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Online Exclusive 03/10/2022 Essay

Solidarity, Not Neutrality, Will Characterize Western Aid to Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is already causing terrible human suffering, the likes of which is all too familiar from recent wars in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. But this war is also likely to see a significant change in humanitarianism itself. Many humanitarian organizations, and the governments funding them, will step away from the principle of humanitarian neutrality, which has so dominated western humanitarian aid in the wars of the last 30 years.

Instead, many humanitarians will opt for political solidarity with Ukrainians and recognize humanitarian aid as an important part of Ukrainian resistance against Russian violence and dictatorship. This moral challenge was posed in Myanmar last year and it will happen in Ukraine as well. I expect that several established humanitarian agencies, and most new ones born from this crisis, will not act as politically disinterested humanitarian third parties in this war, but prefer to operate in political solidarity with the Ukrainian government and the humanitarian administration and resistance networks that spring up around it.

I think they will be right to do so. There have always been two traditions of humanitarian aid: the neutral humanitarianism fostered by the Swiss founded Red Cross movement, and an activist tradition of resistance humanitarianism grounded in specific political commitments. Last century, resistance humanitarianism played key roles in rescue operations from Nazi occupied Europe, in the struggles against apartheid and Latin American dictators, and in independence movements in Palestine, Tigray, Eritrea, Myanmar, and South Sudan. More recently, it has played its part in Syria.

In Ukraine, this choice may be forced upon Western humanitarians. Russia may not tolerate them playing a conventional third party role but will likely see them as agents of liberal subversion. In Russian occupied areas, any aid will be controlled and delivered by Russian authorities in a system of occupation humanitarianism. Elsewhere, Ukrainian-led resistance humanitarianism will be supported by Western governments. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will rightly hold their neutral line even though they are largely financed by Western money.

Five Strategic Areas of Need

The Ukrainians’ skilled and committed defense of their country, combined with arms and financial support from Western countries, so far indicates that this could be a long war.

Already, the invasion is causing widespread humanitarian consequences. Mass displacement of people fleeing cities under bombardment and siege is the most visible suffering so far. But poverty, dehydration, hunger, and disease are also rising sharply in suburbs, towns, and cities under Russian attacks, which deliberately render neighborhoods unlivable by destroying infrastructure and terrorizing people into submission or flight. Businesses are collapsing and supply lines are being reduced or cut. This will all be made much worse in the next few weeks if Russia’s offensive in the south succeeds in land-locking Ukraine.

Humanitarian responses are urgently needed across five different operational zones:

  • First, in the contested areas—mostly towns and cities—that are in the middle of the fight. Under siege or fighting to avoid it, these areas have desperate humanitarian needs for millions of people.
  • Second, the unfortunate Ukrainians who come under Russian occupation and continue to resist Russian annexation.
  • Third, the millions of people across Ukrainian government-held areas who are safe but struggling with the arrival of displaced people and significant economic disruption.
  • Fourth, and in many ways the easiest to help, the millions of Ukrainians who reach life in exile in Europe and elsewhere. Here, alongside aid and integration, family tracing systems and searches for missing people, from the chaos of flight or death and detention inside Ukraine, will be extremely important.
  • Finally, and often overlooked in today’s civilian-focused aid, the very large numbers of military casualties—the wounded, dead, missing, and imprisoned on both sides of this war. Currently, most deaths are military deaths. These numbers are likely to remain high, even as civilian deaths from bombings, starvation, and disease also rise significantly.

It is also important to take a step back and look beyond the war and displacement zones. As the war continues, there will be rising humanitarian needs in Russia as its economy is crippled by sanctions and its government becomes increasingly repressive. We will also see rising energy poverty in Western Europe if Putin decides to turn off the gas tap in response to sanctions and to increase popular support at home.

Dynamics of International Humanitarian Aid

Government aid and citizen-led mutual aid have both boomed in the first two weeks of the war. Western governments are allocating billions in bilateral aid to the Ukrainian government and to frontline governments in Eastern Europe who are coping with the immediate phase of the displacement crisis. They are also pumping money into the usual humanitarian network of big UN, Red Cross, and NGO agencies grouped in and around the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which is chaired by the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths. Alongside this formal sector, thousands of humanitarian start-ups are now in play, as is always the case in the burst of humanitarian support around new crises. Most of these will fade away but some will prove brilliant, essential and resilient in the months to come. The creativity of locally-led aid must not be smothered and marginalized by the big beasts of the UN, Red Cross, and NGO world.

UN agencies and NGOs that are primarily financed by Western liberal states will operate effectively in resistance areas controlled by the Ukrainian government and along the displacement routes in Europe. But they will be refused a major role by Russia who will prefer humanitarian help from political allies in China or India. Putin’s government may well launch false flag operations against Western agencies and make them the objects of intense disinformation campaigns, similar to those targeting the White Helmets in Syria. Their professed neutrality will not be accepted by Russian authorities unless they can be useful as bargaining chips or humanitarian hostages. Many forms of humanitarian aid are likely to be criminalized to ensure total Russian control of aid allocation in occupied areas of Ukraine.

National and locally-led networks are more likely to survive in some form in contested areas and Russian occupied zones. Ukraine’s welfare state, the Ukrainian Red Cross network, and the widespread church networks of Ukraine’s various denominations will likely face persecution but will have more opportunities to persist. I believe that these networks are the channel through which Western aid and mutual aid initiatives might permeate contested and occupied zones. However, I also expect that Russian occupying authorities will clamp down on and co-opt church and Red Cross networks alike. They will insist on leadership changes and put Russians in charge of the remnants of the welfare state. Soon, the Russians will claim “there is no emergency” in occupied areas, even though many people will in fact be hungry, sick, or detained.

Western aid and funding will, therefore, be deliberately and inevitably channeled to parts of the country that are actively resisting the Russian invasion—without any pretense of humanitarian neutrality. Such aid will be working in solidarity to ensure that the Ukrainian government (which Western governments are also supporting with weapons and economic uncoupling) is able to keep functioning as an effective and legitimate government and that its people are helped to survive during resistance. Nevertheless, Western aid should remain impartial (in all parts of the country) by helping wounded or detained Russian soldiers and fleeing Russian civilians.

Humanitarian Corridors

Ground corridors which allow civilians to be evacuated on foot or by road are being tried but have already been manipulated by Russia, as evacuated civilians are attacked or only offered routes into Russia and Belarus. Displacement almost certainly supports Putin’s goals. He wants Ukraine’s land. He does not want millions of democratically minded people on it. Nevertheless, it remains imperative that humanitarians push for evacuations. Russian forces will ultimately permit some of them after tormenting people with false starts and continuing bombardments.

But the scale of this crisis requires more than ground corridors. It also needs air corridors for food drops and “digital corridors” that enable safe internet access for humanitarian cash transfers, document and data protection, and family tracing beyond the reach of hackers.

The war in Ukraine will not be one in which the Western-funded humanitarian system simply scales up and expands across the war as a neutral humanitarian third party. Many governments and aid agencies will opt for political solidarity with Ukraine, and those that try neutrality will constantly be met with Russian suspicion, refusal, attack, and control.

—Hugo Slim

Hugo Slim is a Senior Research Fellow at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. He has worked for Save the Children, Oxfam, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, the United Nations, and the ICRC. His new book is Solferino 21: Warfare, Civilians and Humanitarians in the Twenty First Century (2022).