A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: The Line

The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.

I. Overview

The 500km line of separation between Russian-supported separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the rest of Ukraine is not fit for purpose. The ceasefire negotiated at the February 2015 Minsk talks is being violated daily and heavily. Tens of thousands of well-armed troops confront each other in densely populated civilian areas. The sides are so close that even light infantry weapons can cause substantial damage, let alone the heavy weapons they regularly use. This presents major risks to civilians who still live there – about 100,000 on the Ukrainian side alone, according to an unofficial estimate – often next door to troops who have taken over unoccupied houses. It also heightens the risk of an escalation. Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists all bear responsibility for the security and well-being of civilians living along the front line.

Likewise, Kyiv’s European allies, Washington and Moscow all have crucial roles to play in addressing the overall situation. They should insist that both sides withdraw their heavy weapons, as Minsk requires, from the front line to storage areas monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They should also press their respective allies – the Ukrainian government on one side, and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) on the other – to separate troops from civilians and to substantially widen the line of separation. Russia’s role in this is vital. It insists it is not a party to the conflict, but its military intervention in early 2014 triggered the crisis; two major incursions by its armed forces in 2014 and 2015 deepened it; and it is now the sole source of military, economic and other assistance to the two entities. Its officers train and largely command the separatist forces, and it continues to assure the separatists that it will intervene again if Ukraine attacks. Given Russia’s continued role in the conflict, international sanctions need to be maintained.

There is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits. Fighting takes place daily along large parts of the line, much of it unreported. Both sides often use howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket systems or park them menacingly in the centre of large urban areas where they risk at the least becoming targets for the other’s artillery. The Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry, meanwhile, is violated daily.

Both sides should take urgent measures to address the security and humanitarian, including health, needs of the civilians stranded along the front line. Troops and military equipment should be moved out of civilian buildings and settlements. It would be helpful if the OSCE, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically identified in their public monitoring reports those locations where civilians and military are intermingled. Ukraine also urgently needs to address the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, including clear signs of psychiatric distress in front-line villages. If it is unable to do this, an experienced international organisation like Doctors without Borders should be encouraged to survey the needs. And the Ukrainian government should order local civil administrators, most of whom seem to have abandoned settlements on the front line, to return to work and at least be in contact with the population concerned.

The humanitarian crisis on the front line is also a political one. President Poro­shen­ko’s poll ratings in the east, including those areas Kyiv controls, have declined substantially. One oft-cited reason is the sense that the country’s leadership is not interested in the east. Ukraine, whose sovereignty over the occupied territories is internationally recognised, needs to take the lead in addressing these problems. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness, as some Ukrainian voices argue, or imply equal guilt with Moscow for the damage inflicted by the conflict. On the contrary, it would be proof that Kyiv was acting as a legitimate and responsible member of the international community that cares for the well-being of all its citizens.

The government-controlled areas of the two oblasts are also the stronghold of one of Ukraine’s main opposition parties, the Opposition Bloc. Widely described as pro-Russian and oligarch-funded, the Bloc is running nationwide ahead or neck and neck with the president’s party in many polls. Failure to help its own citizens on the border thus could well have political cost for the Kyiv leadership and fuel conflict by strengthening anti-government feelings in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This briefing, based on travels along the Kyiv-controlled side of the line of separation in April-May 2016, focuses on the intermingling of civilians and military in front-line areas on the Ukrainian side. It also surveys the views and outlook of Ukrainian military officers stationed along the front line. The officers are younger and more confident than those encountered two years ago. But their opinions were bitingly critical of the country’s political and military leadership, including President Petro Poroshenko. The president and other top leaders would be well advised to pay more attention to the mood of what is in essence the next generation of Ukrainian military commanders. All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future – a policy move the international community should caution against in no uncertain terms. 

II. Home on the Front

A. Elusive Statistics

Government officials in Kyiv and in the east were unable to provide figures for the number of civilians still living in the many villages and settlements that are now part of the front line. Staff of the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas, the very theoretical government lead for work in the east, said they knew of no consolidated data. The Donetsk governor’s office, Donetsk police, internal affairs ministry and state statistical service, among others, were unable to provide up-to-date figures. 

Enquiries to local military or civil administrators in the combat zones yielded some estimates: 10,000 highly vulnerable in the Luhansk district of Popasna; 1,500 in the industrial town of Avdiivka, whose suburbs are part of the front line; a substantial portion of the population of Marinka, a small front-line town with a pre-war population of over 9,000; and 1,500 out of a village of 3,000 in a position close to Mariupol. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 estimates the civilian population in Ukrainian-controlled front-line areas at 200,000. Other specialised international organisations feel this may be an overstatement. Given a pre-war population of approximately 230,000 in these areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, it seems reasonable to assume that the most at-risk population – those living in government-controlled areas where front-line military units are based, and which are frequently subject to attacks – number around 100,000. 

Crisis Group was not able to conduct research on the separatist side of the front, as access to much of the separatist-controlled territory is becoming increasingly difficult. However, earlier visits to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics and reports from major international organisations leave no doubt that the intermingling of civilians and military is also prevalent there.

There is no distinction between military positions and civilian dwellings in many front-line settlements. Combat units are embedded in villages, usually scattered in houses beside civilian dwellings. In Marinka, a town just beyond the western edge of Donetsk city, many civilians still live in Matrosova Street, once a quiet area of pleasant small houses and large gardens. Military units now occupy abandoned houses, and the beginning of the front line is marked by a heavy machine gun position on the street corner. Separatist positions are 150 metres or less away. During firefights, which usually happen at night and are frequent, casualties are evacuated along Matrosova and parallel streets. An officer who coordinated casualty evacuations noted that he preferred to use small passenger cars rather than ambulances, as those drew heavy incoming fire that left civilians “pretty scared”.

In the hamlet of Zaitseve, military armour pokes out of the bushes, and visitors observed fresh craters from a 152mm howitzer and an 82mm mortar on the edge of a newly tilled vegetable plot. Local people said the shells had dropped short of a military position. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian military observation post is on high ground behind residents’ gardens. Just across the road, troops occupy houses, one of which had been seriously damaged in fighting a few weeks earlier. The front line is only 50 to 100 metres away. 

B. Those Who Stay

Those who remain in the front-line area usually have nowhere else to go or lack the means to leave. They are more likely women than men, are often pensioners and sometimes have to care for family members too infirm to leave. Moving requires considerably more financial outlay than pensioners can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in Kramatorsk, the temporary seat of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional administration, costs approximately 1,500 hryvnia ($60) per month, about three quarters of a monthly pension. Utilities would add substantially to this. With schools closed or on the other side of the line and mines everywhere, families have usually left or sent children to relatives. Schools and health facilities in Horlivka, some 15km from the front, used to service a significant part of the area, but the large industrial town is now on the separatist side of the front, a strategic part of the defences of Donetsk city and frequently subject to shelling and attacks. 

Few if any civilian males of military age have stayed – not surprisingly given military suspicions that locals are separatist sympathisers (see below). Often one person, usually a woman, has remained to ensure that the family home is not sequestered by the military or damaged. The military takeover of temporarily uninhabited homes and other buildings seems ad hoc and arbitrary. In many places, the houses have become billets for small units or fire positions. As a soldier explained, a house is more comfortable to live in than a trench. In some places, residents have protested, usually with little success. 

People living along the front line have drastically simplified their daily routine. Most sleep in cellars for all or part of the night, remaining close to their house and shelter through late morning. Firing usually tapers off around noon or early afternoon, before residents edge closer to shelters. Work prospects in the villages have largely disappeared. Those previously employed outside them are unable to travel, most local mines are closed, and farming has become dangerous.

The front line has cut through some of eastern Europe’s richest farmland and vegetable gardens, bringing agriculture to a halt in most places and making even subsistence farming dangerous. Large fields are mostly untilled, for fear of shelling or mines (see below). Any planting is usually limited to potatoes in vegetable patches close to the house – in some cases the small green space outside village houses where in quieter times the elderly would sit. Even these relatively sheltered areas are vulnerable. In Avdiivka, the coke-smelting town whose suburbs flow into the front line, a 75-year-old woman was killed by what locals say was an incoming shell while working on her potatoes. The police report attributed her death to “careless handling of ammunition”.

The military on both sides carries out hit-and-run raids from largely civilian areas. Several front-line residents in Avdiivka related how a small Ukrainian unit recently sped in, strafed its foes, then pulled back. These actions inevitably trigger retaliation, well after the soldiers have left. Donetsk residents described separatist mortar teams using the same tactics and provoking the same response. 

Given the volatility of the situation, few who have left show any sign of wanting to return permanently to the villages. Residents of Zaitseve reported a family briefly returning to plant potatoes, “in case there is peace later this year”. Villagers said that even occasional visits from relief agencies offer little hope. An international organisation explained to Avdiivka residents that it was too early to distribute roofing and other building materials, as they would only have to be replaced again in a few months.

Those able to leave are among the 1.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). About one million are registered as living in other parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, though it is quite possible that many have moved elsewhere or even returned home on the other side of the line. Most IDPs are said to live with relatives, friends or in rental accommodations in larger towns that offer more safety and work opportunities.

C. Military-civilian Relations

Civilians in the east agree that the Ukrainian military’s behaviour has improved substantially since the grim days of 2014, when its troops were a byword for indiscipline, drunkenness and sometimes violence. But there are lingering suspicions on both sides. Some civilians, echoing a line favoured by many separatist propagandists, discreetly remarked to visitors that if the troops were not living next door, their homes would not be under fire. 

The military has its own preconceptions regarding the locals. One holds that civilians have chosen to remain at the front because of separatist sympathies. Quite often, in Avdiivka for example, residents reported allegations by soldiers that local people helped DNR sabotage teams that slipped into the area at night. Another frequent comment offered by the military was that local people were getting what they had asked for in the May 2014 separatist-organised referendum on self-determination. Some senior officers were more direct: “50 per cent of my civilians are separatists”, claimed a battalion commander; in another area, an officer estimated hard-core sympathisers at about 10 per cent of the population. Soldiers said they could hear separatist radio stations from their civilian neighbours’ homes, which reinforced their suspicion. One of the few local officials on the ground remarked that, on the rare occasion he or his colleagues were able to achieve something for the local population, separatist media claimed credit, and the news quickly spread among locals. 

Separatist media are ubiquitous, because in the vast majority of settlements along the front line, towers carrying Ukrainian broadcasting were destroyed in the early days of the fighting and have not been replaced. The only choice for most civilians are local radio stations from nearby separatist-controlled towns. The governor of Donetsk acknowledged the problem but noted that repair of transmission equipment is the central authorities’ responsibility.

D. Mines

Visitors to a hamlet in Zaitseve are instructed on arrival to use only well-trodden paths between houses, never shortcuts. Mines – anti-personnel and anti-armour – have been laid all across the front line. Both sides recently added trip wire devices. Few have been mapped, so regular troop rotations mean that any institutional memory of the mines’ location has been lost. Inhabitants of the front-line villages often cite mines as the main reason for sending children to relatives. “The shelling is bad enough, but at least we see or hear the risk: with mines you had to keep children in prison”, a woman explained. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a resident said his five dogs had “gone”, probably killed by mines just beyond his back garden, which opens out on the front.

Demining specialists believe that clearing all mines once hostilities end will take a minimum of five years and up to twenty if sufficient funding is not available. Large-scale demining cannot begin, however, until the Ukrainian parliament passes legislation determining which government authority oversees the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance, and establishing national technical standards, including a framework for the accreditation and quality. Meanwhile, the number of mines and explosive remnants of war is increasing daily. Western diplomats say the legislation is so far moving slowly. 

E. Distress and Alcohol

The sheer terror of living in a war zone, the highly limited opportunity of moving even a few miles away, the lack of work, the separation of families and general social disruption have for two years subjected the remaining inhabitants of front-line areas to inordinate social pressure that has disproportionately devolved upon women. The state has done little or nothing to address these problems, and visits by international monitors and aid organisations are rare. Residents are mostly anxious and depressed: few conversations continue for more than a few minutes without an interlocutor showing signs of this.

Alcohol abuse has long been an engrained feature of village life in Russian and Russian-speaking areas, but usually among men. In villages along the front line, alcohol consumption by women is widespread. Church volunteers in Marinka, as well as members of other local groups working with villagers, expressed concern that constant military activity was leading to an increase in serious diseases. After particularly heavy attacks in mid-June, a pastor reported “pathologies” among the local children: “their hair starts falling out, their legs and arms shake, and some stop speaking”. None of the villagers recalled visits by psychiatric health professionals. A senior regional government official shrugged off the question when asked if such visits had been made. There is urgent need for a survey of the psychiatric health needs on the front line by a competent international body.

F. Where Are the Officials?

A number of local government officials recently joined a delegation of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Human Rights Committee on a visit to Marinka. The committee chair, Hrihoriy Nemyria, recalled that local people were surprised they were from the district administration. No one recognised them: local officials left with the onset of war and have been handling administrative affairs from the small resort town of Kurakhove, a good distance from the front. Zaitseve residents said they did not recall any visits by officials. A military commander in Dokuchayevsk mentioned that civilian administrators initially joined him on front visits. They would note requests, leave and not follow up. “People here are abandoned” by the local government, he said. “There is no sense of interest in their problems, and the quality of civilian officials is very low”. The result is that people on the front line are left to fend for themselves.

G. Holes in the Line

There are six official vehicle-crossing points between Ukrainian and separatist-controlled territories, while mostly local people use a hastily-repaired bridge in Stanitsia-Luhanska, the single official pedestrian crossing. Over 700,000 passed through the official checkpoints in May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They tend not to live along the front line, are usually relatively affluent, own vehicles, can pay for fuel and food and have a certain sophistication in dealing with the sometimes intimidating military or security personnel. Even so, the crossing is challenging. Waits of ten hours or more – often overnight – are common. Crossing points are usually close to military installations, increasing the danger of shelling or mines. Many who live on the front line, on the other hand, have neither the money nor experience required to deal with men in uniform. Some complain that they are asked at Ukrainian checkpoints for proof they are registered as displaced, which they are not.

On rare occasions, local officials on both sides have unofficially created crossing points. These purely local initiatives, distinct from the officially stipulated crossing areas, allow front-line residents to visit nearby settlements on the other side to buy food – considerably cheaper on the Ukrainian side – visit relatives and, when possible, collect pensions. They must show proof of registration in a settlement close to the border: despite the current armed conflict, all Ukrainian citizens remain required to register in their place of permanent residence. Two such informal points were known to exist as of early 2016. One, in Popasna, remains functional while another, near Marinka, has reportedly closed. 

There are other ways to get across, but not for simple residents. Ukrainian soldiers know the village of Verkhnetoretskoye as a smugglers’ crossing. Some contraband is for local consumption, but much is part of the major smuggling operation – of coal, scrap, weapons and probably drugs – that is enriching officials on both sides of the line. A prominent blogger and volunteer supporter of the armed forces, Yuriy Kasyanov, described watching a goods train passing through the village and into the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk oblast. Fighters from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector prepared to attack the smugglers’ train, but were stopped, Kasyanov said, by Ukrainian soldiers.

There has also been at least one instance of soldiers on both sides cooperating to improve conditions on their part of the front. Ukrainian troops said that sometime in May 2016, they contacted the troops facing them; one of their number crossed to the opposing front line and over a bottle of vodka suggested they might shoot at them less often. The separatists explained that military service was one of the few ways to earn money in the entities – a frequently heard complaint in the DNR. They reportedly agreed, however, that on those days when they were on duty they would fire away from their targets. They added that they could not answer for the Russian troops on duty the other days. 

III. The Military

Around 90,000 troops face each other across the 500km-long line of separation. The Ukrainian government says it has 69,000 troops in its Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone, not all of whom are based directly on the front line. Kyiv and its allies usually estimate the separatist military strength at 35,000, though this is probably high. In addition, Ukrainian officials say, more than 8,000 Russian troops remain inside the separatist entities, with a much larger force permanently stationed just the other side of the border, ready to intervene. Moscow denies any such plans, just as it does having ever intervened militarily in Ukraine over the past two years. Separatist officials say the permanent Russian military presence is considerably less than Ukraine claims, but they stress that Russian troops on the border could deploy throughout the entities in hours if needed. 

A. Officer Politics – Criticism of the President, 
Support for Sealing-off the Separatists

Most observers agree that the Ukrainian military is very different from the poorly led, often demoralised force sent into action two years ago. Many battalion commanders and their deputies are in their early thirties. A lieutenant colonel who hopes to leave soon for staff college said most of his peers in neighbouring front-line positions were between 29 and 32. At 34, he is feeling old, he joked. In private, the officers are deeply critical of their country’s military and political leadership. One started his analysis by describing the deadlock in the conflict as beneficial to both Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “The Russians can maintain pressure on us, and our president has an excuse for not carrying out reforms”. 

All expressed belief that the Minsk process is “dead”. This line has been increasingly echoed by Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and many Russian commentators. As a result, the officers said, the crisis could only be solved by military means. None, however, felt this would happen soon. There is wide agreement among analysts and the military that while the front-line advantage has shifted moderately in favour of Ukraine (see below), the key factor remains Russia’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the separatists. As long as this holds, the officers felt, Ukraine would not attack to regain control of the entities. 

The idea to seal off the separatist entities from the rest of Ukraine, cutting political and economic ties and excluding their population from elections, has been floated since January 2016 by political leaders in Kyiv – including such prominent figures as the secretary of national security and defence, Aleksandr Turchynov, and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy. It has gained some support, but also considerable criticism. 

Officers interviewed along the line of separation were unanimous in their support for the idea. “People in the separatist areas are totally brainwashed. They still live in the Soviet Union”, one said. “Maybe, just maybe, they will one day come to their senses, and they will return to us, but until then we should close them off”. Another officer, who hails himself from a separatist-occupied area, was equally blunt: “Let the people who want to be Russian go to Russia; we will help them leave. In the meantime, the separatist districts should be fenced off, and Russia left to support them”. 

Proponents of sealing the border see a number of advantages, both political and economic. The Minsk agreement obliges Ukraine to pay for the restoration and rehabilitation of the entities, an endeavour that would cost billions of dollars. Sealing the enclaves off would in their view shift the whole financial burden onto Russia, which for months has already been paying salaries and pensions. This would intensify economic pressure on Moscow at a time when it is hard pressed by international sanctions and declining revenues. The assumption behind this line of thought, however, is questionable – Moscow has not formalised ties with the entities, and while it has provided social support, it has not indicated it would provide reconstruction or rehabilitation funding.

Ukraine is preparing for a difficult transition – with any luck – to a modern Westernised state, and the entities allow Russia to maintain military pressure that forces it to divert major budgetary resources from economic development to defence. Elections during the transition period are likely to be tense and volatile. Removing the entities from the voting process for several years would neutralise the votes of a million or more Ukrainians who, many politicians and analysts believe, would be little inclined to support the country’s present leadership. 

Proponents of the idea, who say they briefed senior Western ambassadors early this year, maintain that Poroshenko privately is sympathetic to the idea but cannot be seen as in essence amputating part of the country. Opponents fear sealing off the separatist enclaves would accelerate their slide into organised crime and contraband. Moves to close off the separatist entities from the rest of the country would concern several of the country’s most influential oligarchs, who have extensive holdings in the separatist areas. Many made their fortunes during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and most – Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Lyovochkin and others – are heavily invested in the area’s oil, steel and natural gas. Further limited access would be financially deeply painful to these businessmen. Ukraine’s Western allies should stress to all in Kyiv that isolation would be a risky policy choice that could exacerbate the conflict, create new tensions and deepen the sense of many inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas that Kyiv has abandoned them. 

B. Combat, Casualties

A. Ukrainian strategy: erode and probe

Front-line commanders are more confident than in the past that their troops could make serious inroads into separatist territory, or even destroy the entities, but the main factor stopping such an attempt is the threat of another major Russian invasion. Front-line Ukrainian forces consequently seem to be probing separatist territory in order to gradually erode military manpower. Local commanders noted that separatists are not only less well-trained than Ukrainians, but that it is much harder for them to replace lost equipment or personnel – the latter because of their very small recruitment pool. Many analysts sympathetic to the separatists agreed. 

Ukrainian troops have edged forward along most of the line into the so-called grey zone – a thin stretch of land between the fronts which both sides had until recently refrained from entering. By occupying this zone, Ukrainian troops have strengthened their positions along the border modestly, by inhibiting vehicular traffic on the other side, or gaining better forward observation positions. Asked whether this was a new strategy, officers sidestepped the question. 

In some cases, the troops are going further. In an area along the Mariupol sector, a battalion commander said his men had moved 1.5km into separatist-controlled territory. Similar movements have been reported elsewhere. Around Debaltseve, the site of a major Ukrainian defeat in February 2015, a military volunteer from one of the many groups that raise money to equip troops reported that a unit of the 54th Mechanised Brigade had advanced 1.5km and dug in. This could be, as an officer suggested, pure opportunism; it might also be that some units are trying to gauge Russian patience with such incursions. Officers routinely refused to comment on operational matters, but a senior government security adviser and avowed hawk in the confrontation with Russia described the penetrations as efforts by some commanders to maintain morale, combat preparedness and discipline. The static, often trench warfare saps morale, the adviser suggested, and when this happens, “the Ukrainian army drinks”.

B. A ceasefire ignored

Both sides complain that they are under instructions not to violate the ceasefire. Ukrainian troops said they are told to observe and report violations and only respond if their lives are threatened. “That is an instruction that only a staff officer could think up”, a Ukrainian senior lieutenant complained. “Everything we fire is life-threatening, for f***’s sake”. Separatists have complained for months that their Russian military handlers (kurators) have strictly enforced the ceasefire. In fact, both sides have violated the ceasefire daily for several months, most commonly with light weapons, but also with artillery rocket batteries and armour that should have been withdrawn many months ago. 

Ukrainian front-line officers all described Russia’s current military posture in the same terms. Its troops have pulled back from the front line: any remaining Russians are usually commanders of the separatist units or small groups of special forces. The Ukrainians portrayed many of their adversaries as poorly trained locals, with little inclination to fight and drawn more by the pay. Monthly salaries for separatist troops reportedly range from 15,000 roubles ($230) for a private to 46,500 roubles ($715) for a colonel. Some Ukrainian officers, however, singled out several separatist units for grudging approbation: the “Viking” battalion, named for its founder’s radio call-sign, and Vostok, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting around Avdiivka.

C. Hiding the casualties

Both armed forces play down the intensity of fighting and often under-report casualties. Ukrainian troops on a section of the front line which has not figured extensively in official combat reports stated that they have been involved in almost 60 engagements since deployment in late 2015. Another officer in the same unit said his troops have taken “heavy” loses but that the figure has been classified – “the General Staff does not want to be embarrassed”. Civilian volunteers who help resupply Ukrainian troops have at times denounced the official military spokesman for disinformation or covering up the real situation. In March 2016, a volunteer juxtaposed on his social media site a photograph of the burial of elite Ukrainian troops with a military spokesman’s announcement that there were no casualties that day. 

The same thing happens on the separatist side. The commander of DNR’s Viking battalion resigned in December 2015 along with a number of staff officers in protest at a high command decision to reclassify military casualties as victims of civilian accidents. Supporters of the separatist militia, usually Russian nationalist groups, have on occasion leaked much higher death tolls than officially admitted. For instance, a supportive website revealed that in late March and early April 2016, separatists had lost at least 90 fighters along a small stretch of the front line around Avdiivka. More recently, a well-informed Russian nationalist blogger quoted a DNR officer saying that a regiment heavily involved in late May fighting “no longer had” two companies.

D. A message from Moscow?

Separatist civilian and military officials have admitted privately for some time that the Russian military exercises complete control over militias. Russian officers command units, handle operational planning and oversee the military. Given regular separatist complaints that they are not allowed to respond to Ukrainian fire without the permission of their Russian minders, analysts on both sides have posited that sudden spikes of violence along the line are explicit reminders from Moscow that war could quickly escalate if deemed necessary. “I think we sometimes dial up or down the pressure as needed”, a veteran Russian analyst remarked. A recent burst of costly attacks on Ukrainian positions in late May followed signals of Moscow’s frustration with the Minsk process. Shortly before the escalation, a Kyiv politician with close links to Moscow expressed concern the situation could turn ugly.

C. Unpaid Bonuses, Understrength Front-line Positions

Ukrainian military confidence and morale may be higher in 2016, but many problems remain. Most are connected to what front-line troops see as incompetence at best, venality at worst among the country’s top military and political leadership.

Mid-level officers, in particular the deputy commanders responsible for troop morale and related matters (zampolit) in several places raised the same problems. They said troops rarely received the 1,000 hryvnia (approximately $40) bonus they were promised for every time they were engaged in combat. Other promised bonuses – for destruction of enemy heavy weapons or armour, for example – have also not materialised. Instead, troops have been warned they must reimburse the defence ministry for damaged uniforms and equipment on demobilisation. 

Delays in demobilisation are another source of resentment. Troops said they had to stay on the front line for weeks – in one case several months – after their eighteen-month rotation had officially ended. An officer in an affected unit remarked that such delays had drastically reduced the number of conscripts willing to remain in the army under contract at the end of their service. “Six months ago, half my company were ready to sign contracts and stay in the army”, he said. Now the number planning to stay is “in single figures”. Shortages of equipment are another regular complaint. Many units still depend to some degree on volunteer groups who raise funds, providing them with anything from electrical cable to night vision gear, binoculars and food. 

Troops seem most concerned, however, about the clumsy and chaotic process of bringing front-line units back up to strength when a cohort of conscripts has ended its service and left for home. This often leaves front-line positions dangerously understrength and lacking in combat experience for weeks. “Our ‘specialists’ have had two years to get this right”, an officer said, “and it is still a cock-up”. 

These delays can have lethal consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Zhuk, 32-year old commander of the 3rd battalion of the 72nd independent mechanised brigade (72OMBr ) stationed in the area of Dokuchayevsk, was killed on 28 May in a brief clash. An investigative journalist who specialises in military affairs interviewed his fellow officers immediately after. The officer had spent much of the past eighteen months on the front line, and his battalion was desperately short of armour and troops: most of his men had been demobilised in April and he was reportedly left with 100, 20 per cent of a full-strength battalion, to control a 15km stretch of the line. Given the lack of experience of his remaining men, the journalist wrote, he took it upon himself to investigate reports of unidentified armed men and was killed. An informal 72nd brigade Facebook page posted photographs of Zhuk’s funeral. Just under that posting was a message urging any would-be volunteers to make their way directly to brigade positions on the front line, bypassing recruitment centres.

D. A Non-functioning Pullback

The persistent and regular violation by both sides of a key part of the Minsk agreements – withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the front line – has further deepened military insecurity and tension. Their ample inventories of heavy weaponry seem to rotate almost permanently from storage areas to front-line positions and back. Most OSCE daily monitoring reports note the absence of tanks, rocket systems and artillery from storage areas and, more occasionally, their return. Weapons covered by the agreement have been extensively used in recent fighting, most often tanks and artillery. Others are relocated to major population centres, usually Luhansk and Donetsk cities. On 5 June, a relatively typical day, monitors checking Ukrainian government sites and positions inventoried a number of forbidden systems, including two surface-to-air SA-8 missile systems, six 152mm towed howitzers, and three 100mm anti-tank guns. They also noted 33 howitzers missing from two storage sites. The next day, monitors recorded Grad missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems in the LNR and DNR areas.

OSCE monitors complain regularly that their teams are harassed and on occasion refused access to areas. They also report that their drones have been shot down and monitoring equipment shut down. They continue to do a thorough job under very difficult circumstances. However, their reports have no tangible consequences for the violator. Until Europe and Washington on one side and Russia on the other are willing to force their allies to observe the pullback – by withholding military or other aid, for example – the situation will remain highly volatile.

IV. Conclusion

A temporary fix on eastern Ukraine’s front line has become, by oversight or neglect, a semi-permanent “solution”, like so much in the Ukrainian crisis today. In the absence of a genuine settlement, most parties would probably welcome a frozen conflict, even though they are unwilling to say so publicly. But the situation on the ground is too unstable to guarantee even this. There are too many troops far too close to each other. A crucial agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry from the battlefield is violated daily by both sides. The needs of many thousands of civilians stuck along the line and the many grievances of troops who are fighting there have been ignored.

A number of issues need to be addressed immediately. A substantial distance – much more than the 100 or so metres currently common – should separate the sides. Military positions and civilian settlements should be clearly distinguished. These are not just requirements for Kyiv. The separatists should take the same steps. The DNR and LNR have shown neither capacity nor interest in doing so. Kyiv should do better. 

By failing to address these issues, Ukraine’s leadership is storing up political problems for the future. Civilians’ feeling on both sides of the line that the government has abandoned them plays into the hands of Opposition Bloc, President Poroshenko’s major political rival in the east and an important actor in Ukraine’s parliament (Rada), where it is often decisive in key votes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Ukrainians living under separatist control regularly complain of being abandoned by Kyiv. When eventually Kyiv is able to restore full control over the east, there is a serious risk that the several million residents in the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will have become a strong anti-centre political force. The needs of another important constituency also must be considered. Incompetence, neglect and corruption in the military high command, both military and civilian, may well turn a large pool of angry, militant and articulate critics of Poroshenko – active duty and demobilised troops – into a force that could prove even more of a threat to Kyiv.

This does not detract from Russia’s responsibility for the situation. Moscow denies, against all evidence, that it is a major actor – and the main initiator – of the present crisis. It should pressure its separatist allies to support serious efforts to defuse the situation. And while many western analysts and diplomats seem increasingly to view a frozen conflict in the east as the least bad option, even this will be impossible without firm action to increase the distance between opposing front lines and address humanitarian problems. 

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 July 2016

A Ukrainian displaced woman tidies up her belongings on a boxing ring in the gymnasium of Lviv Technical University, which currently serves as a shelter for IDPs. In Lviv, western Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena
Briefing 94 / Europe & Central Asia

Responding to Ukraine’s Displacement Crisis: From Speed to Sustainability

Some seven million people are displaced inside Ukraine, many of them with no home to return to. The grassroots effort organised to help them is not sustainable. Donors should keep channelling aid to civil society but lay the groundwork for the state to step in.

What’s new? Tens of millions of Ukrainians have fled fighting since Russia invaded in February, in Europe’s largest movement of people since World War II. As the war rages on, local volunteer networks, aid organisations and the Ukrainian state are stretched thin trying to respond to the mounting humanitarian crisis.

Why does it matter? Though Ukraine’s recent military advances might enable some of the displaced to go home, millions have nowhere to return to. Helping them is a serious challenge for Ukraine and its backers – one growing more urgent as people struggle to overcome trauma, get jobs and find shelter ahead of winter.

What should be done? Speeding up the delivery of financial support to ease the humanitarian toll is vital to Ukraine’s survival. A long view and a finely calibrated division of labour among the state, local civil society and international organisations will be critical for what will be a decades-long effort to assist the displaced.

I. Overview

Russia’s war in Ukraine has forcibly displaced people on a scale unprecedented in Europe since World War II. In addition to the millions of refugees who have left the country, some seven million people have fled combat zones for safer areas inside Ukraine. A sprawling grassroots network has organised to help them. Local governments and civil society groups, using donated money and goods, have worked to provide housing, food and medicine to those in need. The response’s ad hoc nature made it fast and flexible. But it is not sustainable. Nor is it easy to scale up for the long-term displacement crisis the country faces, for one thing because it poses challenges in ensuring accountability for flows of supplies. Donors and the international organisations they fund will need to make new arrangements that, while continuing to give civil society a prominent role, shift the burden onto the broader shoulders of the government.

With millions of Ukrainians living in cramped apartments, dormitories and gymnasiums, out of work and unable to return to homes destroyed or now in Russian-occupied territory, the scale of need is staggering. How displaced people will weather the winter to come, amid rising prices and fuel shortages, is already worrying humanitarian workers. International agencies face huge challenges in getting aid to those most in need at a time when the global humanitarian system is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and food and energy price volatility, not to mention several other major wars, and when the collapse of Russian-Western relations looks set to deepen dismal trends in multilateral crisis management, complicating diplomacy aimed at helping the displaced and those living near the front lines as well as in Russian-occupied areas.

In these circumstances, it is all the more important that the humanitarian response take a long-term approach, even while responding quickly to the emergency. Donors and international agencies should channel their assistance so that local civil society takes the lead now, but start laying the groundwork for government services to step in. Ukrainian authorities, civil society groups and foreign supporters should work together on more transparent rules for the incoming aid to clear up concerns about whether assistance is going to the people who need it most. A swifter, steadier flow of funds to the displaced would free recipients from dependence on charity and could eventually be a model for reconstruction when the war ends.

Displaced people staying at Lviv Technical University shelter line up to receive food provided by an NGO in Lviv, western Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

II. Who is on the Move?

One third of Ukraine’s pre-invasion population of 41 million had to leave home during the first six months after Russia’s large-scale attack on 24 February. Some 7.3 million people fled the country, the biggest share of whom travelled through or stayed in Poland.[1] Ukraine introduced martial law on the day of the invasion, prohibiting most men between the ages of eighteen and 60 from departing.[2] As a consequence, more than 90 per cent of those who arrived in neighbouring countries were women and children.[3] Among the internally displaced people (IDPs) as well, the majority, about two thirds, are women, as men face greater obstacles in travelling or seeking accommodation. Many men have also enlisted or stayed behind to guard property or hold on to jobs. More than half – 53 per cent – of IDP families have children, making child care and schooling a major concern.[4]

[1]Operational Data Portal: Ukraine Refugee Situation”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

[2]The Border Guard on Restrictions in Cross-border Travel for Specific Categories of Citizens”, Border Guard of Ukraine, 24 February 2022 (Ukrainian).

[3] “Ukraine Situation Flash Update”, UNHCR, 28 April 2022.

[4] “Ukraine Internal Displacement Report, Round 6”, International Organization for Migration (IOM), 23 June 2022.

Ukranian Refugees and the Coming Winter CRISIS GROUP

 

The needs of the displaced vary. The best off were often the first to depart. People fleeing by car and train in the invasion’s early days mostly left with neatly sorted documents, money and a place to stay – allowing them to reach safety without much assistance.[1] Many did not require state benefits and may not even have registered as IDPs.[2] Because of the stringent limitations on men exiting Ukraine, many families who intended to leave the country lingered in increasingly crowded western towns to postpone having to split up.[3] The later, larger waves of IDPs have had it worse. Those arriving with few resources need food and health services, as well as shelter for the time it takes them to find affordable accommodations.

Displaced people are often living in precarious circumstances. Worst off are a small and vulnerable group – some 3 per cent of the displaced – who live in collective shelters.[4] Crisis Group has visited shelters in a stadium, a university gym, a disused dormitory, a church compound and a small-town kindergarten, none of which are equipped for long-term living. Even the more durable accommodations, under hasty renovation to improve makeshift conditions, will in many cases offer little privacy or comfort. In a former dormitory in a small town in western Ukraine, where builders are refurbishing the 1980s interior with donated tiles and household appliances, sixteen residents will eventually share one kitchen.[5] Even the almost half of the internally displaced who live in rented accommodations face challenges. For example, a lawyer from Mariupol, his wife and their two teenage children who fled to Dnipro now live on the city’s edge in a one-room flat, the rent for which is quickly running down their savings, with their future uncertain.[6] About one third of IDPs continue to stay with friends or family members.[7]

[1] Crisis Group telephone interview, faith-based charity director, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 15 April 2022.

[2] Crisis Group interview, Ivano-Frankivsk regional official, 22 June 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Lviv region’s Economic Policy Department, 25 March 2022. The Department of Social Protection head in a large western Ukrainian city made the same point. Crisis Group telephone interview, 26 March 2022.

[4] “Ukraine Internal Displacement Report, Round 7”, IOM, 23 July 2022.

[5] Crisis Group interview, head of local charity, Lviv region, 24 June 2022.

[6] In the spring, the flat also served as a classroom for his children, as they, like most pupils across Ukraine, attended school remotely. Crisis Group telephone interview, internally displaced man from Mariupol, 13 April 2022.

[7] “Ukraine Internal Displacement Report, Round 7”, op. cit.

A gymnasium in Lviv Technical University now serves as a shelter for displaced people in Lviv, western Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Crowding in the collective shelters, family separation and the shortage of safe accommodations raise the risk of gender-based violence for those on the move inside as well as outside Ukraine. Women and girls desperately looking for shelter or an income are easy targets for those seeking to exploit them sexually or economically. In the war’s first months, hotlines set up to help those in danger received several testimonies of displaced women being offered housing in exchange for sex.[1] The hotline reports have fallen off since then, and gender-based violence has faded from public perception, not because it does not happen anymore but because social services, the police and NGOs are all preoccupied with other means of helping the displaced, as well as the war effort. Few resources remain for dealing with this problem.[2]

For those people who did not flee early on, it quickly got more difficult and dangerous to leave areas of active fighting. Within days of the invasion, Russian troops closed in on major cities in the north and south, and both armies erected checkpoints. Roads became unsafe, and petrol was rationed at 20l per car, meaning that most people fleeing to western Ukraine had to rely on evacuation trains. Women, children and the elderly were given priority when boarding trains, forcing family separation in some cases. “The most awful train was from Kharkiv”, said a refugee woman who volunteered receiving IDPs at the Khmelnitsky station in western Ukraine, where in March some 30 to 40 evacuation trains were pulling in daily. “They had a very long journey, and when the doors of the cars opened, some people just fell down onto the platform”.[3]

Many people who had not previously thought to leave wound up fleeing after Russian forces shelled their cities and they faced food, water and power shortages cowering in bomb shelters. “When I understood that I had to run, I did not have many choices”, a woman from a village near Kyiv said. “I just had to take the only bus there was”.[4] Some refugees had to ditch what little luggage they had to fit into overcrowded cars and pass more quickly through numerous checkpoints on what was often a multi-day trip to safety, interrupted by shelling and nightly curfews.

Many people who fled areas already under Russian control had even more harrowing journeys, forced to wait for the belligerents to agree to open humanitarian corridors or to find rare means of transport. Evidence indicates that Russian soldiers fired at civilian cars, sometimes killing or injuring those trying to get out.[5] People who fled great danger and others that experienced trauma need psychosocial support as well as medical attention, sometimes including sexual and reproductive health services.[6] A large number of IDPs also need assistance to restore identity documents required for further travel or enrolment in long-term assistance programs but often forgotten, destroyed or lost as they escaped.[7]


[1] Crisis Group telephone interview, UN cluster coordinator, 8 April 2022.

[2] Khrystyna Semeryn, “Russian invasion overshadows domestic violence in Ukraine”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 11 July 2022.

[3] Crisis Group interview, woman refugee from Kyiv, Warsaw, 5 April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group telephone interview, woman displaced from Kyiv region, 12 April 2022.

[5] “Russian troops have left Zhytomyr highway littered with shot-up cars and dead bodies of people who tried to escape the war”, TSN, 1 April 2022.

[6] For the period 24 February to 15 May 2022, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine received numerous allegations of conflict-related sexual violence. It was able to verify 23 such cases, including cases of rape, gang rape, torture, forced public stripping and threats of sexual violence. The majority of offences were committed in areas controlled by the Russian armed forces, but there were also cases in government-controlled areas. For reasons related to access and fear of stigmatisation and/or retaliation, the actual prevalence of such violence may be much higher than what has been confirmed. “New report by UN Human Rights shows the shocking toll of the war in Ukraine”, press release, UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, 29 June 2022.

[7] “Rapid needs assessment of IDP-hosting areas, South and East oblasts, Ukraine”, Reliefweb, April 2022.

The numbers of uprooted people have fluctuated along with military developments.

The numbers of uprooted people have fluctuated along with military developments. After the Russian attack on Kyiv and northern Ukraine faltered at the end of March, and the Kremlin moved its forces to the east, the capital and its environs saw more refugees returning than leaving. Despite the remaining risks, some 5.7 million people crossed back into Ukraine, including some who returned only briefly. An estimated 7.3 million Ukrainians who have left the country since February remain outside, however.[1] Almost the same number of displaced people, some 7 million, are in Ukraine itself. That number is down from 8 million in early May, also due to returns, though in recent weeks it has started to grow again.[2] Kyiv’s swift September counteroffensive in the north-eastern Kharkiv region has brought more than 380 towns and villages back under Ukrainian control, and displaced people may soon feel it is safe to return to this area.[3] Meanwhile, a new group of refugees, people who fear the returning Ukrainians could see them as collaborators, have fled across the Russian border in the thousands.[4]

The IDPs who have started going home since the spring do so because it feels safer, because they want to reunite with their families or because they can no longer afford to live elsewhere.[5] Some IDPs hold jobs that they can continue doing remotely. Some can live off their savings, but many rely on a combination of small government benefits, support from locals and humanitarian aid provided by Ukrainian and international organisations.

Nonetheless, the scale of displacement remains massive. In many central and western Ukrainian locales, IDPs make up a substantial proportion of the residents. In July, the governor of Lviv estimated that the region was hosting 400,000 IDPs, 16 per cent of its peacetime population.[6] The flow of returnees thinned in June, but in July and August the number of IDPs once again rose, as more people left their homes due to incessant fighting along the front.[7]


[2] “Ukraine Internal Displacement Report, Round 7”, op. cit.

[3] Facebook post by Deputy Minister of Defence Hanna Malyar, 14 September 2022 (Ukrainian).

[4] Valerie Hopkins “War may be distant in Moscow, but in one Russian border city, it’s real”, The New York Times, 14 September 2022.

[5] “Ukraine, Return Movement Dynamics of IDPs and Refugees”, ACAPS, 7 July 2022.

[6]In 24 hours, Lviv region has accommodated 200 IDPs”, Press Service of the Regional Administration, 1 July 2022 (Ukrainian).

Two children play at a shelter for displaced people in Lviv, western Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

III. The Humanitarian Response

A. War Strains Existing Capacities

Ukraine had some capacity to cope with the war’s displacement because it has handled mass flight before. Some 1.4 million people had to flee in the period 2014-2021, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and amid the fighting between government troops and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.[1] That experience – albeit a far smaller-scale crisis – had critical lessons to offer as to how civil society, international organisations and the state could work together most effectively. The government condensed these lessons in an internal displacement strategy adopted several weeks before Russia’s February 2022 offensive – in late 2021 – that puts strong emphasis on rights-based social protection and integration flowing from IDPs’ self-organisation.[2]

The 2014-2021 displacement also meant that much of the groundwork for this year’s response was already in place. One important piece is a law defining IDP rights passed in 2015 as well as a central IDP register created in 2016.[3] The law specifies that registered IDPs have the right to pensions, medical care, social security and education, as well as help with finding jobs, locating free or subsidised housing, retrieving lost identity documents, reunifying their families and returning home. International actors, many of which were new to Ukraine or had scaled up from a much smaller base and were used to working in places where the state is weaker, did not fully realise at first what was already on hand. A Ukrainian official in Lviv said a UN agency setting up a cash program was unaware of the state IDP register and needed convincing not to establish a parallel structure.[4]

Nevertheless, there were problems during the earlier wave of displacement that are now present in aggravated form. Access to aid has always been difficult for IDPs in non-government-controlled areas, where humanitarian operations are hampered by arbitrary, frequently changing and unevenly enforced regulations passed by the de facto authorities.[5] Delays in compensation for destroyed or lost property prompted many displaced people in areas under Kyiv’s control to sue the government, clogging the courts.[6] When the full-scale invasion started, programs attempting to tackle these issues for those displaced by the 2014 war in Donbas had only just begun to shift away from emergency response. “Seven years after the fighting in the east, we were still rebuilding there when the war broke out”, a senior UN aid worker said. “The suffering is so much greater now, and it will keep growing over time”.[7]


[1] “Registration of Internal Displacement”, UNHCR, March 2021.

[4] Crisis Group interview, senior National Social Service Agency official in Lviv region, 21 June 2022.

[5] “Humanitarian Needs Overview Ukraine 2021”, UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), February 2021, p. 51.

[6] “Protecting the Rights of Ukraine’s Internally Displaced People”, Norwegian Refugee Council, September 2017, p. 3.

[7] Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, Kyiv, 24 June 2022.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis so greatly outstripped what limited planning organisations had in place before Russia’s invasion that it slowed the response.

The scale of the humanitarian crisis so greatly outstripped what limited planning organisations had in place before Russia’s invasion that it slowed the response. A project manager described the invasion as “Scenario D”, one which “was never supposed to happen”.[1] Even well-heeled humanitarian agencies struggled to mobilise funding to stock warehouses, get vehicle fleets ready or deploy extra staff in anticipation of major combat.[2] The most experienced employees were based in Kyiv and Donbas. When Russian forces moved on several fronts at once, they all had to scramble to evacuate. The result was teams dispersed across the country redesigning existing projects and applying for fresh funding at the same time.[3] Another big concern was the drafting of humanitarian staff, especially to work in the east and south of the country near the front lines. In many cases, specialists were redeployed from other countries, like Lebanon or Syria.[4] “The problems with staffing are terrible”, a senior humanitarian worker said.[5]

Ukraine’s state institutions, especially in smaller towns, also struggled in the face of the unexpectedly great emergency. The national electronic IDP database became available for new entries only in mid-March and was slowed by bugs in the program, forcing staff to work overtime.[6] In Lutsk, western Ukraine, the municipality issued its own IDP certificates to allow displaced people quicker access to aid. In Drohobych, a mid-sized town in Lviv region, local authorities created a preliminary register as a stopgap solution.[7] In a town in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, the nursing home, hospital and kindergartens opened their doors to accommodate IDPs, like other social and health-care institutions across the region. The nursing home, already full to capacity, received nearly the same number of displaced people on top of the patients in its care.[8]

As the war grinds on, Ukraine’s deteriorating economic situation is limiting its ability to meet the IDPs’ needs. The World Bank projected that Ukraine’s economy would shrink by as much as 45 per cent in 2022, with perhaps 70 per cent of the population slipping below the poverty line.[9] The war has cost Ukraine at least 5 million jobs.[10] Tax revenue has plummeted, covering only 20 per cent of what the government spent in June, while the cost of maintaining the military is some $4.3 billion per month – nearly as much as the entire 2021 defence budget.[11] Under martial law, cash and spending power are concentrated in the central government, leaving local authorities with dwindling budgets, more dependent on Kyiv or on private donations. “Perhaps 80 per cent of the food supplies that we provide to our IDPs have been given to us by our twinned towns abroad”, the deputy mayor of a Lviv region town said. “The other 20 per cent were donated by local citizens and local businesses”.[12] But this well, too, is drying up. As an official in the Ivano-Frankivsk region said: “Private funds can’t just keep flowing permanently”.[13]

Many civil servants have themselves fled, leaving state institutions responsible for helping people in crisis even more strapped.[14] “The civil service is under tremendous stress”, a veteran aid worker based in Kyiv said. “There is a big question over the capacity of the government to absorb aid”.[15] A 2019 law makes it easier for local authorities to contract with registered NGOs to provide services such as child care in creches, elder care in nursing homes or transport for people with disabilities.[16] Some have done so. But collaboration with civil society is limited, as local authorities often do not wish to share scarce resources or give up what was until recently their monopoly on providing social services.[17] Many officials still distrust NGOs, which in the past have taken them to task over issues such as corruption and funding shortages.


[1] Crisis Group telephone interview, international NGO project manager in Lviv region, 19 April 2022. Other interlocutors raised similar points. Crisis Group interviews, international NGO coordinator, Warsaw, 30 March 2022; UN cluster coordinator, by telephone, 8 April 2022.

[2] Crisis Group telephone interview, World Food Programme officer, 31 March 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, international NGO project manager in Lviv region, 19 April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group telephone interview, World Food Programme officer, 31 March 2022.

[5] Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, Lviv, 21 June 2022.

[6] Crisis Group interview, civil servant in Volyn region, March 2022.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, Lutsk municipal worker, March 2022; Drohobych social services worker, June 2022.

[8] Crisis Group interview, deputy mayor of midsize town in Ivano-Frankivsk region, 22 June 2022. Similar issues cropped up at hospitals throughout the region. Crisis Group interview, regional Red Cross director in western Ukraine, 22 June 2022.

[9] “War in the Region – Europe and Central Asia Economic Update Spring 2022”, The World Bank Group, 10 April 2022, pp. 99-100.

[10]Nearly 5 million jobs have been lost in Ukraine since the start of the Russian aggression, says ILO”, press release, International Labour Organization, 11 May 2022.

[12] Crisis Group telephone interview, 13 April 2022. Some 93 municipalities sought funds from businesses to cover their social expenses, according to a study by the ministry of social policy and the World Bank, while more than 10 per cent received grants from Ukrainian or international organisations for social projects. “Social Support Expenses Make Up between 3 and 13 Per Cent of Local Budgets”, Ministry of Social Policy, 7 July 2022 (Ukrainian).

[13] Crisis Group interview, official in Ivano-Frankivsk regional administration, 22 June 2022.

[14] Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian parliamentarian, Kyiv, 25 June 2022.

[15] Crisis Group interview, veteran humanitarian worker, Kyiv, 25 June 2022.

[16]Law on Social Services”, Verkhovna Rada, 17 January 2019 (Ukrainian).

[17] The Functioning of Social Services in Ukraine: A Short Description”, Solidarity Fund PL/Polska Pomoc, 2019, p. 14 (Ukrainian).

B. Enter the Volunteers

With the existing relief infrastructure overwhelmed at the invasion’s outset, Ukrainian volunteer organisations of all stripes dropped everything to provide food, shelter and medical aid. “We had never before worked on humanitarian issues”, said the director of a human rights organisation in Kyiv, “but when the big organisations evacuated their staff, we were completely abandoned”.[1] Volunteers were often the first responders, and have kept working along several front lines, where safety rules have slowed international organisations.[2] They were able to act quickly with few bureaucratic hurdles, jumping in to buy washing machines, bedrolls, personal hygiene products and whatever else the IDPs needed. Volunteers thus often outpaced the efforts of more established agencies. “For us, it usually takes two weeks from the time we get a request to its completion”, an NGO head in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk said. “Our international partners need six weeks for their needs assessments”.[3]

But while volunteers have been nimbler than established groups, they have also faced challenges that those groups have not. When the invasion began, hundreds of small initiatives started simultaneously buying up all the items they could find on the local market. Even with their limited budgets, they wound up competing to purchase food, fuel, medicine and hygiene products, driving up prices just as war disrupted supply chains. “For suppliers, our war is just ordinary business. We have received highly overpriced offers”, a humanitarian aid manager said.[4] Amid supply shortages, local groups relied on in-kind donations from private individuals, businesses and charities in Ukraine and abroad. But what is donated is often not what is needed. Many organisations are paying to store products they cannot presently use. One volunteer complained of receiving the same aid that gets sent to Afghanistan and Syria, including water and hygiene products readily available in Ukraine.[5] Another organisation in Ivano-Frankivsk received food with a shelf life so short that volunteers could not distribute it before it expired.[6]


[1] Crisis Group interview, human rights organisation director, Kyiv, 23 June 2022.

[2] This finding is consistent with the conclusions in “Enabling the Local Response: Emerging Humanitarian Priorities in Ukraine, March-May 2022”, Humanitarian Outcomes, June 2022.

[3] To describe the difference, the interlocutor said: “On Monday, I spoke to a shelter and they needed a washing machine. As of today [Friday], they have already received it with the help of local residents”. Crisis Group telephone interview, deputy director of local NGO, 15 April 2022.

[4] “If we go for big orders, they take us more seriously and sometimes we can influence the price”. Crisis Group telephone interview, deputy director of local NGO, 15 April 2022.

[5] A U.S. charity had sent this organisation, an LGBTQ support group in Lviv, hundreds of hygiene kits with products freely available in Ukraine. The organisation ended up using the boxes in which the kits came to mail better targeted assistance to recipients. “The boxes are like gold”, the group’s manager quipped. Crisis Group interview, 20 June 2022.

[6] Crisis Group interview, NGO director, Ivano-Frankivsk, 22 June 2022.

Crisis Group experts Alissa de Carbonnel and Simon Schlegel talk to Kateryna Politytska, the Lviv regional coordinator at Let’s Do it Ukraine, a local NGO that supplies displaced people with donated basic goods. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Sustaining ad hoc aid is growing more difficult, with volunteers suffering physical and emotional exhaustion. Months of unpaid work, with dangers far greater than paid humanitarian staff are allowed to accept, take a toll.[1] At the same time, volunteers are seeing donations drop off and scepticism deepen among donors after some aid packages have failed to reach the intended beneficiaries.[2] The number of volunteers is also shrinking as their savings run out and they have to return to paid work. A woman displaced from Kyiv to Lviv volunteered in a kitchen making meals for soldiers. When she applied for another volunteer position, she had hoped to get free lodging, but when she learned it would not be forthcoming, she moved on to Poland.[3] Many volunteers are students who return to class with the autumn resumption of in-person schooling.[4] In several places, IDPs have stepped in to volunteer themselves. Many workers at an aid warehouse in Lviv, for instance, are displaced. Most get no compensation but a free lunch, though some will draw a small salary thanks to a new grant.[5]


[1] Comments by humanitarian consultant at a Crisis Group roundtable, 12 July 2022.

[2] Crisis Group interview, LGBTQ support group manager, Lviv, 20 June 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, woman displaced from Kyiv region, 12 April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group interview, student volunteer at communal shelter, Lviv, 21 June 2022.

[5] Crisis Group interview, local NGO warehouse worker, Lviv, 2o June 2022.

C. Lingering Problems

Today, a patchwork of government officials, politicians and civil society figures are cooperating in ways they had never imagined in order to help the displaced – and yet problems with the humanitarian response persist.

Foreign funds poured in soon after the full-scale invasion began, but crucial as they are, they remain inadequate for the scale of the crisis. In the first six months after the invasion, donors allocated more than $17.6 billion to Ukraine, primarily for humanitarian aid or maintaining infrastructure – a big jump from the $168 million they had paid out in 2020 and a near doubling of the $8.5 billion already granted for 2022.[1] UN agencies alone applied for $4.2 billion in aid, an amount they doubled over the spring. But the money arrives slowly. By mid-September, just two thirds of the required funds were in place.[2] The same is true of budgetary support, important to keep state services running. Of the €12.3 billion the European Union committed for that purpose, it had disbursed only €3.1 billion by August.[3] On 4 August, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy slammed the EU for the delays. “Every day and in various ways, I remind [European leaders] that Ukrainian pensioners, our displaced persons, our teachers and other people who depend on budget payments cannot be held hostage to their indecision or bureaucracy”, he said.[4]

Nor have the funds that are released always quickly reached people in need. In June, the biggest share of grant money was still unspent, slowed by compliance requirements too heavy for local partners and accountability concerns.[5] Some international organisations take what they call a “no regrets” approach, tolerating some losses of funds and material due to lack of oversight, but local practitioners still find the bureaucratic procedures involved in accepting the grants onerous. “Transparency is more important than saving lives”, the director of a Kyiv-based human rights organisation said of the grantmakers’ attitude.[6]


[1] David Ainsworth, “Funding tracker: Who’s sending aid to Ukraine?”, Devex, 22 August 2022.

[2] OCHA Financial Tracking Services, 27 August 2022.

[3]Government support to Ukraine: Committed vs. disbursed budget support”, Kiel Institute for the World Economy, 3 August 2022.

[4] “There can be no condition under which any Russian attack on Ukraine becomes justified – address by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy”, President of Ukraine, 4 August 2022.

[5] The requirements sometimes create distortions, with money flowing to organisations that are good at clearing bureaucratic hurdles rather than at the activities the incoming money is meant to pay for. “Enabling the Local Response: Emerging Humanitarian Priorities in Ukraine, March-May 2022”, op. cit.

[6] Crisis Group interview, human rights organisation director, Kyiv, 23 June 2022.

Different aid providers may have different priorities that muddy the lines between different modes of support.

A related issue is that different aid providers may have different priorities that muddy the lines between different modes of support. Ukrainian initiatives often treat aid to civilians, displaced or not, and support for soldiers fighting Russia as part of the same struggle. A volunteer told Crisis Group that helping the Ukrainian military was the top priority, in order to “prevent more IDPs and destruction”.[1] For international organisations with purely humanitarian mandates, the blurring of the boundary between aiding civilians and supplying armed forces can make it hard to work with local groups. Humanitarian organisations try to keep their distance from aid flowing to the military, because association with it could cost them access to aid recipients in the future when they might need to coordinate with Russia. Some local NGOs keep budgets and teams for the two modes of assistance separate. Others, however, perceive international wariness of assisting armed units as arbitrary or wrong-headed. “It’s such an existential struggle [that] Ukrainians just see no place for neutrality”, an international aid worker said.[2]


[1] Crisis Group interview, IDP from Mariupol, 5 April 2022.

[2] Crisis Group interview, international aid worker, 6 May 2022.

IV. Unmet Needs

A. Special Challenges

With so much displacement, and the humanitarian responders stretched thin, large numbers of IDPs continue to face significant hardship – and some among them confront special challenges.

Men – a minority among the displaced – are one such group. As noted, martial law prohibits men between the ages of eighteen and 60 from leaving Ukraine. Therefore, men who had to leave their homes but cannot leave the country often become IDPs. Others are excused from enlistment. A medical condition or disability that prevents a man from serving in the military can give him the right to leave the country. Single fathers, fathers of three or more children, and fathers of children in need of special care are also exempt from service.[1] But proving these circumstances requires official documents, and the papers are not always at hand, especially for those who had to leave in a great hurry.

Displaced men have particular difficulty finding housing. As an NGO director said: “Especially with the municipal schemes that distribute displaced people to hosts, they very strongly dislike taking men. If these are, for example, elderly people, taking in a stranger comes with certain risks and people are afraid”.[2]

Part of the displaced men’s difficulty stems from the notion that men belong on the front lines. Some people in western Ukraine said men from towns in the combat zone should be battling the invaders; after all, according to their perceptions, they have sent their own brothers, husbands and fathers to fight and die there.[3] A man from Kyiv said when he fled to western Ukraine in the war’s first days, staff at his hotel gave him orders to clear out a local bomb shelter. “They treated us as deserters, although I was happy to help”, he told Crisis Group. Other hotels in the region, the man reported, used their websites to warn that they would allow only women and children to stay.[4] Many men thus avoid registering as IDPs for fear of discrimination or conscription. But some municipalities and even private hosts insist that men register.[5] Municipal officials in one western Ukrainian town said they would allow men to use communal shelters or register as IDPs only after checking in with the recruitment office.[6] The queues at these offices became shorter over the summer but they can still delay access to aid by days or weeks.

Another group facing greater obstacles comprises the elderly and others with limited mobility. Many are unable to flee the fighting at all. Among those who do make the long wartime journey, those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, especially conditions that require special facilities or a caregiver, can have problems finding suitable accommodations.[7] People in need of medical attention in western Ukraine have arrived to find health facilities with inadequate basic equipment to cope with the swelling numbers of patients.[8]

Ukraine’s Roma are still another group among IDPs that faces difficulties in finding accommodations. They are not welcome in communal shelters. Five people Crisis Group spoke to in Lviv either were told or witnessed others telling Roma to go instead to Zakarpattia, a region in the west that is home to the country’s largest Roma population.[9] “If Roma arrive here, we try to send them to Zakarpattia, where there is a readiness to accept them under proper conditions”, the chief coordinator at a stadium accommodating hundreds of IDPs said.[10] Such exclusion from state support places additional hardship on an already ill-treated community. On the outskirts of Lviv, a Roman Catholic church has stepped in, offering shelter to 50 Roma among the 200 displaced it is housing. Roma staying at the church said their prospects of finding a permanent place to live were dim.[11]


[2] Crisis Group telephone interview, director of an NGO that coordinates a program for placing IDPs in private accommodations, 23 March 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, director of a state-funded institution that provides shelter and psychosocial support in Uzhgorod, 23 March 2022.

[4] Crisis Group telephone interview, man displaced from Kyiv, 2 April 2022.

[5] Crisis Group telephone interview, director of an NGO that coordinates a program for hosting IDPs in private homes, 23 March 2022.

[6] Crisis Group telephone interviews, deputy mayor of midsize town in Lviv region, 13 April 2022; and social services director in the same town, 24 June 2022. Both officials made it clear they were concerned primarily with catching men trying to dodge the draft.

[7] Crisis Group telephone interview, director of an NGO that coordinates a program for hosting IDPs in private homes, 23 March 2022.

[8] “War Amid a Pandemic: The Public Health Consequences of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine”, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 22 April 2022.

[9] Crisis Group interviews, IDP help centre coordinator, Lviv, 8 April 2022; Roma community activist and local politician, Uzhgorod, 26 April 2022; reception centre social worker, Lviv, 21 June 2022; and displaced Roma women, Lviv, 21 and 25 June 2022.

[10] Crisis Group interview, IDP help centre coordinator, Lviv, 8 April 2022.

[11] Crisis Group interviews, displaced Roma, Lviv, 25 June 2022.

In conversation with Ludmyla, a Roma woman displaced from Odessa, now staying at St. John Paul II Church in Lviv. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Part of the Roma’s challenge has been proving their displacement. People who had not registered a permanent place of residence before the war have difficulty demonstrating that the fighting forced them to move, a precondition for IDP status, which confers benefits and cash assistance from the state and often international organisations as well.[1] It is common for Ukrainian Roma, rural-urban migrants and people who have been displaced previously to have no such registration. Displaced people without documents also have a hard time finding accommodations and travelling across borders. One Roma woman interviewed by Crisis Group had only a birth certificate issued in Russia and could not cross the border into Poland even though her children and husband have Ukrainian passports.[2]

Another group that faces discrimination in shelters is LGBTQ people. Early in the war, LGBTQ rights groups sounded the alarm about dangers to trans women, whose identity documents do not match their gender identity, and who thus might be prohibited from leaving Ukraine. They also warned of disruption of hormone treatment for trans and intersex people and mistreatment of displaced LGBTQ people in shelters.[3] Even in peacetime, Ukrainians can openly identify as LGBTQ only in narrow social niches. In shelters, where the protective walls of those niches break down, people perceived as belonging to a sexual or gender minority may experience aggression from other displaced people or shelter staff. In one case in Lviv, residents in a shelter beat a trans woman repeatedly. Shelter staff called an LGBTQ organisation in an attempt to resolve the conflict, asking the group to “take away this man-woman”.[4]


[1] Crisis Group interview, official, Lviv region’s Economic Policy Department, 25 March 2022. The website of the Ukrainian ministry of digital transformation provides a detailed list of documents required to register as an IDP.

[2] Crisis Group interviews, displaced Roma, Lviv, 25 June 2022.

[3] “Ukraine War: LGBTI People in the Context of Armed Conflict and Mass Displacement”, ILGA Europe, April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group interview, LGBTQ support group manager, Lviv, 29 April 2022.

Crisis Group speaks with a local NGO helping displaced LGBTQ people in Lviv, western Ukraine. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

B. Squeezing Together

The displacement crisis has strained the capacity of many parts of Ukraine. Poverty has risen among both the uprooted and the population at large.[1] Meanwhile, in the major cities to which many IDPs fled, the cost of housing has risen dramatically, putting financial pressure on people who live in rented accommodations. Some IDPs have returned home as a result, while others have moved to more rural areas.[2] In smaller towns, rent is cheaper, but other means of meeting basic needs are running out. A deputy mayor in the Lviv region said the municipality may need to cut the number of daily meals provided to IDPs sheltering in schools and kindergartens from three to one due to lack of food.[3]

The influx of displaced people has hit hospitals and other care facilities particularly hard. Many of these institutions are accommodating not only IDPs who need medical attention but also others for whom the municipality has no other suitable facility. Space is at a premium. One hospital in the Ivano-Frankivsk region built for 120 patients took in 40 arrivals from the east for whom it had not planned, overstretching its budget and making it dependent on charity.[4] Another hospital in the region housed elderly displaced people for weeks, simply because they had nowhere else to go.[5] Many institutions have had to rely on donated food and bedding. Cities that have in the past contracted with NGOs to provide elder care cannot afford to continue, leaving both IDPs and the permanent residents underserved.[6]


[1] “War in the Region – Europe and Central Asia Economic Update Spring 2022”, op. cit.

[2] “Rental prices soar in western Ukraine amid influx of refugees”, The Kyiv Independent, 18 March 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, deputy mayor of midsize town in Lviv region, 9 April 2022.

[4] Crisis Group interview, regional Red Cross director in western Ukraine, 22 June 2022.

[5] Crisis Group interview, deputy mayor of midsize town in Ivano-Frankivsk region, 22 June 2022.

[6] Crisis Group interview, faith-based charity director, Kolomiya, 28 March 2022.

Crisis Group talks to Viktoriya Debenko, the deputy mayor of Halych, a town in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. The municipality stores hygiene products in an assembly hall before delivering them to the displaced people now living in town. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge

Making sure people have a place to stay can sometimes also mean that children are deprived of educational and recreational facilities, with kindergartens, schools, gymnasiums and dormitories serving as shelters. In one midsize town close to the Polish border, seven of fourteen kindergartens were sheltering IDPs in the spring, as was the vocational school dormitory.[1] Such facilities are in many places the only option for housing IDPs, as they can be heated and have rudimentary sanitation. They are often not equipped as long-term accommodations, however, and their use as shelters also delays the return of both local and displaced children to classrooms – which in turn prevents the uprooted children from feeling a semblance of normalcy or adapting to their new surroundings.[2]

Cultural and linguistic divides between IDPs from eastern Ukraine, who are used to speaking Russian at home, and residents of western Ukraine, who increasingly insist that only Ukrainian be spoken, are not so deep as to be insurmountable but are pronounced enough that some IDPs complain of feeling excluded or stigmatised. Speaking in a Facebook forum, the mayor of Ivano-Frankivsk, Ruslan Martsinkiv, said that with the IDPs’ arrival the city had too few parking spots and too many chaotically parked cars, linking these issues to the displaced people’s disregard of local customs. He said residents should see to the IDPs’ “gentle Ukrainisation”, for instance by forcing them to speak Ukrainian in shops.[3]

As resources become scarce for IDPs and locals alike, frictions seem to be growing. In Lviv region, according to a survey, around 36 per cent of IDPs and 52 per cent of locals sensed tensions between the displaced and permanent residents.[4] Anecdotes abound. A Russian-speaking mother of three girls aged three to nine, who slept for weeks in a boxing ring in Lviv after fleeing Lysychansk in Luhansk region, said she felt like “a stranger among [her] own”.[5] A civil servant from Donbas was told that, since he was an outsider, it was useless for him to apply for a similar post in western Ukraine.[6] Another Russian-speaking woman who fled from the east said she was offered a flat to live in on condition that she speak only Ukrainian so as not to upset the neighbours.[7]


[1] Crisis Group telephone interview, deputy mayor of midsize town in Lviv region, 9 April 2022.

[2] Crisis Group telephone interview, management officer, UNICEF Education Cluster, 14 April 2022.

[4]Lviv Region in Wartime Conditions”, Rating Group Ukraine, 31 May 2022 (Ukrainian).

[5] Crisis Group interview, woman displaced from Lysychansk, 21 June 2022.

[6] Crisis Group interview, NGO worker married to civil servant displaced from Donetsk region, 24 June 2022.

[7] Crisis Group interviews, displaced civil society activists from Donetsk region, Ivano-Frankivsk, 23 June 2022.

Alissa de Carbonnel talks to a single mother from Luhansk living in the Lviv Technical University shelter with her three daughters and her mother. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

V. Building for the Future

Because the numbers of people affected are so tremendous, the displacement crisis is Ukraine’s most pressing humanitarian issue, at least in the territory under Kyiv’s control. The crisis will be protracted, with no end to the war in sight and many people with no home to return to. A survey in a Lviv region town suggested that at least one third of the IDPs who were residing there in the summer will stay for the long haul and need more permanent housing, suited for winter.[1]

Policymakers have only to look at the legacy of Ukraine’s earlier crisis beginning in 2014 – the response to which was just starting to shift from emergency aid and the victims of which were only just finding jobs and permanent housing when Russia staged its full-scale invasion. The biggest challenges are ensuring adequate shelter for the millions of displaced and finding them paths to a new life without discrimination or exclusion. More than anything, this effort will be costly. Western donors should rely more heavily on existing local capacity and remove administrative hurdles so that the funds they are sending can flow more quickly to people in need ahead of what will likely be a trying winter.

Housing is the top priority. Most immediately, funds should go to helping Ukrainian cities renovate dormitories and other unused or underused buildings until durable solutions can be found to accommodate IDPs now living in shelters, with friends or family or in inadequate rented quarters. Western governments can reserve funds to foster partnerships to achieve this goal, as they are doing on a modest scale with the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine.[2] Such alliances could ease the flow of money and know-how, not only providing housing for IDPs but also slowing the rise in rents for everyone. For the commercial housing market, which serves the majority of IDPs, cities should introduce transparent ways of discouraging speculation, such as regularly publishing rent maps and requiring landlords to disclose what previous tenants were paying.


[1] Crisis Group interview, director of social services of midsize town in Lviv region, 24 June 2022.

[2] As stated in the Lugano Declaration, issued following a reconstruction conference in July 2022, cooperation among sub-national entities like cities will be instrumental for rebuilding.

Municipalities should allocate housing based on need.

Municipalities should allocate housing based on need, taking care to avoid discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation. Western funding earmarked for groups that represent the interests of Roma, LGBTQ people and others who experience discrimination can help ensure that the aid effort under way does not bypass these groups and that shelters are equipped for IDPs with special needs. Better coordination among municipalities would also allow them to redistribute the burden away from crowded regional centres and make it more attractive for IDPs to move to smaller towns, where life is cheaper.

Direct financial support to private households in accommodating IDPs can help bridge the gap while the state is preparing more housing and spare people the precarious conditions of communal shelters and the prohibitive cost of rent. At the very least, housing additional people pushes up utility bills, often the biggest expense in a Ukrainian household’s monthly budget. The ministry of temporally occupied territories and IDPs offers subsidies to those housing IDPs. At present, homeowners can get this money only if they let IDPs stay with them for free (and have no outstanding utility bills). With foreign aid, Ukrainian legislators could adapt a sliding scale of compensation if IDPs are paying below-market rent. Municipalities could use the payments as an additional instrument to control rents. Aid would also allow other expansions of the subsidy scheme: raising the amount, introducing more generous application periods for landlords or granting landlords such compensation even if they are indebted to utility providers.

As the state and international agencies step in, they should not sideline civil society. Volunteers and local NGOs have much pertinent knowledge, and supporting civic engagement can also help increase community cohesion and encourage the displaced to remain in the country. Although such contracting was a growing practice before the full-scale invasion, state funding for civil society organisations remains sparse, not just because the state is short of cash but also because distrust between state and non-state providers remains rife, especially in the social services domain, where NGOs are both watchdogs and competitors of the state. Local governments should nevertheless hire NGOs where these groups are well placed to provide the services and benefits IDPs are entitled to by law. In the near term, Western aid to Ukraine could be earmarked for this purpose.

When international organisations fund NGOs directly to help IDPs, they can make sure that their partners gradually adapt the services they provide to state standards, rather than just to donors’ specific requirements. By doing so, they can help the projects they fund to eventually compete in public tenders; they can also help donors formulate a sustainable exit strategy by assisting their local partners with eligibility for state funding, once more of that becomes available.[1] As more NGOs become service providers with state contracts, they also can create more transparency as to whether state standards are sufficient and how the state itself enforces them.

In many cases, the quickest way for international organisations to reach people in embattled front-line areas is through local partner organisations with fewer institutional security requirements and higher individual risk tolerance among their workers.[2] Organisations without such local partners first have to create networks, recruiting staff and giving them the equipment and fuel they need, tasks that get more difficult the closer the operations are to the front.[3] It takes international organisations with strict security standards months to build teams they can send into such perilous environments. By providing salaries, protective gear and insurance to locals who are already assisting people in danger, international organisations can significantly expand their reach and at the same time empower volunteers, lowering reliance on unpaid work.


[1] Sticking to state standards in planning for such projects made sure they were comparable to the state’s own services and competitive in public tenders. Such projects also were based on state standards because they envisioned an eventual transition from donor to state funding. See, for example, “Social Contracting in Ukraine: Sustainability of Non-Medical HIV Services”, USAID, Health Policy+, Pepfar, September 2019.

[2] Crisis Group interview, international NGO manager, Dnipro, 18 July 2022.

[3] Crisis Group interview, senior member of IOM mission to Ukraine, Kyiv, 23 June 2022.

NGOs with experience dealing with earlier waves of displacement can provide training for state servants.

Working with civil society can ease other problems, too. Recruiting from its ranks may help fill open positions in both state institutions and international organisations. In addition, NGOs with experience dealing with earlier waves of displacement can provide training for state servants. Although foreign donors will compete for the best workers, they should calibrate the salaries they pay in the humanitarian sector so as not to pull people out of other vital areas or state jobs.[1] Ukraine’s Western backers should also encourage Kyiv to speed up passage of a bill, now pending in parliament, that would delay mobilisation of humanitarian workers into the army.[2] Some international organisations have written letters asking that their local employees be exempted from military service, but they lack a legal basis for doing so – meaning that they continuously risk losing staff to the front.[3]

If international donors could do more to lower the bureaucratic and administrative hurdles attached to funding, local NGOs, too, can put forward a better case for themselves. In particular, Ukrainian NGOs should be transparent about whether they provide supplies to the armed forces and how they keep this assistance separate from that to civilians. For their part, international organisations might do more to explain why keeping military and humanitarian aid separate is so important for their future humanitarian access.

Access to areas under Russian control and to people displaced within them will remain a challenge for international organisations.[4] Perhaps the best lessons from the past stem from the Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund, a country-based pooled fund set up in 2019 that could finance projects without attribution to particular donor nations, most of which separatist de facto authorities perceive as in cahoots with their adversaries in Kyiv. Up to 2021, this fund helped depoliticise humanitarian aid and expand the network of local partners so that critical gaps beyond the contact line between the Ukrainian army and separatist fighters could be closed.[5] It took five years after hostilities started in 2014 to gain this limited degree of access. Now, with fighting on a much larger scale, this experience could provide guidance on how to get aid to people in non-government-controlled areas.

Kyiv has been critical of the International Committee of the Red Cross for ostensibly cooperating too closely with Russian forces. Ukraine will surely oppose any arrangement between the UN and Russia that appears to legitimise Moscow’s occupation, especially to the extent that Russia claims sovereignty over any of the land it holds. Western donors are also likely to baulk at funding any aid operations that could be construed as abetting Russia’s control of Ukrainian territory. Nonetheless, it is a humanitarian imperative to try improving access to Russian-occupied areas. With winter imminent, aid organisations should hold the Ukrainian government to its own promises of support for citizens living beyond the front lines.

Moscow’s rhetoric, too, could provide a pressure point for better humanitarian access. Russia has repeatedly complained that UN institutions are biased toward Ukraine and blind to the civilian suffering it says Ukrainian forces cause. If Moscow is indeed interested in shedding light on civilian suffering in areas it controls, the Russian army and proxy administrations should be prepared to let in and guarantee the security of aid organisation personnel, including for needs assessments.


[1] Comment by adviser to international NGO during a Crisis Group roundtable, 12 July 2022.

[3] Crisis Group telephone interview, international NGO manager in Dnipro, 18 July 2022.

[4] Denise Brown, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, said access to areas controlled by Russia is complicated by lack of security guarantees for aid workers. Humanitarian agencies have reached only one million people in occupied areas as opposed to twelve million in government-controlled areas. “Little humanitarian aid reaching Ukrainians in Russian-controlled areas”, Voice of America, 26 August 2022.

[5] “Annual Report”, Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, 2021.

Focusing on ways in which to encourage social cohesion while supporting IDPs will ... be essential over the long term.

Focusing on ways in which to encourage social cohesion while supporting IDPs will also be essential over the long term. In receiving communities, support for IDPs should not crowd out vulnerable locals. When identifying their target groups, international aid organisations should be careful to conduct thorough needs assessments and focus on vulnerability as their main criterion instead of drawing a hard boundary between IDPs and the local population.[1] Funding bodies in the West can make the inclusion of vulnerable locals a granting condition. Focusing on vulnerability could also help cut through red tape as aid organisations would have to check only that recipients are in need and would not have to ask where they are from. Especially where municipalities had contracts with NGOs to provide social services, foreign funding can cover them temporarily, so that services remain available for the local population.

Direct assistance schemes between Ukrainian and Western regions or municipalities could also fund job centres to offer requalification training for IDPs and increase existing subsidies to create incentives for local businesses to employ IDPs and create more jobs. These subsidies could also be expanded with a special category for men in limbo between displacement and possible mobilisation. Direct support for municipalities could also help them enlarge their capacity to help displaced people with retrieving lost documents.

While it helps an organisation’s accountability to register its beneficiaries, requiring registration can lead aid providers to exclude people who do not have the right documents. People who are unsure whether they will stay or move on may also have to put off registering if they need extensive documentation of their status. Organisations should therefore clarify if in some cases a telephone number is sufficient identification to register a beneficiary. Where official documents are indeed required, organisations should also reserve more funds for legal assistance that can help people without the right documents retrieve them quickly.


[1] Crisis Group interview, international donor organisation program officer, Warsaw, 13 June 2022. This practice would also be a practical implementation of a core humanitarian standard, “providing impartial assistance based on the needs and capacities of communities and people affected by crisis”. See principle 1.4 in “The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, 2018 Edition”, Sphere, 6 November 2018.

A view of Lviv's central train station and its adjacent square, where many local and international NGOs aiding IDPs have set up tents. CRISIS GROUP / Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

VI. Conclusion

Ukrainian refugees’ flight to other European countries has garnered the most media attention, but the internal displacement crisis is at least as severe. Ukraine must find food, shelter and other resources to support IDPs, even while the country is suffering great loss of life, physical destruction and socio-economic damage as it defends itself from the Russian invasion. The money and material on hand are inadequate for the enormity of the challenge, particularly with winter approaching and the possibility of still more mass displacement if the fighting shifts to other parts of the country or if basic services break down in areas near the front. “We are not meeting all the needs, and the needs are going to increase over time”, a senior UN employee said. “I am very worried”.[1]

Having endured a displacement crisis in recent memory, Ukraine is equipped with many of the laws and institutions and with much of the know-how it needs to mount a sustained humanitarian response. To be maximally effective and inclusive, this response will need to build on and extend existing capacities by supporting the Ukrainian state and civil society in developing new forms of collaboration to reach people who so far have often fallen through the cracks.

Kyiv/Warsaw/Brussels, 21 September 2022


[1] Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, Kyiv, 24 June 2022.