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Mainstream, VOL LII No 36, August 30, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: Humanitarian Catastrophe in Novorussia

Sunday 31 August 2014, by Arun Mohanty

Ukraine has been plunged into deep chaos and violence of unprecedented magnitude in less than a year. The crisis—that began with the throwing of Molotov cocktails against the riot police in Kiev’s Euro Maidan—has snowballed into a full-scale civil war with use of heavy artillery, airstrikes, even ballistic missiles. Though Ukrainian President Pyotor Parashenko had promised to put down the rebellion in the east of the country in a few hours, the military confrontation between the government forces and insurgents is about to enter its fifth month.

Instead of a quick victory over the rebels, Kiev’s so-called anti-terrorist operation in the east of the country seems to be heading towards a fiasco. While the opposition forces have captured a huge amount of sophisticated military hardware from government military depots that they use against the official armed forces, Kiev uses SU-24 bombers, MiG-29 fighters, MI-24 helicopter gunships and other aircraft that give them unchallenged air superiority over the self-proclaimed indepen-dent republics of Donbas and Lugansk. The heavy weapons that the Ukrainian Army uses against the rebels include BM-21 Grad and BM-27 Uragan multiple-rocket launchers, a highly sophisticated weaponry designed to destroy enemy forces in the field. Use of such weaponry cannot but cause huge civilian casualties. Though Kiev has denied using such weaponry, international rights groups have produced evidence to the contrary, issuing warnings that such actions may amount to war crimes. Another weapon which is banned for use against residential areas is phosphorous ammunition that Kiev has used In the town of Slavyansk several times in violation of its own inter-national commitments.

In addition to heavy offensive weapons, Kiev has deployed batteries of anti-aircraft missiles near the battlefield. It is known that the insurgents do not have any aviation of their own. The most deadly weapons that Kiev has used so far in the east of the country are ballistic missiles; this has been confirmed by the CNN and NATO sources. CNN has reported that at least three Tochka missiles, better known as SS-21 Scarab missiles in the West, have been launched, each carrying up to 482 kg of explosives.

Though Kiev likes to call it an anti-terrorist operation, it is no doubt a full-scale civil war the country has been witnessing for months. The ongoing civil war has caused huge destruc-tions and claimed around two thousand innocent lives in the region, besides several thousand soldiers who have been killed in the battlefield. Around 750 thousand people have fled the war zone seeking refuge in Russia as well as in different regions of Ukraine. Every day 1000 to 2000 people are fleeing from the war zone. Tens of thousands of people in Donbas and Lugansk regions have been left without electricity, water, gas and other basic amenities. A huge number of residential buildings have been destroyed as a result of systematic bombings and the infra-structure is in shambles . Around 250 thousand people have no access to drinking water. The old men and women, who are unable to move, have been the worst sufferers.

The main result of Kiev’s so-called anti-terrorist operation so far has been no military success for the government but massive destruction in the east of the country that has been caused by the war. Almost 80 per cent of houses in small and medium sized towns in the war zone have been completely destroyed, and the population in big cities like Donetsk and Lugansk has been reduced by 50 per cent in just a few months. Hundreds of hospitals, schools, kindergartens have been levelled to the ground. Even if peace comes to the war-torn territory, most likely there would be hardly anybody to return, and those who would like to return would have no place to return. The humanitarian catastrophe in the region might soon be accompanied by a ecological catastrophe in case chemical factories are hit by bombings or mortar shells.

 The healthcare system is in a pathetic situation with nearly 70 per cent doctors and medical workers fleeing the region. Most of the hospitals and healthcare centres have been destroyed and hardly any medicine is available in the medical stores with most of them being closed. Destruction of highways and rail roads as a result of heavy bombing has further aggravated the humanitarian situation in the region. This has blocked supplies of food and other daily necessities for the population.

While Russia’s Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin raised the issue of the humani-tarian situation in the east of Ukraine in the extraordinary session of the UN SC, Ukrainian representative Alexander Pavlochenko down-played the subject by saying that there was no humanitarian crisis at all in Ukraine. Western countries, particularly the US and UK, do not see any responsibility on the part of the Ukrainian Government that has been bombing and shelling villages and towns in the course of several months for the deteriorating humanitarian catastrophe in that country. They rather accuse the rebels and Russia for the worsening situation there.

“When we talk about humanitarian situation, we cannot but stress one fact that it is Russia who can stop it. Russia must stop sending military personnel, weapons and money to the east of Ukraine. It would be the most worthy means to end the conflict. Russia has the possibility to force the separatists to abandon arms, participate in the negotiations and start implementing the peace plan of President Poroshenko;” said Rozmari di Karlo, US Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN SC.

However, the representative of the concerned UN committee is of the opinion that Kiev is responsible for aggravating the situation in many ways including imposing customs duty on humanitarian assistance. According to John Ging, head of the UN Committee for Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, we would witness worsening of the humanitarian crisis with fighting shifting closer to big cities that would accelerate migration and block supplies.

To make matters worse, Ukraine is creating obstacles for supplies of humanitarian assis-tance, particularly from Russia, to the war-torn territory in the east. A fleet of 288 trucks carrying humanitarian assistance that includes food, medicine, clothings, drinking water etc. started its journey from the Russian territory to the area in Ukraine most affected by the humani-tarian catastrophe on August 12 and has not been permitted by Ukrainian officials to enter their territory till date (August 18) on the flimsy ground that the trucks might be carrying military aid for the rebels. Ukrainian President Arseny Yatsenyuk, peeved by the humanitarian assistance from Russia, angrily reacted by saying Russian trucks cannot be permitted to Ukrainian territory and Russia, instead of sending humanitarian assistance, should take back its ‘bandits’ from Ukraine in these trucks.

There were a series of negotiations between official Kiev, Western politicians and the Red Cross International Committee on the issue of despatching Russian humanitarian assistance to the conflict zone. Nevertheless, the Russian convoy carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine’s war-torn territory evoked hysterical reaction from the US, Kiev and international media. It may be worth recalling how the NATO had bombed Yugoslavia in the backdrop of the humanitarian crisis in that country with the international media applauding the bombard-ment. The same Western countries, particularly the US and UK, are now encouraging Kiev to block a Russian convoy carrying humanitarian assistance. The US went to the extent of warning that the Russian convoy’s entry into Ukrainian territory would be considered an invasion. The European Union has promised 2.5 million euro to Donbas and it is not known when it would be available to the region. Compare it with Russia’s two thousand tonnes of massive assistance that is stranded on the border because of Kiev‘s absolutely unreasonable behaviour, and that too after the International Red Cross Committee has thoroughly checked the entire cargo.

Kiev changed several times the customs points through which Russian convoy would pass. Then it demanded that the cargo be shifted to trucks hired by the Red Cross. Kiev demands that the aid material would be distributed only by its own representatives so that the rebels do not get anything out of it. One gets the impression from the entire episode that Kiev is not keen to receive Russian assistance for the war-torn zone, as if the Ukrainian leadership is doing a favour by agreeing to receive the assistance on one hand and on the other doing everything possible to delay the distribution of the aid materials.

From the very beginning Kiev was not interested in receiving humanitarian assistance for the simple reason that it did not want to admit that there is any kind of humanitarian crisis in the region. However, Kiev changed its position under pressure from the European Union that stressed that the Russian humani-tarian cargo, which is so important for the suffering population, would be handled thoroughly by the Red Cross.

Well, there is hope that the Russian convoy carrying humanitarian assistance would be finally permitted to enter the Ukrainian territory under the auspices of the Red Cross. But who would ensure security of the convoy on Ukrainian territory? Official Kiev is not inclined to guarantee the security of the fleet of trucks carrying humanitarian aid, while there is a lot of apprehension that the convoy might be attacked by private armies supported by Kiev.

Prof Arun Mohanty is the Chairperson, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the Director, Eurasian Foundation.