 and 2021, 98 percent of the over 1 million Ukrainian refugees fled to Russia, with smaller numbers seeking refuge in Belarus and Georgia. A new Russian invasion will likely cause some people—especially those in NGCAs—to flee again into Russia, though the contours of conflict could lead many people to seek refuge elsewhere.
Russian forces are currently amassed to the north, east, and south of Ukraine, including all along its northern border with Belarus. As CSIS colleagues have noted, this means that an invasion could come from any or all of these three cardinal directions. The resulting conflict zones will force people from home, though the numbers and direction of forced displacement will depend on several factors.
First, how much resistance Ukrainian forces put up will determine how deadly the conflict is; the deadlier the conflict is militarily, the worse it will be for civilians, many of whom will attempt to flee before being caught in the crossfire. Second (and related), how civilians are treated during the conflict will matter; if evidence of civilian casualties and violations of the Geneva Conventions gets out, many will flee.
Third, the route and length of the Russian seizure could determine where people attempt to flee. Were Russia to launch a limited invasion through eastern Ukraine that stops at the Dnepr River, for example, it is likely that civilians in these regions (plausibly including the four most populous regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, and Kharkiv) will use existing migratory pathways through GCAs and into central and western Ukraine. While this scenario is likely to create some refugees who flee Ukraine altogether, it would create an even higher number of IDPs moving west. Without adequate preparation, and given the existing humanitarian needs of IDPs in Ukraine, newly displaced people are likely to run into challenges in securing shelter, food, education, and other basic needs.
If Russian troops cross the Dnepr, vulnerable Ukrainians from across the country may seek refuge in neighboring countries. Though the EU and NATO member countries of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania would be obvious land route destinations (especially since the government of Belarus is so closely aligned with Moscow and several routes from Ukraine to Moldova connect via the latter country’s breakaway region of Transnistria), Polish and Hungarian responses to influxes of displaced people in recent years have ranged from unwelcoming to outright hostile.
In a country of over 40 million people, it is difficult to predict the number of people who would be forcibly displaced by conflict with Russia. In December 2021, Ukraine’s minister of defense, Oleksii Reznikov, warned that an invasion could produce three to five million refugees. Though it’s unclear where these figures were derived from, his prediction that “a major war in Ukraine would plunge the whole of Europe into crisis” seems entirely plausible.
Q4: In addition to the challenges detailed above, what should policymakers focus on with regard to protection of civilians?
A4: Since the start of the conflict in 2014, humanitarian access has been consistently obstructed, and Ukraine remains a highly restricted humanitarian access environment, despite provisions in the Minsk agreements for “unimpeded delivery of humanitarian aid to the needy.” In addition to the contact-line-crossing challenges presented above, authorities in NGCAs limit the ability of aid agencies to operate, with many international organizations denied permission to operate at all. These obstacles could become outright barriers in the event of an invasion.
Limited international presence has necessitated a prioritization of local organizations in the humanitarian response in NGCAs, with both positive and negative consequences. A more locally led response has benefits for sustainability and increased impact. However, it also entails placing already vulnerable populations at potentially greater risk of violence or arrest by NGCA authorities; in the event of an invasion, it also places them on the front lines of conflict.
Ukrainian civil society leaders emphasize that U.S. and European policymakers should keep pressure on Russia and the self-appointed authorities in eastern Ukraine to safeguard humanitarian access. U.S. officials specifically should call on their Ukrainian counterparts to develop more detailed programs for humanitarian access, assistance, and social protection in case of armed aggression.
Finally, policymakers should ensure that preparations for a new Russian invasion of Ukraine go beyond the military and diplomatic. As is so often the case, those least responsible for the conflict will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the impact.
The authors are grateful to the many NGO and civil society leaders in Ukraine who spoke to us in preparation for this analysis; their names and organizations are deliberately omitted to protect their safety and ability to continue doing important work across Ukraine. The authors would also like to thank Kateryna Halstead and Anastasia Strouboulis for their invaluable research assistance.
Jacob Kurtzer is director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility (PFM) at CSIS. Catherine Nzuki is a research assistant with the CSIS PFM.
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