Increasingly, Ukrainians are confronting an uncomfortable truth: The military’s understandable impulse to defend against Russian attacks could be putting civilians in the crosshairs. Virtually every neighborhood in most cities has become militarized, some more than others, making them potential targets for Russian forces trying to take out Ukrainian defenses.
“I am very reluctant to suggest that Ukraine is responsible for civilian casualties, because Ukraine is fighting to defend its country from an aggressor,” said William Schabas, an international law professor at Middlesex University in London. “But to the extent that Ukraine brings the battlefield to the civilian neighborhoods, it increases the danger to civilians.”
But Ukraine’s strategy of placing heavy military equipment and other fortifications in civilian zones could weaken Western and Ukrainian efforts to hold Russia legally culpable for possible war crimes, said human rights activists and international humanitarian law experts. Last week, the Biden administration formally declared that Moscow has committed crimes against humanity.
“If there is military equipment there and [the Russians] are saying we are launching at this military equipment, it undermines an assertion that they are attacking intentionally civilian objects and civilians,” said Richard Weir, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s crisis and conflict division, who is working in Ukraine.
Over the past month, Washington Post journalists have witnessed Ukrainian antitank rockets, antiaircraft guns and armored personnel carriers placed near apartment buildings. In one vacant lot, Post journalists spotted a truck carrying a Grad multiple rocket launcher. Checkpoints with armed men, barricades of sandbags and tires, and boxes of molotov cocktails are ubiquitous on city highways and residential streets. The sound of outgoing rockets and artillery can be heard constantly in Kyiv, the capital, the squiggly white trails of missiles visible in the sky.
The Ukrainian military has “a responsibility under international law” to remove their forces and equipment from civilian-populated areas, and if that is not possible, to move civilians out of those areas, Weir said.
“If they don’t do that, that is a violation of the laws of war,” he added. “Because what they are doing is they are putting civilians at risk. Because all that military equipment are legitimate targets.”
But the line between what constitutes a war crime becomes more blurred if residential neighborhoods are militarized and become battlefields where civilian deaths are inevitable.
“Ukraine cannot use civilian neighborhoods as ‘human shields,’” said Schabas, adding that he was not suggesting this is what is happening [it is happening!].
“If there are military targets in the area, then it might undermine their claim that a specific strike was a war crime,” said Weir of Human Rights Watch.
There are plenty of places in Kyiv where military forces coexist within civilian enclaves. Offices, homes or even restaurants in many residential neighborhoods have been transformed into bases for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, armed militias made up mostly of volunteers who have signed up to the fight the Russians.
Inside municipal buildings and in basements, including one underneath a coffee shop, Ukrainians make molotov cocktails to be used against Russian forces if they enter the capital. Inside a large factory complex, nestled in front of a bustling main highway with shops and apartment buildings nearby, a paramilitary force trains recruits before deploying them to the front lines.
Security experts for Western media organizations have noted that Ukrainian air defenses are so centered in the city that when they hit incoming Russian rockets, missiles or drones, the debris has sometimes struck or fallen into residential complexes.
Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers warn journalists not to take photos or video of military checkpoints, equipment, fortifications or impromptu bases inside the city to avoid [evidence of war crimes?!] alerting Russians to their locations. One Ukrainian blogger uploaded a TikTok post of a Ukrainian tank and other military vehicles positioned at a shopping mall. The mall was later destroyed March 20 in a Russian strike that killed eight people.