The Humanitarian Toll of Russia’s Invasion

After months of military buildup along Ukraine’s borders, the Russian military’s widespread incursion into Ukraine represents the worst-case scenario from a humanitarian and civilian protection perspective. Humanitarian impacts due to Russian shelling and military activities near and around civilian population centers include loss of life and damage to civilian property and infrastructure, as well as the disruption of basic services in areas with presence of Russian forces.

Russia’s comprehensive assault included the use of over 160 indiscriminate short- and long-range missiles, in conjunction with cyberattacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and the apparent deployment of various types of irregular combatants. Russia’s widespread incursions limited potential evacuation routes, limiting options for civilians seeking to flee conflict and violence. Missile strikes and incursions as far west as Lviv could potentially inhibit movement westward into neighboring states, forcing some to find refuge elsewhere inside Ukraine, with the uncertainty surrounding Russia’s future military plans posing additional stress.

Initial accounts have reported nearly 140 Ukrainian deaths and over 100,000 displaced from the incursion. The number of civilian deaths belies the wider humanitarian impact of the invasion. Russian military activity over the past years has demonstrated a wanton disregard for basic principles of international humanitarian law, including efforts to spare civilian life and property. In Syria, Russian airstrikes directly targeted hospitals and other essential healthcare facilities, while Wagner Group mercenaries have carried out atrocities in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, and Mali. With the prospect of a long and deadly insurgency on the horizon, the Ukrainian government on Thursday announced that assault rifles were being distributed to citizens.

The prospect of protracted urban warfare with irregular combatants from Russia and Ukraine will undoubtedly have substantial humanitarian consequences. Pitched battles in urban settings generate widespread damage to infrastructure, with reverberating effects for civilians if water, sanitation, and electrical systems become damaged. Furthermore, the arming of the civilian population will raise critical questions around distinguishing fighters from civilians.

Russian forces have now seized the Chornobyl nuclear waste site. This initial military activity has led to a rise in radiation levels, likely from the movement of heavy equipment. However, the military activity at Chornobyl also reinforces the concerns around Ukraine’s four remaining nuclear power sites—which contain 15 reactors—and the massive humanitarian implications should such sites be targeted or incidentally impacted.

Prior to the comprehensive invasion, the escalation of violence in the Donbas region generated casualties and displacement. An ordered evacuation from separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, planned in advance by Russian-backed authorities, led to nearly 90,000 civilians fleeing into Russia, with no visible indication of preparations to provide basic services.

The Russian invasion comes on the heels of eight years of occupation and hostilities in Donbas and the ongoing humanitarian challenges faced by the populations in the region. It also follows a months-long buildup of forces whose presence—by design—generated levels of uncertainty and psychological trauma. The wholesale invasion now substantially disrupts the ability of civilians to find safety and refuge and in the short term disrupts the ability of Ukrainian civil society organizations to respond to the needs of those displaced or otherwise impacted by the conflict.

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, UN secretary-general António Guterres announced a $20 million contribution from the Central Emergency Response Fund to support protection and other activities along the contact lines in eastern Ukraine.

There is currently a limited international humanitarian presence elsewhere within Ukraine. Many organizations that responded to urgent needs in the aftermath of the 2014 invasion and occupation have subsequently departed, thereby losing access to staff; a nuanced understanding of needs, languages, and cultural sensitivities; and the resources needed to rapidly scale up a response. While the limited international presence within Ukraine may inhibit a rapid scale-up of humanitarian operations, it can also ensure that Ukrainian civil society organizations remain in the lead of any future humanitarian operations. Within Ukraine and in neighboring states, donors should emphasize supporting existing civil society organizations, as opposed to creating duplicate structures.

Major humanitarian donors have suggested publicly that contingency planning has been underway, yet public evidence of such planning is limited. While there were reports of joint tabletop exercise carried out by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), many of the nongovernmental partners instrumental to a rapid response were not included or made aware of the contingency plans developed and are now playing catch-up. USAID has deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team to Poland to coordinate the response, in line with partner organizations. Given the overall insecurity, nongovernmental organizations remain uncertain if they will be able to work inside Ukraine or remain limited to responding to forced displacement in neighboring countries.

Despite their proximity, European donors have been similarly vague about contingency planning. Many donor capitals reported that plans were being drawn up and resources set aside but were unwilling to speak to the details for fear of generating unease. On February 15, Ukraine submitted a formal request to the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for humanitarian and other support, with efforts underway by the European Union now to coordinate the contributions.

The assault on Ukraine will also generate immediate negative impacts on global food security, as wheat production and shipping will likely be disrupted. This will have second-order impacts on other humanitarian crises that rely on large commodity shipments, further stressing humanitarian systems. When and where possible, humanitarian actors should prioritize cash-based programming in Ukraine and neighboring states, and in ongoing crises elsewhere, to reduce the strains on food systems. Cash-based programming will also allow displaced and vulnerable Ukrainians to determine their own priorities, support existing economic and social structures, and potentially hasten their return should circumstances in their areas of origin improve.

The Russian military presence inside Ukraine raises the question of the need for an establishment of a civil-military coordination structure for humanitarian notification and deconfliction. Russia’s disregard and exploitation of such systems in Syria necessitate that any coordination and notification system be carefully considered, given the risk of Russian direct targeting of humanitarian actors and civilian populations. Coordination with Ukrainian authorities should be prioritized when possible, while remaining cognizant of Russian attempts to exploit and manipulate humanitarian action for propaganda purposes. Despite Russia’s past exploitation of such systems, UN leadership should continue to engage with Russian ministries to reinforce fundamental principles.

Humanitarian and human rights organizations, including international bodies, should also immediately push back against the cynical exploitation and misappropriation by Putin of the language of humanitarian considerations and prevention of genocide as a justification for an invasion of Ukraine. While not a new tactic, the use of this terminology to justify an unprovoked assault of this scope and scale further harms truthful, sincere, and necessary efforts to monitor, prevent, and bring to account perpetrators of real genocide.

Misinformation and disinformation have been a hallmark of the Russian campaign in Ukraine and elsewhere with Russian military activities. Humanitarian actors and advocates must remain vigilant in their use of sourcing and imagery. Russian propaganda not only relies on spreading misinformation but also benefits from when humanitarian organizations themselves are seen as spreading false information. Triangulation of humanitarian information through reliable sources and confirming accounts of humanitarian and human rights violations before publication is essential to avoid confusion about humanitarian needs and violations of international humanitarian and human rights law and maintain the potential for meaningful accountability in the future, regardless of the perpetrators.

Given the massive existing humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, and elsewhere, Congress and the Biden administration should immediately and jointly develop a funding package for the Ukrainian response to include resources for civil society organizations inside Ukraine, bilateral support to Ukraine’s neighbors, and funding for the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN agencies that will support displaced communities. The United States should also lead by example in extending temporary protected status to Ukrainian citizens living in the United States and providing opportunities for visa waivers to Ukrainians seeking entry into the United States. The Biden administration should also urgently engage with allies and partners throughout Europe to ensure a robust, coherent, and unified response to the humanitarian consequences so that the displacement does not become weaponized and lead to further unrest and political discord.

Jacob Kurtzer is director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda