At the end of March, Russian rockets hit a Kiev department store, leaving nothing more than the charred skeleton of the multi-story building. Eight people died. Ukraine strongly condemned the attack on civilian targets.
The Russian Defense Ministry, in turn, justified the attack at the time by saying that Ukrainian troops had used the site as a missile depot. Specially released drone footage actually showed military-style vehicles near the mall and should serve as evidence. Like so much information in this war, it was not possible to definitively verify whether the video is genuine.
The dispute over the shelling of the department store in Kyiv is an example of many other similar cases that have occurred in the war so far. They show the dilemma facing the government and military leadership in Kyiv: reconciling the country’s defense plans with protecting the population.
This is exactly where a report by Amnesty International from Thursday begins. The non-governmental organization accuses Ukraine of unnecessarily endangering civilians with its military tactics.
The central accusation: the soldiers had “repeatedly operated out of residential areas”. Janine Uhlmannsiek, an expert for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International Germany, explained this on Thursday, citing investigations by the human rights organization in the war zone.
The Ukrainian action is “a violation of international humanitarian law” that is not justified by the “Russian war of aggression, which violates international law”. Not surprisingly, the reactions were violent. President Volodymyr Zelenskyj replied, among other things, that the human rights group was trying to “shift the responsibility from the attacker to the victim”. Even the Ukrainian branch of the organization distanced itself from the work of its British counterparts.
“The Ukrainian office was not involved in either the preparation or writing of the text of the publication,” Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, wrote on Facebook. Representatives of her office would have done everything to prevent the publication. In her opinion – and that of her team – the report was “one-sided”.
Criticism has also come from other experts. “The report is written in a very undifferentiated manner,” explains Wolff Heintschel from Heinegg in an interview with the Tagesspiegel. One of the main research areas of the professor at the European University Viadrina is international humanitarian law. There is no absolute ban on using civilian buildings for military purposes, he explains, referring to the first additional protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Convention.
On the other hand, so-called “passive precautionary measures against attacks” are clearly stated. “A war party should endeavor to remove the civilian population from the vicinity of military targets, taking humanitarian and military considerations into account,” von Heinegg explains the legal situation. Military targets should also be avoided in the vicinity of densely populated areas.
The wording “military consideration” is particularly relevant for classifying the allegations in the Amnesty report. There is a reason why most of the fighting has been taking place in the Ukrainian metropolises since the beginning of the war.
“The Ukrainian army has learned from its mistakes since the annexation of Crimea,” says Markus Reisner, colonel in the Austrian Armed Forces and head of the development department at the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt. Back then, the Russian army was inflicting massive casualties on Ukraine “just by being able to shell them with their artillery in the open.” This time it’s different.
The army command in Kyiv deliberately shifted the fighting to urban areas in order to be able to entrench themselves better. “Only in this way was the Ukrainian army able to survive,” Reisner emphasizes the importance of this tactical decision. So if you link military necessity to the applicable international legal situation, the outrage at the Amnesty report becomes understandable.
For the Kremlin, on the other hand, the report is a welcome gift, says Markus Reisner. “Such reports are of course used for propaganda purposes and in the struggle for information sovereignty in this war,” he is certain.