As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its second week, the world is witnessing a mounting humanitarian disaster as civilians attempt to leave the country for safety and refuge. Images of indiscriminate Russian airstrikes and the dead bodies of soldiers and civilians are flooding social media and the internet throughout the world.

Families rush across train tracks to get to the next train heading west toward Lviv at the main train station in Kyiv, March 4, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)
Families rush across train tracks to get to the next train heading west toward Lviv at the main train station in Kyiv, March 4, 2022. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

This week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees stated that if the conflict is not stopped immediately, up to 4 million refugees will leave Ukraine, mainly seeking refuge in surrounding countries such as Poland, Romania and Moldova. With dire predictions anticipated for civilian casualties if Russia’s attacks do not stop, the global community can — and must — advocate for the success of the recently announced humanitarian corridors that Ukraine and Russia negotiated, as well as support a humanitarian pause.

New Phase of the War

Far from the Russian military delivering a decisive strike attack against Ukraine, the war is shifting into a more dangerous phase as the Russian military begins using tactics that have already reportedly led to massive civilian casualties. For civilians in Ukraine, the growing destruction from Russian military attacks is hindering their ability to leave the country and reach safety.

The Russian military is encountering deep and powerful resistance from the Ukrainian military and civilians, who refuse to allow an easy victory for Russia. It has been nearly impossible for the Russian government to shut down the widespread reports of Russian soldiers dying in this conflict, as images and videos of dead Russian soldiers are circulating on social media. Russian state-funded media is even starting to report on the number of Russian soldiers who have died from the war, though the government is likely underreporting to the public to avoid fueling the anti-war protests taking shape.

The longer the war goes on, the more likely it is that Russia implements the same type of military approaches it used in Chechnya and Syria that destroyed cities and civilian areas. These kinds of attacks are clear violations of international law, and there will only be greater calls in the global community for investigations into Russian war crimes — the process for which has already been started by International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Kham.

Negotiations Underway

As global pressure mounts on the Russian government to immediately cease its brutal military attack on Ukraine, dialogue is needed to prevent further escalation and civilian casualties. It’s in Russia’s interest to support negotiations — particularly on humanitarian issues, so as to change narratives both domestically and internationally about its actions and goals in Ukraine. With the long history of personal connections between Ukrainians and Russians, it will become increasingly difficult for Russia to push information that it is liberating Ukraine as social media images circulate of Ukrainian civilians seeking refuge from bombs, tanks and Russian troops. Russians are witnessing constant attacks on their friends and family in Ukraine.

There are multiple paths emerging for dialogue. One path is between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations that met in Belarus. One of the key subjects that emerged during these talks — pushed by the Ukrainian delegation — is the establishment of a humanitarian corridor.

Another path for dialogue to ensure the security of the humanitarian corridor and a humanitarian pause is through Track 2 dialogue between appropriate representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the United States. This could be an important platform for discussing sensitive issues that may not be possible at the Track 1 level at this stage.

Establishing Humanitarian Corridors

Humanitarian corridors are difficult to enforce, but that should not deter the global community from supporting this breakthrough in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. This major agreement likely has the support of Vladimir Putin and demonstrates — at least on this humanitarian issue — that Russia is willing to negotiate with Ukraine.

Realizing that civilian casualties are further challenging Russia’s narratives about the conflict, Putin announced on March 3 during a meeting of the Russian Security Council that Russian soldiers are striving to prevent civilian casualties and that the Russian military is providing humanitarian corridors in all areas of fighting “without exception.”

As details emerge from the March 3 negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, it will be important for the global community to monitor the terms of the corridors’ establishment to note any violations and push for dialogue to address those issues.

It will also be important to watch where Russia and Ukraine decide to establish the humanitarian corridors, as civilians are leaving from numerous points inside Ukraine. Before the announcement on March 3, there were conflicting reports between Ukrainian and Russian media about whether Russia would even allow humanitarian corridor s— and if so, where — after the Russian government reported that it delivered 30 tons of humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine.

However, large numbers of civilians are moving away from fighting in eastern Ukraine, among other areas, and heading west to reach Poland, Romania and Moldova. Humanitarian corridors should support the direction civilians are moving to seek safety and security.

What’s Next for Civilians in this Conflict

A humanitarian pause would involve a temporary cessation of fighting to protect civilians. In addition to the humanitarian corridor, the global community should encourage a humanitarian pause as the corridors are constructed. This will enable civilians to reach the corridors and move through safely. Monitoring any issues that emerge in the creation of the corridors and the humanitarian pause should be key elements discussed in round three of negotiations.

Unfortunately, it does not appear feasible at the moment to change Putin’s decision about the war on Ukraine. But there are short-term paths the Ukrainian and Russian governments can take to lessen the impact on civilians.

For the global community, we need to maintain attention on these corridors, report violations to international organizations such as the United Nations, provide continued encouragement and support for dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian government officials, and hold Putin accountable to his March 3 statement.


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