Russian attack could trigger humanitarian crisis in Ukraine
Experts and aid groups have said the conflict could have a particularly devastating impact on non-combatants because of Moscow’s massive arsenal, its history of targeting civilians and the broader potential to punish urban battles. Such a state-to-state confrontation would represent a break with the insurgencies of past decades, a break that could usher in a new era of deadly modern warfare.
“It will be a conflict between two institutional armies and two large conventional forces,” said Michael Kofman, Russia specialist at research firm CNA. “One has a clear qualitative and quantitative superiority over the other, but both forces have significant firepower and endurance.”
US officials said Putin’s recognition this week of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine has yet to trigger their most feared scenario, which would involve assaults on Ukrainian towns, crippling infrastructure keys and an attempt to take most or all of the country by Force. But they are preparing for the worst and say Russia has positioned its military to do just that.
Ukrainian leaders pledged to repel such an assault, conscripting reservists and training volunteers who could take up arms in case Russian troops advanced deep into Ukraine. This week, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned Ukrainians to prepare for losses as Putin, in Reznikov’s words, attempts to resuscitate the Soviet Union.
“The only thing that stands between Ukraine and its army,” Reznikov said. noted. “Our choice is simple: defend our country, our homes.”
Already, the protracted separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine has been deadly for civilians. In areas around the “line of contact” between government forces and Russian-backed fighters, daily shelling, small-arms fire and landmines have contributed to a death toll of around 14,000 since 2014. This month, artillery fire devastated a kindergarten on the Ukrainian side.
Russia has accused NATO of threatening its security by placing troops and weapons in Eastern Europe and raising the possibility that Ukraine could one day join the Western military alliance.
In 2014, a Russian Buk missile shot down a civilian airliner from separatist territory, killing nearly 300 people on board, Dutch investigators said, in an attack they believe was linked to Russians with ties to state intelligence agencies. Russia denies any responsibility for the attack.
Now Russia has the potential to employ weapons and troops it has amassed in recent months around Ukraine, including 150,000 personnel and an array of weapons that show the fruits of Putin’s drive to modernize the Russian armed forces.
In the event of a major assault on Ukraine, the Russian army’s heavy artillery is likely to draw on the weapons it has gathered around the Ukrainian border, using short-range ballistic missiles, cruise and high-powered artillery to knock out military and government targets. , say the experts.
Russia has also offered a range of aircraft capable of firing guided air-to-surface missiles or dropping “dumb” ordnance such as cluster or cluster bombs.
For clues as to how a worsening conflict could affect civilians, aid groups are pointing to Syria, where Russian forces have long been accused of deliberately striking medical facilities and other civilian sites, targeting aid convoys and employ unguided munitions, including the dreaded “barrel bomb” with deadly weapons. effect. Since entering Syria’s ongoing civil conflict in 2015, Russia has helped President Bashar al-Assad reclaim territory from opposition forces.
“We must learn from Syria and the way Russia behaved there,” said Béatrice Godefroy, Europe director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “The civilian perspective is very different when we have Russia in front of us compared to other belligerents.”
Months before taking over the presidency of Russia, Putin launched a brutal war against Chechen separatists as prime minister, which took a heavy toll on the local population. What Human Rights Watch described as “five months of indiscriminate shelling and shelling” left thousands of civilians dead.
In the space of three years, according to Human Rights Watch, a “cycle of arbitrary detention, torture and enforced disappearance has become entrenched, and the crisis of enforced disappearances appears to have become permanent”.
Analysts said the math might be different in Ukraine, where Russian forces might feel compelled to exercise caution given that unlike Syria, there are millions more people than Putin, as he has repeatedly said. repeatedly consider themselves Russian, or who have family and language ties to Russia.
“Russia does not live next to Syria. Russian aerospace forces can leave, and Assad must answer for what he did,” Kofman said. “It’s not the same story in Ukraine.”
The Biden administration has also warned that an invasion could fuel an anti-Russian insurgency that would be deadly to any forces the Kremlin sends into Ukraine.
Russia’s rules of engagement, regardless of location, are likely to be looser than those of Western armies – which have their own deadly history of bombing civilians – in part because of the country’s limited stockpiles of precision munitions, said analysts.
Rob Lee, a Marine Corps veteran who is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia would likely use its limited supply of precision-guided weapons for attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure or other valuable targets, or would keep them in reserve for potential conflict with well-armed NATO countries.
The Ukrainian army, with its meager air defenses and minimal air force, would have a limited ability to repel such attacks. Experts say Russia will likely try to destroy Ukrainian government fighter jets on the ground in a first salvo.
Lee said the level of civilian suffering would largely depend on whether Russia attempts to break into heavily populated cities, such as Kharkiv or Kiev, or simply focuses on decimating the Ukrainian military and its defensive power.
“If Russia is going to occupy a large part or part of Ukraine, they have to go to the cities,” Lee said. “If they start going to cities, the risk will be high no matter what. They just don’t have the ability to fight in cities with little collateral damage.
Since 2014, Ukraine has faced a humanitarian crisis in its eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, with 854,000 internally displaced people, according to United Nations figures.
“Communities and families have been divided by the front line in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years,” Norwegian Refugee Council secretary general Jan Egeland said in a statement this month. -this. “The decisions of distant politicians prevent grandmothers from seeing their children and grandchildren on the other side. As military and political tensions increase, thousands of families will be separated indefinitely.
Oleksandr Vlasenko, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, said the ICRC had helped the approximately 70,000 civilians living on both sides of the contact line, providing food and financial support to areas affected by fighting, repairing damaged buildings and helping residents protect themselves in an area full of mines. He said the group would continue their work even if a wider conflict unfolded.
“The ICRC is here to stay,” he said. “We are determined to stand with the people of Ukraine.