Navigating humanitarian dilemmas in the Ukraine crisis


The Ukraine crisis presents heightened tensions and dilemmas for humanitarian actors – some familiar, others new. These are informed by a fraught geopolitical context and a rapid series of developments.

This could be a very long war, with no end to the violence in sight. A second phase has already begun: Russia has intensified hostilities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine – which have been the most severely impacted – while rebuilding its capacity to carry out attacks elsewhere. The conflict is reverberating globally through rising commodity prices, food insecurity and energy shocks (Pantuliano, 2022). It is also seen as a pivotal moment in geopolitics: a nuclear power, and a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council (or P5), triggering a conflict in Europe paves the way for turmoil and challenge to other multilateral institutions, such as the European Union and NATO, and the current rules-based international order.

The humanitarian impact is severe: the civilian death toll stands at over 5,000 (OHCHR, 2022). Almost one-third of the country’s population has been forcibly displaced, including 7.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and over 5 million refugees, the fastest-growing refugee flow since the Second World War (DTM, 2022; UNHCR, 2022). There has been heavy shelling of populated urban centres. Russia is increasingly targeting strategic fuel stocks and industrial facilities. Hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine are without electricity. There have been numerous attacks on healthcare facilities and schools.

Humanitarian needs and the ability to respond to them will vary according to context. These include:

• Contested areas where fighting is the most intense or are under siege. This is where needs will continue to be most acute and most difficult to respond to.

• Areas occupied by Russian forces, or are under Russian influence but where authority is unclear. This is where Ukrainian resistance will continue to be active. Needs here are also likely to be acute and difficult to respond to. While in some contexts Russia might want to be seen to be minimising suffering, in others it could also collectively punish populations for resisting, or continue to deport civilians to Russia.

• Areas of relative peace under Ukrainian government control.
These areas will continue to struggle with the influx of IDPs and the impact of the war on the economy, infrastructure and services.

• Neighbouring and other countries with refugees. People in this situation will continue to need short-term relief while on the move, but above all access to jobs and services to become self-reliant.

• Russia itself, which might see a rise in the number of people facing extreme poverty and vulnerability as a result of the economic impact of the conflict, including international sanctions.

The crisis has triggered extraordinary levels of solidarity. National and local governments in neighbouring countries have mobilised quickly. In contrast with their response to refugees from other conflicts, EU countries are providing temporary protection and access to jobs and services to Ukrainians seeking refuge. The UN humanitarian flash appeal for Ukraine is one of the largest, fastest and most generously funded ever, and the United Kingdom’s public emergency appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee (only one example of public donation instruments) has attracted more funding for Ukraine than all previous nine appeals combined (FTS, 2022; DEC, 2022). With these resources, international organisations have been mounting large operations inside Ukraine and in neighbouring countries, with varying levels of coordination with and support to national authorities.

What are the options for humanitarian actors in this crisis? The following are extreme positions towards which these actors might be pulled, rather than exclusive binary choices

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