Why Ukrainian Cities Need Humanitarian Corridors

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

The Russian invasion in Ukraine has descended into a war of cities and supply lines. While the Ukrainian military, territorial defense force, and civilians have valiantly held advancing Russians back across the country, a war of cities will create complex humanitarian emergencies and new strategic dilemmas that must be addressed now in talks between Ukraine and Russia. There is both a humanitarian and a military logic to humanitarian corridors.

First, as Russian forces siege Ukrainian cities—including firing indiscriminately into civilian areas—it starts to reduce the carry capacity of the environment and amplify the inherent tragedy of war. Siege tactics make it harder to maintain essential services and sustain the basic flow of food and water, much less power, that urban centers depend on. Hungry people quickly find themselves without food, water, or medical assistance in rubble with few options to leave. In other words, in a few days food and water will be as important as ammunition for Ukrainians defending their homeland. It won’t just be the Russians running into supply challenges.

Second, beyond the humanitarian imperative to care for Ukrainians suffering from the Russian invasion, the ability to move resources into a city under siege increases the probability it can hold out. This is the lesson of Sarajevo and more recently Aleppo. The longer the war lasts, the more likely multiple Ukrainian cities find themselves in protracted sieges, creating a new strategic dilemma at the negotiation table. Opening a humanitarian corridor now will relieve some of the political pressure and give the cities a fighting chance to survive a war likely to escalate before it ends.

Pressuring the Russians now to allow humanitarian corridors in Ukrainian cities they are attacking is sound policy. It is both the right thing to do and a prudent strategy as the West confronts the possibility of protracted war should Russian elites not buckle in the face of economic sanctions and battlefield setbacks.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program