“Nowhere is safe” for civilians in Ukraine

Ukrainian Flag in a field Ukrainian Flag in a field © Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

9 July 2024

The Russian bombing of July, 8th confirms the enormous impact on civilians of Mosca's strategy in Ukraine

Last Wednesday – July 3rd, 2024 – the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) released a report detailing the civilian impact of the war in Ukraine during the past quarter from March to May. The document – commissioned by the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) – outlines the severe civilian repercussions following the intensification of hostilities after winter's end, and had been set to be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (UNHRC) today, July 9th. Meanwhile on Monday, July 8th,  Ukraine has been shaken by the worst Russian bombing in the last four months, further confirming the "horrific toll" of the attrition strategy pursued by Moscow.

On Monday morning, the Russian military launched a massive missile attack on 7 of Ukraine's 10 districts. Over 40 missiles targeted several major cities across the country including Kyiv, Dnipro, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Pokrovsk, and hit public infrastructures, residential buildings, and even the "Ohmatdyt" children's hospital in the capital. According to current data, raids caused 41 deaths and over 170 injuries, while the number of children involved in the hospital attack is still unknown. The act has been immediately condemned by numerous international organizations: UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell expressed her "shock," and UN Secretary-General António Guterres strongly deplored it. Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declared that "Any attack on a children's hospital is abhorrent", and added that "those in power must do everything necessary to ensure such acts cease immediately." Simultaneously, the UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the incident.

Unfortunately, while the news undoubtedly provoked extraordinary outrage, this incident is only the latest in a long string of events that have plagued the conflict in Ukraine since its very origins. In fact, since the earliest days of the war - or since when the unexpected Ukrainian resistance deprived the Russians of the prospect of easily capturing Kyiv, civilian involvement in hostilities has been a constant in Moscow's strategy for victory. For years, civilian targets have been hit for various reasons, such as weakening resistance in cities, undermining Ukrainian infrastructure and increasing the costs of war for the opponent, or as a psychological weapon. Russians also regularly hit Ukrainian civilians unintentionally – for example due to the lack of high-precisionballistic munitions – creating a generalized state of uncertainty in which “no place is safe”.

Understandably, the consequences of that have been devastating for the population. On February 24th, 2024 – exactly two years since the invasion began – the World Food Programme released a document accounting for over 10,000 civilian deaths related to the conflict, estimating also 6 million internally displaced people within Ukraine and another 8 million refugees outside the country – one of the largest mass migrations since the end of World War II. Moreover, the report specifically highlighted how these numbers were directly influenced by Moscow's wartime approach, specifying also that about a third of the population is suffering (or has suffered) from severe psychological distress due to the constant anxiety of a sudden bombing. According to the WFP, after two years of conflict nearly a quarter of the Ukrainian population lives in poverty, while one in five families experiences food insecurity. In much of the country, attacks have repeatedly caused interruptions in water, electricity, and gas supplies, as much as severely damaging fields and farms and paralyzing agriculture - forcing millions to rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

In such a context, the beginning of 2024 has emerged as a period of further concern for international observers. In the report cited at the beginning of this article, the HRMMU denounced how the thawing of winter led to a new intensification of hostilities, which Moscow – also due to the material shortages currently plaguing the Ukrainian armed forces and the timing limitations of the Western aid supply chain – has tried to exploit by renewing pressure in vast areas of the front, especially in the northeast of the country. In March, this translated into a violent campaign of bombings against Ukrainian energy infrastructure that left millions of people without water and electricity for extended periods, while in early May a major offensive was launched in the Kharkov region with the aim of recapturing the country's second-largest city.

According to the report, between March 1 and May 31, 2024, attacks caused at least 436 civilian deaths and over 1,760 injuries, with May recording the highest monthly death toll since the beginning of 2023. While Daniel Bell – Chief of Mission of the HRMMU – highlighted the severity of the damage caused to energy infrastructure and the consequences this has had and will have on the population, especially in view of the upcoming winter, some UN observers identified the increased use of high-potential air-to-ground weapons during attacks and reprehensible techniques such as "double tap" as fundamental drivers behind the rise in civilian casualties in the conflict. The United Nations also expressed concern over potential Ukrainian retaliations, given the numerous drones that daily hit Russia, especially in the Belgorod, Bryansk, and Kursk regions.


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by Leonardo Guidi


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