A report from Amnesty International published Thursday claims that Ukrainian forces are putting civilians at risk by setting up bases in residential neighborhoods, even as authorities continue to deride Russian forces for committing atrocities against Ukrainians.
“Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets.”
Russian strikes have hit civilians in populated areas where Ukraine has set up bases, Amnesty said.
Ukraine’s tactics have put civilians in harm’s way in 19 towns, in part because they launched strikes from residential areas and based themselves in civilian buildings in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Mykolaiv regions, according to the organization.
The NGO said Ukraine’s strategy of placing military operations in populated areas “does not in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks.”
The report is drawing criticism from Ukrainians and officials who are monitoring suspected Russian crimes against humanity. An adviser to Ukrainian President Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, accused Amnesty International of feeding into Russian propaganda that has been trying to blame Ukrainians for the subsequent death and destruction in a war that Russia started.
“Today, Moscow tries to discredit the Armed Forces of [Ukraine] in the eyes of Western societies and disrupt weapons supply using the entire network of influence agents,” Podoliak said on Twitter. “It is a shame that the organization like @amnesty is participating in this disinformation and propaganda campaign.”
“The only thing that poses a threat to Ukrainians is [Russia’s] army of executioners and rapists coming to [Ukraine] to commit genocide,” Podolyak said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in a video posted to Facebook that the report was not a balanced examination of the war.
“This behavior by Amnesty International is not about finding and conveying the truth to the world, but about creating a false balance between the criminal and the victim, between the country that destroys hundreds and thousands of civilians, cities, entire territories, and the country that is desperately defending itself, saving its people and the continent from this onslaught,” Kuleba said, according to Ukrinform.
Journalists in the region have reported findings that align with some of the Amnesty report. Associated Press journalists reported that after Russian strikes on residential buildings in eastern Ukraine, locals said that military personnel had been staying there. In Kharkiv, AP reporters observed military vehicles at a university that the Russians hit, as well as soldiers and supplies at a school that was also hit.
Just because Ukrainians are operating from a defensive standpoint and working to thwart Russia’s war in Ukraine, doesn’t mean they can ignore international law, according to Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” Callamard said in a statement. “Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
But, Amnesty argues, Ukrainian authorities have a responsibility to keep civilians out of harm’s way, too. Callamard urged Ukrainian officials to step in and make sure that civilians are evacuated from zones where the military plans to operate.
“The authorities should immediately locate its forces away from populated areas, or evacuate civilians from where the military is operating,” Callamard said.
Ukrainian authorities have ordered civilians to evacuate the Donetsk region. Zelensky told civilians living in Donetsk under Ukrainian control that it would be safer to leave.
“The more people leave Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” Zelensky said.
In some cases, Ukrainian authorities have urged civilians to evacuate in anticipation of Ukrainian forces waging a counteroffensive against Russian fighters.
Amnesty acknowledged that Russian forces aren’t just going after Ukrainian bases in populous areas, though, and in some cases when Russians hit civilians in Ukraine, it’s not due to Russians going after Ukrainian bases, but rather because Russia is targeting populous civilian areas, without any clear military goal.
“In some areas of the city of Kharkiv, the organization did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military,” Amnesty said.
Amnesty’s report comes as investigators probe suspected Russian war crimes.
From the beginning of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine in February to the end of July, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) has tracked 12,584 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 5,327 killed. The OHCHR suspects the numbers may be higher.
The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor announced in March the ICC would be investigating allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide in Ukraine, and investigators have been collecting evidence ever since. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said that as of Thursday, Russian soldiers have committed approximately 26,465 war crimes against Ukraine and its people. Over 40 countries, including the United States, Britain, and European Union counties, have pledged to support work to investigate suspected war crimes Russian forces have committed in Ukraine.
The ICC might be in a position to put forward its first war crimes trial against Russians this winter, according to a Bloomberg report. And Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andrii Kostin, said earlier this week Ukraine is considering handing over several cars to the ICC.