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Ukraine: AOAV’s conflict briefing

For regularly updated casualty figures from explosive weapon use in Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion, follow this LINK

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022 has sent shockwaves across Europe and the world, as the longstanding territorial conflict between to two countries disintegrated into an aggressive, full-scale Russian attack on the independent European democracy of 44 million people. After an alarming build-up of Russian troops along the Belorussian, Russian and annexed-Crimean borders of Ukraine, and Putin’s recognition of the independence of eastern regions Luhansk and Donetsk, Russian forces launched a devastating attack by land, air and sea. Putin stands accused of shattering peace in Europe, and widespread condemnation from European governments, NATO countries and beyond has seen the implementation of vast and severe sanctions against Russia. A war of rhetoric also rages from within the Kremlin, as Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces to be put on high alert, into a “special mode of combat service” – the most significant escalation of nuclear tensions in Europe since the Cold War.  

Invading Russian troops were met with fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces and in the first week of the invastion(to 1 March 2022) were unable to occupy and hold any major cities or gain air-superiority.

A Russian armoured vehicle burns in Kharkiv, February 2022. Image: Marienko Andrew/AP

The cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv are currently suffering the worst of Russian shelling and missile strikes, and the eastern Donbas regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also suffered severe bombardments (as of 1 March 2022). A convoy of Russian tanks, armed vehicles, towed artillery and support vehicles stretching forty miles bears down on Kyiv. Civilian infrastructure has been targeted outright: a missile hit a kindergarten in northeastern Ukraine and killed at least one child, and a grad-rocket strike targeting residential areas in Kharkiv in the early hours of 28 February reportedly killing dozens and wounding hundreds more, though specific casualty figures beyond 11 civilians confirmed killed are yet to be published.

Ukraine’s interior ministry has said that as of 27 February, at least 352 civilians have been killed, at least 14 of whom were children, and another 1,684 people injured, 116 of whom are children, since the start of the invasion.

A woman and two children walk towards the Ukraine-Slovakia border, 25 February 2022. Photo: AFP/Peter Lazar.

The UN estimates that 368,000 people, mostly women and children, have fled the country in the days since the attack began, and UN agencies estimate that as many as five million could flee the war. Most have crossed borders into Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, with reports of traffic queues stretching kilometres and people spending tens of hours in their vehicles as temperatures dropped to freezing levels overnight. A fuel crisis and cap on bank withdrawals has compounded the challenges faced by those attempting to leave Ukraine. Families have been separated, as men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been ordered to remain in the country, and many Ukrainian citizens have volunteered to fight in their war for democracy and independence.

An apartment building in Kyiv hit by a Russian rocket, 26 Feb 2022. Photo: AP/Efrem Lukatsky

President Zelenskyy has gained the backing of Ukrainians across the nation, as he refuses to flee the country despite threats to his life and family from the Russian government and multiple offers of evacuation and political asylum. His televised speeches, social media videos and physical presence among troops and civilians in the nation’s capital Kyiv has helped to embolden national pride and resolve to resist the invasion and threat of usurpation into Russia’s sphere of political influence. Zelenskyy has implored the EU to grant Ukraine immediate membership into the European Union, and encouraged international volunteers to join Ukrainian forces.

As of the 28th of February 2022, negotiations have begun between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, in a location on the border with Belarus. Zelenskyy called the first 24hrs of negotions “crucial” for Ukraine, and stated he demands a total ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian forces from the country.

Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, many countries have enacted harsh sanctions against the Russian financial, energy, military and transport sectors. The European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, Switzerland, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom have all unveiled severe measures against Russia and Russian individuals in a united condemnation of Moscow’s policies and actions. These sanctions include wide-spread asset freezing and travel ban of President Putin, his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, numerous political officials and oligarchs, as well as officials in Belarus. Russia’s banks, financial services, and energy companies have had major economic sanctions enacted upon them, and many leading Russian financial institutions have been removed from the Swift global payments system.

The Military Situation

While the Ukrainian armed forces are more experienced and better equipped than in 2014, at the beginning of this invasion they were heavily outmanned and outgunned, though recent packages of arms support and military aid from EU and NATO nations attempts to tip the scales.

Since 2014 and in the lead up to the invasion on February 24th, many European and NATO countries provided military aid to Ukraine. The US sent Javelin anti-tank missiles, coastal patrol boats, Humvees, sniper rifles, reconnaissance drones, radar systems, night vision and radio equipment, while Canada operated a training programme. Turkey sold Kyiv several batches of Bayraktar TB2 drones, and signed a deal with Ukraine allowing Ukrainian factories to build the Turkish drones. Britain supplied a reported 2,000 short-range anti-tank missiles, light-armour defensive weapons systems, and Saxon armoured vehicles, and sent British specialists to deliver training. Denmark supported the modernisation of Ukraine’s military according to NATO standards. Estonia planned to provide Javelin anti-armour missiles, and Latvia and Lithuania have provided Stinger missiles. The Czech Republic planned to donate 152mm artillery ammunition. Poland supplied Ukraine with artillery ammunition, mortars, portable air-defence systems, and surveillance drones. Germany co-financed a $6 million field hospital and provided training. Since the start of the Russian invasion, countries across Europe and north America have pledged extensive further military, medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The US has released an additional $350 million worth of weapons from US stocks to Ukraine, including various munitions to support front-line defenders such as anti-armour weapons, small arms, body armour, and anti-aircraft systems.

The UK has also committed to supplying Ukraine with light anti-armour defensive weapon systems, and packages of lethal and non-lethal aid.

France has dispatched anti-aircraft weapons, fuel, and digital weapons.

The Netherlands agreed to supply 200 Stinger air-defence rockets and 50 Panzer-faust 3 anti-take weapons, and 400 rockets.

Germany, who previously had withheld lethal-aid due to a longstanding position of banning weapons exports to conflict zones, will now supply 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles.

Canada is sending lethal military weaponry as well as $394 million USD towards the defence effort.

Sweden, in an historic break from it’s neutral stance, has sent 5,000 anti-tank rockets as well as field rations and body armour.

Belgium has committed to supplying Ukraine with 3,000 automatic rifles and 200 anti-tank weapons, as well as 3,800 tonnes of fuel.

Portugal is sending night-vision goggled, bulletproof vests, helmets, grenades, ammunition and automatic G-3 rifles.

Greece, a country with a significant diaspora in Ukraine and has already suffered 10 fatalities in the invasion, is sending both defence equipment and humanitarian aid.

Romania has offered to treat wounded people from crisis zones in 11 military hospitals and to send fuel, bulletproof vests, helmets and military materials worth $3.3 million.

Spain has pledged to send 20 tonnes of aid, most of which is medical and defensive equipment.

Czech Republic is sending 4,000 mortars, 30,000 pistols, 7,000 assault rifles, 3,000 machine guns, sniper rifles and a million bullets.

Russia’s army counts about 280,000 personnel, and its combined armed forces total about 900,000. Their combat force is equipped with tanks, artillery, rockets, and other heavy weaponry, and is bolstered by a well-equipped fleet in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Russia has been equipping the separatists rebels in the Donbas region with advanced Electronic Warfare and anti-aircraft systems. However, it has been shown that the use of Bayraktar TB2 drones can only be deterred with air defence systems or fighter aircraft, both of which Russia owns but the presence of which on Ukrainian soil would, in all likelihood, provoke an all-out war.

Prior to the invasion, Zelenskyy signed a decree increasing the size of Ukraine’s armed forces by about 100,000 troops over three years, and raising soldiers’ pay. The aim is to strengthen the state’s defence capabilities, increase the attractiveness of military service, and eventually bring Ukraine’s armed forces to about 361,000. The Ukrainian armed forces also comprise around 900,000 reservists and a volunteer Territorial Defence force, which it aims to build into a corps of 130,000 fighters to defend civilian sites. Furthermore, most adult males have at least basic military training, so resistance is likely to take the form of protracted urban guerrilla warfare.

Ukraine remains vulnerable to air strikes, due to limited anti-aircraft and anti-missile defences, but they do have short-range air defences and anti-tank weaponry.

Conflict Background: Timeline

Ukraine has endured a tense relationship with Russia ever since its independence from the Cold-War era superpower in 1991. A succession of pro-Russian versus EU-leaning governments from 2004 to 2013 pulled Ukraine in opposing directions, until Yanukovych’s government took concrete steps to strengthen Ukraine’s ties to Russia in 2013. Yanukovych suspended trade and association talks with the EU in November 2013 and opted to revive economic ties with Moscow, triggering months of mass rallies in Kyiv and an aggressive Russian reaction. A timeline from 2014 onwards is presented here to illustrate the long-standing tensions, international and non-international armed conflicts, and military occupation which have paved the way for the current crisis.

2014

  • The protests following Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies, known as the EuroMaidan protests, turn violent, and dozens of protesters are killed.
  • February – Parliament votes to remove Yanukovych, who flees to Russia. Armed men seize parliament in the Ukrainian region of Crimea and raise the Russian flag.
  • March 16th – a referendum shows overwhelming support in Crimea for joining the Russian Federation, and Moscow annexes the territory. Despite the alleged referendum, the Geneva Academy classifies Russia’s presence in Crimea as a military occupation.
  • April – Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Donbas declare independence. A non-international armed conflict develops which has continued intermittently into 2022, despite frequent ceasefires. Russia backs the separatists with equipment, training, and soldiers.
  • September – Minsk I is signed. It puts forward a 12-point ceasefire deal between Ukraine and the separatists, which includes provisions for prisoner exchanges, deliveries of humanitarian aid, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons. However, it quickly breaks down.

2015Minsk II is signed by representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the leaders of separatist-held regions Donetsk and Luhansk. However, it is never implemented.

2017 – The EU passes an association agreement with Ukraine, opening markets for free trade of goods and services, and visa-free travel to the EU for Ukrainians.

2018 – Three Ukrainian Navy vessels are fired upon and then captured by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). 24 Ukrainians are captured and sent to prison in Moscow. In response, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declares martial law along the Ukrainian border with Russia, which is approved by the Parliament and lasts until 26 December 2018.

2019 – Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a former actor, wins the April presidential election, and promises to tackle corruption and end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

2021

  • January – Zelenskyy appeals to US president Biden for Ukraine to join NATO.
  • February – Zelenskyy’s government imposes sanctions on Viktor Medvedchuk, an opposition leader and the Kremlin’s most prominent ally in Ukraine.
  • March and April – Russia concentrates about 100,000 military personnel close to the Ukrainian border, claiming they are conducting drills. The soldiers are eventually moved back to rear bases, but much of the infrastructure for military operations remained in place.
  • December – Russia presents detailed security demands to the West, including a legally binding guarantee that NATO will give up any military activity in eastern Europe and Ukraine. Peace talks break down, and Russia renews its military build-up along the Ukrainian border.

2022 – Russian troops arrive in Belarus to conduct joint military drills. Washington presents a written response to Russia’s demands, confirming their commitment to NATO’s “open-door” policy. Putin maintains that Russia’s security demands have not been addressed. NATO troops are on stand-by and reinforce eastern Europe with personnel, ships, and fighter jets.

  • February – On the 22nd, Putin recognises the independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and sends troops into eastern Ukraine, after a 1-hour speech detailing his vision of a Ukraine reintegrated into Russia’s sphere of influence. On the 24th Putin invades Ukraine, bombing military installations, airports, and key infrastructure in Kyiv and other major cities.
Ukrainian military in Kyiv, February 2022. Photo: Reuters.

Civilian Casualties in Ukraine, 2014-2021

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has monitored an escalation in violence in the Donbas region, which borders Russia, and where violence between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists has occurred since 2014.

Between 2014 and 2021, AOAV recorded 5,242 deaths and injuries in Ukraine, including 2,704 civilians and 2,538 armed actors and security personnel. Of the civilian casualties recorded, 2,381 (88%) were caused by explosive weapon use in populated areas.

Ground-launched weapons, such as shelling, mortars, rockets, or grenades, for example, have accounted for 2,459 civilian casualties since 2014 – 91% of total civilian casualties.

Of the civilian casualties, the vast majority occurred in 2014 and 2015, with 1,428 and 862 civilian deaths and injuries in these years respectively. Despite continued sporadic shelling across the line of control, which divides the region of Donbas, civilian casualties have fallen quite consistently since 2014, with 28 recorded last year. Fewer civilian casualties are also likely to have occurred as numerous civilians have fled the worst impacted areas in Donbas since 2014, leaving an aging population, many of whom cannot leave.

In many instances of shelling since 2014, the perpetrator has not been identified, but where they have, Ukrainian separatist forces have been responsible for at least 667 civilian casualties and Ukraine for 783.

In the days preceding the Russian invasion, there was an increase in shelling across the line of control, which has resulted in seven civilian casualties. At least three civilians were injured on February 17th when separatist shelling hit a school in Luhansk. On the same day, separatist shelling left another woman injured in Marinka as she waited for a bus. Shelling by Ukrainian forces was also reported to have left one woman injured on February 17th. On February 20th2 civilian deaths were reported due to Ukrainian shelling in occupied areas of Luhansk. And, on February 21st, a civilian was killed and homes damaged by separatist shelling on Donetsk.

This escalation in violence and the Russian invasion is likely to be disastrous for civilians, as highlighted by the statement released today by the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), of which AOAV is a founding member.

AOAV condemns the use of violence against civilians and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. AOAV encourages all armed actors to stop using explosive weapons with wide-area affects where there is likely to be a high concentration of civilians.