Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, tens of thousands of people have been killed and maimed on Ukrainian soil, many Ukrainian cities have been reduced to rubble, and their inhabitants forced to flee; UN investigations have found evidence of war crimes.
Throughout the year, UN staff have continued to provide humanitarian assistance, despite fleeing to bomb shelters at the sounds of air raid warnings, and facing cuts to electricity and heating, along with the Ukrainian population.
The conflict has also had an outsized impact on the rest of the world; Ukraine has long been called the ‘world’s breadbasket’, because of its prodigious ability to produce grain. As fighting raged, exports were slashed, causing a spike in global prices, and increasing the risk of food insecurity and starvation, before a UN-led initiative, backed by Turkey, helped to get grain supplies flowing again.
‘Give peace a chance’
From the very first hours of the war, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned of dire consequences for the entire world.
At the request of Ukraine, on February 23, 2022, at exactly 9:30 PM New York time, an emergency meeting of the Security Council began at UN Headquarters. The Secretary-General spoke first, saying “rumours and signs” indicated that an attack on Ukraine was inevitable. From the head of the Council’s iconic horseshoe-shaped table, he addressed the President of Russia directly, urging him to stop his troops from attacking Ukraine, and to “give peace a chance.”
But 20 minutes later, with the meeting still underway, the morning of February 24 had already arrived on the European continent, and Vladimir Putin announced the start of a “special military operation”. The invasion had begun.
Emerging from this late-night meeting of the Security Council to speak to reporters, the Secretary General again addressed President Putin: “In the name of humanity bring your troops back to Russia. In the name of humanity do not start what may be the most devastating war since the start of the century”.
UN humanitarian agencies working in Ukraine quickly shifted into high gear and reported almost immediately that the elderly and women with young children were fleeing. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 50 thousand people left Ukraine less than 48 hours after the invasion, and this was just the beginning of what was to become the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
Withdraw troops immediately: UN General Assembly
On March 2, during an emergency special session, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding that “the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its armed forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.”
The measure was supported by 141 UN members with 35 abstentions, and with five delegations – Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea – voting against.
On March 24, during the newly resumed emergency special session, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution “Humanitarian Consequences of Aggression against Ukraine”, which contained a demand for Russia to immediately stop hostilities in Ukraine, and end attacks on the civilian population and civilian infrastructure. The General Assembly called for an end to the blockade of Ukrainian cities, in particular Mariupol.
This resolution was supported by 140 states. Five delegations – Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea – opposed it and 38 abstained.
However, while resolutions of the General Assembly carry significant political weight and moral authority, these calls remained unheeded and later that same month, the UN received reports of civilian killings in Bucha and other areas in the suburbs of Kyiv, of the bombing of Kharkov, and the destruction of Mariupol.
UN chief’s shuttle diplomacy
Whilst condemning the Russian invasion as a clear violation of the UN Charter, Mr. Guterres acted as an intermediary, visiting both Russian and Ukraine at the end of April, meeting President Putin in Moscow, and President Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
As a result of the agreements reached during the visits of António Guterres to Moscow and Kyiv, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to carry out two operations to evacuate civilians from the territory of the Azovstal steel plant, and from other areas of the city of Mariupol.
The Secretary-General’s direct involvement in talks also paved the way for the Black Sea Grain Initiative, one of the few areas in which Russia and Ukraine have been able to reach agreement.
The initiative came about in response to the sharp increase in prices for food and fertilizers around the world: Russia and Ukraine are the main suppliers of these products to world markets, and their ability to export was significantly curtailed once hostilities began.
With the mediation of the UN and Türkiye, and the personal involvement of Mr. Guterres, a procedure to allow safe passage of ships carrying grain and other food products across the Black Sea was agreed.
The deal allowed Ukraine to resume exports of grain, other food products, and fertilizers. The products are sent through a safe maritime humanitarian corridor from three key Ukrainian ports: Chornomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhne.
Since the agreement was concluded in July, some 21.9 million metric tons of grains and foodstuffs have been exported, and the initiative has been credited with helping to calm global food prices, which reached vertiginous highs in March 2022. Following the implementation of the Initiative, prices began to fall and, by March 2023, had fallen some 18 per cent from their peak a year earlier.
Nuclear safety threatened
Soon after the invasion, Russian troops seized the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and took control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP).
Three other nuclear power plants – Rivne, Khmelnitsky and the South-Ukrainian nuclear power plants – also operate in Ukraine; in March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed alarm over the safe operation of these facilities and declared its intention to send inspectors to all stations.
IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi personally headed a mission to Chernobyl, and then, as shelling continued in the area, he and his team went to Zaporizhzhia, assigning several international inspectors to stay and monitor the situation.
Mr. Grossi warned the members of the Security Council, that any damage to Zaporizhzhia – which is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant – or any other nuclear facility in Ukraine, could lead to a catastrophe, not only around the plant itself, but throughout the wider region; the warnings brought back memories of the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, when radioactive fallout from the destroyed plant’s reactor spread as far as 500 kilometres from the site.
Today, Zaporizhzhia is operated by Ukrainian personnel, working under Russian control. The IAEA inspectors stationed at the plant regularly report on the situation, and the head of the IAEA continues to lead negotiations on creating a security zone around the plant.
Teams of IAEA nuclear safety and security experts are also stationed at Ukraine’s other nuclear power plants (NPPs) and at the Chernobyl site. “With our experts’ presence at Ukraine’s nuclear power facilities and at the Chernobyl site, we are intensifying and deepening our technical activities to help prevent a nuclear accident during the terrible and tragic war in Ukraine,” Director General Grossi said in January 2023, after the IAEA flag was hoisted at the Rivne Plant, as a symbol of the Agency’s presence.
A humanitarian disaster
From the very beginning of the war, staff from several UN agencies have been actively working to alleviate the resulting humanitarian disaster, in collaboration with hundreds of humanitarian partners, most of whom are on the front lines.
Relief efforts have reached close to 16 million people – nearly a third of the population – with lifesaving and life-sustaining humanitarian assistance. This has included cash transfers to almost 6 million people, and vital supplies such as food, water, medicine, hygiene kits, and winter supplies, delivered by thousands of convoys to war-torn communities, and to those who had fled to safer areas.
During the winter, many Ukrainian towns were cut off from electricity by Russian attacks against critical infrastructure. The UN worked around the clock, delivering generators to critical facilities across the country, mainly to hospitals and shelters, to make sure essential services could continue, and people would be protected against the cold of the winter. The UN also provided material and carried out repairs so that people whose homes had been damaged could live with dignity.
A year into the war, some communities are having to cope with the total destruction of their way of life and the towns where they used to live; that’s according to Johannes Fromholt of the UN Migration Agency (IOM), who recently spoke to UN News from Kurakhove, a town near the frontline, in Donetsk Oblast.
“We see heavy fighting, which has intensified even in the past week. Some towns in this area are 80 to 90 per cent damaged, some even more. You could say they don’t even exist anymore. Even on the way to Kurakhove, a missile strike occurred in a nearby city, which killed three people and injured 12.”
Millions of Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes. Many of them have become internal migrants and millions are scattered throughout Europe. Employees of the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and other UN agencies work at checkpoints and in host countries, assisting with the registration, settling and protection of refugees.
Appeals for billions in aid
None of the humanitarian work would have been possible without the unprecedented support of donors. In 2022, the international community raised $3.8 billion for Ukraine, most of it channelled directly through the hundreds of organizations which were part of our Humanitarian Flash Appeal. The Organization itself allocated $20 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) on the day Russia invaded Ukraine and, less than a month later, another $40 million was sent to Ukraine.
For 2023, the UN is seeking $5.6 billion for Ukraine: $3.6 billion to provide over 11 million people – out of nearly 18 million in need – with humanitarian aid, and $1.7 billion to help Ukrainian refugees in 10 host countries: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.
Today, the efforts of UN system agencies are focused on providing warm shelters for displaced people, delivering aid to newly accessible areas, facilitating mine clearance, and providing humanitarian and psychological assistance to all those in need.
The Ukrainian authorities, including with the support of the UN, are creating warming points throughout the country where people can warm up, charge their phones, drink hot drinks, and receive first aid. In Ukraine, these centres are called “points of invincibility”, where people not only keep warm, but also help each other, support, and comfort.
Speaking to UN News on the one-year anniversary of the war, Denise Brown, the senior UN official in Ukraine, said that, despite the risk of injury or death, UN staff continue to bring aid to the most hard-hit regions of the country.
Investigating war crimes and human rights abuses
In the first few days of the invasion, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council established an Independent International Commission of Inquiry, to investigate alleged human rights abuses and violations in Ukraine.
Its members, after conducting investigations in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions, came to the conclusion that war crimes were committed in these regions of Ukraine in February and March 2022, when they were under the control of Russian forces: city blocks were razed to the ground, and civilians were executed, tortured and raped. The age of victims of sexual rape ranged from 4 to 82 years.
The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened its own investigation into crimes committed in Ukraine in March, sending a team of analysts, forensic experts, anthropologists, and lawyers to visit the sites of mass atrocities.
At the same time, as part of Ukraine’s claim against Russia under the Genocide Convention, the International Court of Justice issued a ruling, obliging Russia to immediately “suspend the military operations it launched on February 24, 2022 on the territory of Ukraine.”
‘Military solutions will not end this war’
After a full year of war, and with no end to the conflict in sight, the General Assembly and Security Council met in late February2023, echoing the calls for peace made a year ago.
In the General Assembly Hall, an emergency special session resumed to consider a new draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, a demand that Russia leave Ukraine, and emphasizing the need for accountability for serious crimes and justice for all victims.
“Let this anniversary and the anguish of millions before our eyes over the last year serve as a reminder to all of us here in this Hall that military solutions will not end this war,” said Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi. “Too many lives, livelihoods, families and communities have been lost. Russia can end its aggression and the war it has unleashed. Russia must end this hell of bloodshed.”
141 Member States voted in favour and seven against – Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia and Syria. Among the 32 abstentions were China, India and Pakistan.
On the day of the anniversary, 24 February 2023, a ministerial-level meeting was held in the Security Council, which has held 40 debates on the conflict since it began.
Addressing the council António Guterres called for urgent action, reminding ministers that “life is a living hell for the people of Ukraine”.
“The guns are talking now, but in the end we all know that the path of diplomacy and accountability is the road to a just and sustainable peace, in line with the UN Charter and international law,” the Secretary-General said.