I’ve seen the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people. At this week’s UN general assembly, world leaders must help them
18 September 2023
Recently, Michael Kofman, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the foremost analysts of the war in Ukraine, urged that the west “plan for the long war”. He was talking about the military challenges facing the country: ammunition, air defence, key enablers and scaling up training. Kofman is right – the massive scale of the operation ahead cannot be underestimated. A recent trip I made to Kyiv confirms the extraordinary bravery, resilience and commitment of the Ukrainian population. But it also laid bare the civilian cost of the war, visible and invisible. With no end to the war in sight, civilian and humanitarian needs must be planned for, not just military ones.
The omens on this score are troubling. Humanitarian aid flows from government sources are falling. Public appetite to donate has decreased as the war has dragged on and donor finances have been increasingly stretched by the cost of living crisis. The $60bn (£48bn) commitments made at the Ukraine Recovery conference in London in June were very heavily focused on rebuilding physical infrastructure. What about the human infrastructure?
The danger is of the abnormal being normalised. The Ukrainian civilian population faces monstrous stresses: the loss of loved ones, or the fear of losing them; the interruption of schooling; middle of the night air-raid alerts; huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people; the flood waters from the Kakhovka dam carrying unexploded landmines into residential areas; and civilian casualties conservatively estimated at 27,000.
But bravery and resilience are not sustained in a vacuum. Currently 18 million Ukrainians are in humanitarian need across the country, especially in areas closest to the frontline and in areas under temporary Russian military control. Nearly 6 million people are internally displaced. As battle rages, the International Rescue Committee teams that follow up after the fighting find very high levels of need among the population.
The experience of the International Rescue Committee, especially in the east but in truth across the country, is that levels of trauma are very high. In addition, those who cannot flee the fighting, notably elderly and disabled people, are in dire need of help.
Meanwhile, winter approaches, and so “winterisation” becomes a new priority. Last year Ukrainians faced freezing temperatures, and the deliberate targeting of water and power infrastructure by Russian forces intent on compromising the basic necessities for survival. This
military strategy is completely contrary to the laws of war, and is further evidence of a rising age of impunity around the world for attacks on civilians.
Planning for the long war on the civilian front also means putting mental health on a par with physical health. This is especially important for the most vulnerable populations, such as children and elderly people.
It also means sustaining evidence-based and cost-effective humanitarian action that works. Targeted cash support for affected populations should be a top priority given the working market economy, alongside ensuring that health and education services remain available. There has been some pioneering work in the Ukraine crisis, notably in online education coordinated by the Ukraine ministry of education, but also by NGOs, for example in using mobile health teams to reach close to the frontline.
There is also a vital need to support civil society actors in Ukraine, a vibrant component of the humanitarian response and often first on the scene when disaster strikes.
In 2022, Ukraine provided a good example of international response to humanitarian need. More than 80% of the UN’s appeal was funded; figures show that other conflict-affected populations, such as those in Yemen or Syria, received a quarter of that. This year, the figure for Ukraine is more likely to be 50%.
These pressing needs far afield have been exacerbated by the blockade on the export of Ukrainian grain which has had a catastrophic effect on the global price of basic foodstuffs. Nine countries are on the UN famine watchlist, and 50 million people in east Africa are going to bed hungry. They need help too.
These problems will get worse unless they are addressed. Now is the time for our leaders to behave as such. The UN general assembly meets this week. If Ukraine is the defining struggle that so many have said it is, it needs to be fought on all fronts.
David Miliband is CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He was Labour MP for South Shields from 2001 to 2013