Sleeves rolled up: Ukraine’s civil society responds to war
In the context of Russia’s military onslaught, the response of Ukrainian citizens has once again showed how an enabled and empowered civil society can be the difference between life and death. Ukrainians have stepped out of the role of victims and into that of defenders of their country. Civil society has stepped up to fund the resistance, provide humanitarian assistance, mobilise international solidarity, produce and disseminate information and document atrocities with a view to prosecution. But many Ukrainians criticise the international response. The international community should live up to the values it proclaims and mobilise practical solidarity to bolster the Ukrainian people’s efforts.
Vladimir Putin has not been the only one caught off-guard by the resilient response of Ukrainian people in the face of adversity. Countless Ukrainians who saw themselves as ordinary people with an ordinary life and ordinary expectations for themselves and their children have possibly been equally surprised by their own reaction. Every single one of them who has made it this far will remember vividly the day of the invasion, 24 February: where they were when they heard the news, what they were doing, how their saw their lives change forever. They will remember what they did next – try to get their loved ones to safety – and, more often than not, right after that – decide to help others.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted a wave of citizen and civil society action much as the COVID-19 pandemic did: one that revealed the same can-do mindset, characterised by flexibility, creativity and innovation – plus a lot of courage. The strength of the response has demonstrated, if proof were needed, that an enabled and empowered civil society is not something that can be dispensed with: it can quite literally make the difference between life and death.
Women at the forefront
At the forefront of the spontaneous surge of citizen action are many women, as they make up the bulk of those in Ukraine who have not taken up arms. Women volunteers are doing just about anything that needs to be done, repurposing their professional credentials, expertise and talents to tackle the most urgent tasks: collecting, storing and distributing medical supplies, food and water, treating the wounded and the traumatised, searching for missing people and reuniting families, organising transport and accommodation for internally displaced people, driving back and forth to collect refugees fleeing westward, hosting strangers in their homes, running shelters, temporary refuges and soup kitchens, entertaining children, connecting those offering help with those in need, and redirecting refugees towards support networks in neighbouring countries. If there is any other response you can think of, they’re probably already doing it.
Many of these are stereotypically ‘female’ caregiving tasks, taken on urgently in response to crisis. But women are also organising for a wider variety of purposes, including to document executions, bombings and war crimes; one such initiative is Dattalion, an open database documenting the war, which describes itself as ‘founded by an international team of volunteers on February 27’ and led by a group of mothers who are remaining anonymous for safety reasons.
Actions to build international solidarity started weeks before the war and redoubled as Russian threats signalled an imminent invasion. On 12 February, as about 100,000 Russian troops lined up across the border and Ukrainian authorities were busy preparing the country’s defences, thousands of Ukrainians sought to attract international attention by holding a March of Unity in Kyiv, in which they voiced their rejection of war and vowed to resist if invasion threats materialised.
When the invasion happened, massive solidarity protests were quickly held around the world. Anti-war rallies were organised all over Europe, from Estonia, Georgia and Turkey to France, Spain and the UK, across the USA as well as in Latin American cities from Mexico City to Buenos Aires, and in places as distant from the war as Australia, Israel and Thailand.
But the danger was that this might be just a moment of fleeting visibility. Solidarity needed to be deepened and sustained. The biggest fear for Ukrainian civil society is that the international community may eventually come to terms with a new status quo. People may think their governments have already provided Ukraine with all the help they can – even though that is far from true.
At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We have discussed the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.
So Ukrainian civil society set up a campaign to urge people around the world to contact their governments and post messages on social media to demand tougher measures to support Ukraine, including helping to defend its airspace and banning access by all Russian and Belarusian banks to the SWIFT international payment system. The campaign specifically asked people to fact check everything to detect disinformation spread by Russian propaganda and only share accurate information. To those with family or friends in Russia, the campaign also asked people to call them and request they take to the streets and protest on their behalf.
Funding resilience and resistance
Fundraising initiatives have mushroomed in the aftermath of the invasion, with funds helping to keep Ukrainians – both those who have fled and those who have stayed – safe, clothed and fed, supporting frontline medical workers, enabling the production of accurate and up-to-date information for the world to act on and resisting any attempt to force people in Ukraine into silence and despair.
Much of the fundraising has focused on helping internally displaced people. United Help Ukraine, a civil society organisation (CSO), is for instance using Facebook to collect donations that support the distribution of food and medical supplies to internally displaced people, refugees and the families of those wounded or killed. Among the many CSOs active in this area are Vostok-SOS, established in 2014 by human rights activists in Crimea and Luhansk to support conflict-affected people, and Voices of Children, which provides psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by conflict.
Many initiatives have been established or reoriented towards supporting frontline medical workers, including on Facebook and other social media. PROJECT C.U.R.E., of the US-based Benevolent Healthcare Foundation, shifted the focus of its ‘Support Hospitals in Ukraine’ programme from medical equipment to tactical medicine and field surgery supplies and has so far collected close to US$700,000 in online donations, approaching its one-million-dollar goal to send 40 containers of supplies to hospitals in multiple Ukrainian cities.
Other efforts have been launched to keep media outlets functioning and provide protective gear, replacement equipment and tech support to enable journalists to keep doing their job. A GoFundMe page set up by a senior media executive to help Ukrainian media relocate, set up back offices and continue operating from abroad has so far raised over US$1,200,000. Initiatives to support media work have been key at a time when Russia has sought to cut off communications and keep people in the dark in the hope of demoralising Ukrainians and breaking their resistance.
We use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles.
Ukrainian civil society has distributed a guide for international supporters, including three lists of charities – those supporting field medics and combat medicine, those supporting the army with supplies, including weapons, and all-purpose charities working in various areas. They are regularly updating the list of items most needed and providing precise instructions on how to best respond – including by connecting with diaspora groups to arrange shipments of medical supplies, rather than sending money now the supplies most urgently needed are no longer available in Ukraine.
Similarly, the international civil society platform CivilMPlus – a coalition of CSOs and activists from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, with a focus on the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – put together a list containing several options for those wishing to contribute.
People abroad seeking to provide material support to people in Ukraine also devised their own creative responses, such as using Airbnb to book accommodation they obviously wouldn’t use, as a simple way to send people some cash through an existing channel.
Documenting atrocities and disseminating information
Many civil society initiatives are focusing on producing and disseminating credible information so that the outside world stays informed and can advocate for Ukraine, and on documenting human rights violations and war crimes in the belief that those responsible will one day be called to account.
On the first day of the war, a group of civil society professionals and activists launched a website, Share the truths, to provide daily updates on the war. In its first week, the group recruited and trained some 20 volunteers to edit and translate daily updates into more than 15 languages. Day after day, its briefs have presented a condensed overview of major developments collected from reputable sources and rigorously fact-checked. Daily summaries of news reported by Ukrainian media, delivered in English for international consumption, have also been made available in podcasts.
We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here.
Many other civil society groups, including Truth Hounds and the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), have made it their duty to document and report war crimes and share this information with international media and domestic and international judicial bodies. But as the weeks have passed, they’ve warned that they need a lot more support than they’re getting. Analysing the data collected on the ground has become an increasingly draining process under constant bombings and in high-stress conditions.
This points to a bigger challenge: as a whole, civil society is facing capacity issues, not least as a result of people leaving CSOs to join defensive forces. The realities of daily life in a conflict situation can make civil society work impossible. In some regions, CSOs have had to suspend their activities on the ground, and civil society personnel have been forced to leave Ukraine. Activists have also been targeted and several are missing.
Voices from the frontline
Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.
While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population.
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.
Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.
Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the International Criminal Court, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.
In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.
On the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union (EU).
This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.
Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.
At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.
Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.
We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.
Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed at a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country.
We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.
We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.
As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.
These are edited extracts of our interviews with Ukrainian civil society. Read the full interviews here.
Advocating for more than humanitarian aid
Four days into the invasion, on 28 February, 40 Ukrainian CSOs released the Kyiv Declaration, an international appeal making six key demands: safe zones for refugees inside Ukraine; fuel, logistics support and emergency medical help, including field hospitals, mobile clinics and trauma supplies; sanctions to include a ban on energy trading with Russia; more action on Russian oligarchs abroad, including their families; support to human rights groups documenting war crimes, including tech to help documentation efforts, with a view to gathering evidence for prosecution by the International Criminal Court; and provision of anti-tank missiles and other defensive military aid.
On 8 March, a statement by the Euromaidan initiative made clear that much more than humanitarian aid is needed: to stop the increase of the number of people needing humanitarian assistance in the first place, more support must be given to Ukraine so it can fight off the aggression. Their statement demanded tougher military, economic and financial measures, including closing the skies over Ukraine to prevent bombings; providing, helping to purchase or raising funds for the purchase of fighter jets, missiles, air defence and anti-tank systems; disconnecting all Russian and Belarusian banks from SWIFT, starting with the biggest, Sberbank; blacklisting of Russia and Belarus by the Financial Action Task Force; freezing all correspondent accounts in hard currency of Russian and Belarusian banks in the EU, Japan, Switzerland, the UK and the USA and freezing all bank accounts in hard currency of large Russian and Belarusian companies; closing all EU ports to Russian ships and banning ships flying EU flags from entering Russia’s seaports; and imposing an embargo on key Russian exports, namely oil, gas, metals and minerals.
The latter echoed a key demand expressed by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, who denounced the hypocrisy of western countries that continue buying Russian gas and oil, therefore ‘supporting Ukraine with one hand, while supporting Russia’s war machine with another’. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy followed up on this declaration by sharing on Instagram a chilling video produced by Ukrainian energy companies as part of the Stop bloody energy campaign, calling for the west to stop buying Russia’s fuel.
Time for action to back solidarity
At the current crossroads, Ukrainian civil society fears that international solidarity is not being backed by strong enough action from the international community. International organisations that had a presence in Ukraine for years pulled out when the invasion happened. Foreign governments that could exert pressure continue to put their economic interests before the freedom of Ukrainians.
One thing Ukrainian civil society has not stopped asking for is consistency: it wants the international community to live up to the values it proclaims. It calls for bold action without loopholes and implementation that follows up warm words.
Ukrainians are stepping out of the role of victims and into that of defenders of their country. They don’t want to just document atrocities: they want to stop them happening. And the only way to do so is to drive out the invading army, for which they need much more support than humanitarian assistance alone. It’s essential to hear the voices of Ukrainian civil society – and be on their side, mobilising practical solidarity to bolster their efforts and enhance their fighting chance.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
To increase economic pressure on Russia, EU states should end their use of Russian oil and gas as soon as possible.
The international community should collaborate with Ukrainian civil society, including to support the collection and analysis of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity with a view to prosecution.
Civil society around the world should promote solidarity with Ukrainian civil society, including by providing funding and advocacy, logistics and communications support.
Cover photo by Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images