Perspectives February 23, 2023
In War-torn Ukraine, Civic Organizations Are Vital to Victory and Rebuilding
One year ago today, the authoritarian regime in Russia launched its unprovoked, illegal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Just as when it invaded Crimea and parts of eastern Donbas in 2014, there was enormous concern for the Ukrainians who fell—or might fall—under Russian occupation. To great horror, these fears have proven justified. Amid ghastly destruction and violence inflicted against Ukrainians, reports have emerged of “kill lists” sent by Russian intelligence agencies to frontline troops. The lists include not only Ukrainian government officials, but also journalists, activists, veterans, lawyers, LGBT+ people, and religious leaders.
As we learned in the early weeks of the invasion, the Kremlin planned to “decapitate” Ukrainian society by executing, torturing, or imprisoning political and civic leaders. The heroic actions of Ukrainian military and civilian defenders prevented Russian leaders’ horrifying plan from being fully realized. In occupied areas that were liberated by Ukrainian forces, though, evidence emerged of Ukrainian officials, activists, and civilian bystanders being detained, interrogated, tortured, and murdered by Russian military and paramilitary fighters. The violence was planned, not random; atrocities and crimes against civilians are part and parcel of Russian warfare.
It was Ukrainian civil society that performed the vital wartime work of documenting these atrocities and war crimes, and of providing support to those whose lives have been forever changed by the war. The Kremlin is rightly afraid of these individuals and their organizations because it knows how vital they are to the morale and functioning of any nation. In addition to their documentation and support work, during times of war they are often the first to rally national and international resistance.
Ukrainians and their supporters are rightly focused on victory on the battlefield, but justice for victims and plans for democratic reconstruction must also be part of Ukraine’s victory strategy. The Ukrainian activists and community leaders that Putin has failed to subdue are among those who will pursue justice for victims of the war and lead the push for an inclusive reconstruction process. These brave individuals and groups need our support if these goals are to be achieved.
In just one year since the invasion, more than 68,000 war crimes have been reported across Ukraine. Russian forces have reportedly committed more than 475 crimes against journalists and media outlets in Ukraine, including firing at and wounding journalists; physical abductions; and cybercrimes. Alarmingly, human rights groups have also estimated that 2.8 to 4.7 million Ukrainians may be victims of deportation into Russia—260,000 to 700,000 of whom are believed to be children.
In addition to monitoring and documenting war crimes, dozens of organizations pivoted to prioritize work that addresses the staggering humanitarian crisis this war created. Take the example of Insight, an LGBT+ organization dedicated to promoting equality and inclusiveness. Following the invasion, Insight directed much of its work to providing humanitarian assistance to communities devastated by the war, raising hundreds of thousands of euros to reach at-risk communities. They have worked to find shelter for hundreds of displaced Ukrainians, and even partnered with Airbnb to provide temporary accommodation in Europe for families and individuals.
Ukraine’s vibrant civil society will also be key in rebuilding after the war. Democratic governments and organizations should be preparing to support Ukrainian reconstruction—not just of its cities and its infrastructure, but also of democratic institutions that will eventually need to transition to peacetime governance. The advocacy and volunteer organizations, professional associations, religious institutions, independent media, and social groups through which citizens engage with their community and government play an important role in advocating for government transparency, ensuring that a diversity of views and interests are considered in national policymaking, and serving as sources of specialized expertise.
Ukraine will win; it is only a question of when. Once Ukraine’s brave people defeat Russian authoritarianism on the battlefield, they will seek justice for the atrocities that have been committed against them. Democratic governments must stand with Ukrainian society—not just its military, but also its human rights defenders and civic leaders—through victory for Ukraine and into the equitable, democratic future for which its people are fighting.
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