Home / Europe / Russia-Ukraine Conflict: The only way is West – Will people flee and who will help them?

Russia-Ukraine Conflict: The only way is West – Will people flee and who will help them?

11 February, 2022

by Sam Biden, Global Leadership Fellow

Background of Russia-Ukraine Conflict

With mounting tensions between the two states, two key concerns regarding the potential population displacement a major conflict would trigger have taken the spotlight. Firstly, in the event of a full-scale invasion by Russia, where shall the displaced Ukrainians flee to? Secondly, will these displaced Ukrainians have the humanitarian and military support to allow for their escape?

A general idea can be ascertained when we look at the 2014/15 invasion of the Eastern side of Ukraine, primarily involving the annexing of Crimea by Russia and the Donbas War. With Russian troops towards the South-East side of Ukraine, the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, known collectively as Donbas, became separatist states. These separatist movements fell under the command of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk’s People’s Republic (LPR) respectively. However, in 2018 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) concluded that despite the DPR and LPR claiming the territory as separate entities regarding Russia-Ukraine relations, in fact, the Donbas region is under the effective control of Russia.

Despite the majority of the 2014 conflict being isolated to Donbas and Crimea, the scale of the displacement and humanitarian crisis demonstrates how severe a 2022 invasion could be for the future of Ukraine, and subsequently Europe. Millions fled from the Eastern side of Ukraine, many were forced to leave their homes, others were tortured, executed and detained arbitrarily in inhumane conditions. The Ministry of Social Policy for Ukraine stated over 1.45m were internally displaced within the Western side of Ukraine after fleeing Donbas. Alongside these displacements, over 14,000 lost their lives in the conflict, with an additional 30,000 injuries in just a short period. Monetary support and humanitarian aid fell short of adequate despite the severity of the situation. The United Nations Refugee Agency only managed to raise 56% of the $41.5m required to safely serve those who were displaced. This failure was amplified further when only 45% of the $316m humanitarian aid package was delivered to the victims of the Donbas war. This would have provided key necessities such as clean water, food, medical aids, shelter and sanitary facilities.

Humanitarian corridors were set up in the region for the safe passage of displaced persons. These areas are temporary demilitarized zones designed to facilitate the safe passage of civilians outside the warzone. Adding to the scale of difficulties faced by displaced persons, humanitarian corridors set up by the Ukrainian government in 2014 were destabilized and became unsafe. A series of fatal attacks on civilians and the seizure of the port city of Mariupol forced 10,000 displaced persons to find other pathways to safety. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s 2014 Security Council representative claimed Ukraine was “not interested” in setting up humanitarian corridors for their displaced persons. Ukraine challenged this when their representative claimed corridors were established, but due to violent attacks by Russian supported rebel groups, including the destruction of essential bridges in the corridor, they became unable to guarantee safe passage.

What do neighbouring states say?

Hungary remains distant given the rising tensions. They told the Financial Times that they “want no part in their conflict in this region”. This tension arose in the context of the extensive pre-existing relationship between Moscow and the authoritarian Hungarian government – a link that was recently demonstrated regarding the safe evacuation of Hungarians from Kazakhstan with aid from Russia. The curtailing of the minority rights of Hungarians in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, has also soured the country’s attitude. Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó claims that Ukraine has ignored several requests by Hungary to include Hungarian as a spoken language, including efforts to involve the Council of Europe and UN to help solve minority issues. This reaction comes from the ‘On Ensuring the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language’ legislation passed in 2017. This legislation dictates that in public settings, including inter-ethnic communications, Ukrainian will be the state spoken language. This does not apply to private situations. Szijjártó emphasised the danger of the relationship between Russia and Hungary in anticipation of Vladimir Putin’s visit to Hungary to discuss their state relations. Since the annexing of Crimea, Russia and Hungary’s relationship has steadily grown in two manners. First, a push from Russia for Hungary to host Russian propaganda that propagates anti-Western, as well as anti-Ukraine views. Given the nature of the ongoing conflict, Russian influence in Hungary through propaganda not only stresses what are currently military and humanitarian concerns for Ukraine but also influences potential refugee movements in Western Europe to where Hungary is located. Any form of pressure or resilience from Hungary may affect those fleeing in the event of a conflict. Second, policy agreements on the use of gas and nuclear power between Russia and Hungary may have dire consequences for not just Ukraine, but all of Europe. The 15-year agreement Hungary and Russia made for the use of gas is of particular geographical concern to Ukraine. The supply line from Russia avoids Ukraine altogether, despite being closer to Russia and a direct pathway to Hungary. This also has concerns for Europe. As Russia is the biggest gas supplier on the continent, Europe is somewhat reliant on this source. In the event of a full-scale invasion and a defensive retaliation from NATO, this may potentially cause gas supplies to European states to be severed.

Guarding the Northern border of Ukraine, Belarus isn’t supportive of a refugee crisis befalling their territory. Describing Russia as an ally, President Lukashenko asserted Belarus’s response to any aggression is the defense of their sacred land, alongside Russia. Belarus is the jurisdictional limit for Northern pressure from Russia and acts as a defense barrier for Ukraine, yet this barrier is beginning to fall. The Gomel region of Belarus, located 270km from Kyiv will be hosting Russian military exercises in February. Lithuanian Defense Minister, Arvydas Anusauskas, claimed this move has destabilized Lithuania’s position and created a direct threat towards his country. US President Joe Biden initially announced the possibility of sending troops and military equipment to aid in Eastern Europe, the Pentagon supported this with aid of their own. Today the US has broadened their involvement, sending an additional 2000 troops to Poland and Germany. Troops already stationed in Germany will move South to Romania.

In the states bordering Western Ukraine, many displaced persons could exit Ukraine’s most populated central and Western regions such as Lviv, Kyiv and Chernivtsi to Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Romania has shown strong support towards NATO. President Klaus Iohannis stated, “the security crisis created by Russia is not just about Ukraine… but about the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area”. As Romania share the largest border with Ukraine bar Russia, they’re prepared for any refugee crisis that may befall them. The Romanian community is in support of this position, with three-quarters of them both agreeing Russian-Ukrainian tensions threaten their country and that US troops within Romanian territory are necessary.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov shows similar support and concern towards Russia’s advances. Petkov asserts that the development of military capabilities with aid from allies is a focus of Bulgaria. Petkov’s defence minister, Stefan Yanev, addresses Russia’s current position as “difficult to interpret as a positive signal”. Following this, Yanev assures that the Bulgarian military may join NATO if needed. This statement was welcomed when fellow NATO members Spain and the Netherlands sent fighter jets as a show of support for Bulgaria’s position. Despite Bulgaria’s optimism, the only reasonable way to harbour Ukrainian refugees would be via mass migration South through Romania, or by sea from Odesa. Given the nature of the Crimea operations happening close by to Odesa, this seems a non-possibility.

Slovakia is equally optimistic concerning their potential involvement. Jens Stoltenberg, current serving as secretary-general for NATO, was welcomed by Slovakia when he stated the deployment of further NATO battle groups is proportionate and in line with their international commitments.

While Poland has been accused of wide-scale migration rights violations by the UN in relation to the Middle Eastern refugee crisis, they have taken a different perspective regarding the migration of Ukrainians to Polish territory. In a turn of events, a deputy minister for Poland said Warsaw would be willing to help the millions of people fleeing Ukraine, as this is a fundamental obligation of international law. Poland already has a significant Ukrainian population, estimated to be over 1 million to the current date. Secretary of state official Maciej Wąsik commented further stating “As a government, we must be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and for some time the interior ministry has been taking steps to prepare us for the arrival of this wave of what could be even one million people”.

New humanitarian corridors

Given that while they were stable, 10,000 Ukrainians used the humanitarian corridors every day in the 2014 conflict, it illustrates the importance of these corridors for the safe passage of those most at risk. The corridors were set up by Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko, as a way out for individuals who had become trapped in the Donbas region and who were being terrorized by pro-Russian separatists. These were welcomed by Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who added a ceasefire would be the most appropriate reaction to the displacement crisis. The main corridor existed in Luhansk. This allowed for civilians to either move from the separatist area of Donbas towards central Ukraine, or vice versa. Not only were they a funnel for individuals to escape, but the receiving areas were also provided with transport, food, water and medical supplies for the displaced coming through the corridor. However, given the current situation and scale of the border presence of Russia, humanitarian corridors opening North or East is not plausible. Russia has 100,000 troops bordering Ukraine. These troops are as far South as Crimea, ascending up the Donbas region and stretching to the most Northern Russian borders to the Ukraine capital, Kyiv.

After the Donbas war, tens of thousands of Ukrainians fled to neighbouring states such as Poland, Belarus and even Russia. Given the tensions have escalated far beyond a small territorial conflict, asylum in Russia is not an option. Russia currently controls all Eastern border pathways connecting the two states, even an intervention from the UN to set up Eastern humanitarian corridors could not guarantee the safety of displaced persons. Reports of attacks on civilians and the exacerbation of dire humanitarian conditions in 2014 by Russian-supported rebel groups leaves this possibility almost void of any hope. Following Belarus’ embracing of Russia’s plan and the welcoming of their troops, Northern humanitarian corridors will be cut off should Russia advance from Belarus. Fleeing directly South is also a near-impossible option. The port city of Mariupol, a key area allowing for ocean transport through the Sea of Azov and round to the Black Sea was cut off during the 2014 conflict. The Russian military position being held inside Crimea is extensive, and they have the capability to intercept any vessels attempting to leave via this route. From this, the only viable option for those who may become displaced is to flee West into the territories of neighbouring NATO states; Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

Since military pressure is coming from the East, South and North of Ukraine, there are very limited options in terms of humanitarian corridors. Central and Eastern cities such as Poltava, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Kyiv and Odesa would need to be evacuated, while the only major city in the Western region of Ukraine is Lviv. The unfortunate geolocation of these cities in Ukraine is a serious downfall, and insight into humanitarian corridors needs to happen sooner rather than later. Both Kharkiv and Kyiv are dangerously close to the currently positioned Russian troops in the East and North, meaning that mass evacuation and displacement must occur in a fast, mobilised state.

The only reasonable solution is an agreement between Poland, Romania, Slovakia and the International Committee of the Red Cross to funnel those in major cities through to Lviv, Mukachevo, Uzhorod and Chernivtsi. From here, three primary humanitarian corridors can be set up and guarded, away from any conflict. Firstly, there are major transport connections between Lviv and two Polish cities, Krakow and Lublin. These offer temporary public solutions to evacuate those from Ukraine. To ensure the safe passage of those fleeing, aid from both UK troops and US troops will be essential, given the reluctancy of NATO to engage fully. Given that US President Joe Biden stated he will increase troop presence in Romania and Poland if Putin advances, swift humanitarian aid and evacuation are on the table. Both Mukachevo and Chernivtsi offer access to Romania’s Northern border. Border towns such as Sighetu Marmaţiei and Halmeu have main road access to the cities of Satu Mare and Baia Mare which could accommodate large numbers of displaced persons. Both of these cities connect directly to Cluj-Napoca, one of the largest cities in Romania. There are direct pathways into Bulgaria through Romania, these are a possibility if the migrant flow overruns major cities in Romania and needs to be spread out across allied states. Mukachevo offers direct access into Slovakia via the border city Uzhorod. Uzhorod has main connections to cities in the region as it leads to Košice and Prešov. Humanitarian corridors into Poland, Romania and Slovakia are the most viable, immediate option. As Hungary are reluctant to engage in any form of interference with the conflict, all insight operations to establish safe routes out of Ukraine must lead to these welcoming parties.

Resolving this potential refugee crisis with the support of neighbouring states and humanitarian aid from the US and the UK is certainly possible. International cooperation between NATO, its members and the US create a positive picture that involves the safe evacuation of the victims of war in Ukraine. Only time will tell whether these efforts are sufficient.

Image: A woman stands outside a damaged building in Kurakhove, Donetsk region (source: VO Svoboda via CC BY-SA 3.0)


About Sam Biden

Sam Biden is a double law graduate from Aberystwyth University whose degree focused primarily in the enforcement and protection of civil liberties. His research surrounded areas such as data protection, protection from unlawful interference, environmental law, freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, humanitarian law and natural law jurisprudence. Sam’s areas of interest include the advocating for the protection of digital liberties, ensuring of safe passage and treatment for the victims of the migration crisis and the drafting of solutions to repair corporate exploitation resulting in human rights violations and exacerbated climate damage.