Authors: Esther Brito Ruiz, Ludovica Brambilla, Reka Szabo
Note: due to the rapidly developing situation in Ukraine, we clarify that the information included in this article is actualized up until the date of the 23rd of February, and primarily covers the human security scenario prior to the evolving Russian invasion.
The escalation of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, triggered in the spring of 2021 with the beginning of a progressive massing of thousands of Russian military and equipment near the border with Ukraine, marked the early months of 2022. As of the last few days, the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has triggered a geopolitical crisis dividing major international players and raising concerns for the security balance of Eastern Europe.
These developments raise questions on the impact of the conflict's dynamics on civilians, who have been suffering the consequences of instability for years. This article will set aside political and military analysis to disclose how the crisis has been playing out at the local level in Eastern Ukraine, particularly, its effect on the civilian populations of the non-government-controlled areas (NGCA) of Donetsk and Luhansk prior to the invasion. A comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this piece, but we present some core human security dynamics sometimes excluded from mainstream coverage, many of which were further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Civilian casualties and threats to fundamental rights
Since 2014, civilians in the Donbas have been directly affected by the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and have often been victims of war crimesby both Russian-backed separatist armed groups and Ukrainian forces. The region is characterized by one of the highest concentrations of armed actors in the world - as such, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW) are as much a cause of civilian casualties as active hostilities. Between 2014 and 2019 for example, “over 1,000 individuals were known to be killed by land mines or other explosives”. Estimates of the conflict in July 2021 already registered at least 3,393 deaths within civilian populations and more than 7,000 injured.
Moreover, arms fire and shelling have also caused serious damage to civilian housing and infrastructure, endangering the population by limiting access to water, food, schools, and health services. The Covid-19 pandemic further deteriorated the situation and intensified the need for humanitarian in the region. In fact, even before the escalation of the conflict in 2022, it was calculated that at least 3,4 million people needed humanitarian aid in Eastern Ukraine as the result of the six years of conflict, coupled with the effects of the health crisis. These individuals and families suffer from physical and mental issues related to violence and from the indirect effects of the conflict and pandemic on the economy and their living standards.
The situation regarding political rights and civil liberties is well depicted by the 2020 and 2021 Freedom House reports. The 2021 report on government-controlled Ukraine explores how attempts to maintain democracy are hindered by resistance to crucial reforms, endemic corruption and limited freedom of expression due to an increasing number of attacks against activists and journalists.
The situation drastically worsens in the Eastern Donbas, where authority is in the hands of the People’s Republic of Donestk and Luhansk. These administrations rose to power in 2018 through what are considered to have been deeply fraudulent elections. Associational rights are severely compromised, even organizations politically allied to the ruling leadership are banned. The control over the population’s right to freedom of thought is implemented through a complex system of influence by Russia and adomination of public local institutions and media by people close to the separatist leadership. Furthermore, it has been noted that pro-Ukrainian advocates face non-transparent trials and long prison sentences. In this line, detainees often appear to face torture and psychological abuse. Members of minorities are effectively victims of unpunished persecutions and the justice system seems to lack any mechanism to prevent and punish the crimes reported during the conflicts.
Displacement, travel restrictions & forced migration
Covid-19 has complicated a situation already dramatic for internally displaced persons (IDP). Since 2014, a “contact line” separates areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and those under Russian influence, dividing families and communities that have been dangerously crossing the border. These people often reside in poor settlements close by, where Ukraine’s social services struggle to provide assistance. As of 2020, the conflict had caused around 734,000 IDPs.
In the last two years, arbitrary pandemic-related travel restrictions have been severely limiting access to healthcare, basic services, and income - further separating families. The closing of crossing points in March 2020 affected thousands of civilians that would usually cross the line to receive their pensions and humanitarian assistance.
The ongoing invasion is likely to cause unprecedented, forced displacement, and since only two entry points are currently open along the contact line, it is likely that IDPs will seek refuge in neighboring countries. In their forecast on this matter at the beginning of February, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) picks up the Ukrainian Minister of Defense’s prognosis of 3 to five million possible refugees in case of a Russian invasion and notes that: “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”.
Threats to education and students
The toll of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on children has been extremely high in the last years. Hundreds of schools were damaged during the fights, which made proper education impossible. In Russian-controlled territories, not only physical threats are present. The identities of Ukrainian children are endangered as well. In the Donbas region, children do not have Ukrainian classes anymore and the language can be learnt solely as a subject for an hour per week. Textbooks in Russian were transported to the schools by the Russian ‘humanitarian’ convoys, and teachers have to use the Russian grading system.
History also has to be taught in a way favoring the Russian side and depicting the occupation of Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as a legitimate move by Russia. Because of the linguistic differences, Ukrainian students have difficulties when it comes to admissions in any higher education systems, either in Russia or in Ukraine. In the latter case, the different way of learning history also makes it more challenging for Ukrainians from the occupied territories to perform well in state tests. Furthermore, border crossing, in order to be able to participate in such tests or enroll at universities in the Ukrainian territory, can be restricted and dangerous.
The progression of gendered violence and discrimination against the LGBT+ community (H2)
Since the beginning of 2021, Ukrainian civil society groups have denounced a noted increase in attacks against LGBT+ and women’s rights activists. Attacks and threats have mainly been carried out by far-right groups, but opposition from religious organizations has also been on the rise. This is part of a broader regression of LGBT+ and women’s rights across Eastern Europe but has been tied in Ukraine to nationalization discourse in line with Russian political ideas.
On one hand, domestic violence in Ukraine has remained “widespread, under-reported, and ineffectively addressed”, and has been worsening as the conflict in eastern Ukraine advances. Systemic flaws in protection mechanisms have been exacerbated by political and social tensions, and Amnesty International event referred to it as an epidemic of domestic and sexual violence against women. There is a potential for increased gender-based violence to derive from the mobilization of military personnel in the area and few protections in place to mitigate the rising abuse.
On the other hand, the LGBT+ community in Ukraine - especially nearing the Russian and Bielorussian borders - has been in high alert. Attacks against young transgender individuals have been reported with noted violence. These crimes tend to recieve little support from police, and perpetrators face few or no charges. At a broader level, draft laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity elements more firmly in hate crime law have been pushed back against.
Activists fear that continued Russian aggressions and the progression of the invasion will lead the situation to further deteriorate, with LGBT+ and women’s rights regressing further.
As the situation in Ukraine continues to escalate, we can expect worsening conditions for human security across the country. Continued mass displacements, evolving conditions of gender and homophobic violence, and the interruption of basic freedoms and education will undoubtedly have severe impacts on the lives and future of the Ukrainian people.