Oksana Korchynska volunteers at a frontline medical post for wounded troops. A renowned activist and former MP, who has always concentrated on health issues, she can talk about the Red Cross at length.
But not in a good way. She recalls how in the past Ukraine paid the Red Cross Society millions of hryvnias monthly, and how the money was then funneled to a pro-Russian group. “It was a totally destructive organization”, she says, “I remember them from 2014, always bringing only expired medications to the hospital in Mariupol, always trying to use our medical facilities to create its fictitious reports”. In the end, the Ukrainians lost patience. They stopped the payments and diverted the money to cancer care instead.
As for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Korchynska says, she has met them at stabilization centers on the front at various stages of war. “They are against military medics using ICRC help . . . only civilian doctors can use it. They insisted on this multiple times. Military doctors can’t even use ICRC supplies to assist the civilian population!”
“My experience of working on prisoner-of-war issues with them is also not positive,” she adds.
In 2022, Yulia “Tayra” Paievska, a well-known Ukrainian female paramedic, was captured by Russian forces in Mariupol. “We called ICRC about her submitting a search request. They just redirected her husband to various officials. Eventually, I asked ICRC representatives on the front lines where Tayra’s husband should submit his request. And he finally did that. Three months later, we were told that his request had been registered”, Korchynska says.
She acknowledges she cannot know how many Ukrainian prisoners have met ICRC officials in captivity, but that of all those she has spoken to, none has been visited.
Paievska, the paramedic, was eventually exchanged. She had been tortured by Russian forces and had been denied medical assistance. She described the Red Cross mission on Russian territory as a complete fiasco.
Halyna Klempouz, callsign Pearl, is a Ukrainian combat veteran. Her boyfriend, an Azov unit soldier, has been held in Russian captivity since the Azovstal battle in Mariupol last year and was finally released this month. “We, the Association of Azovstal defenders families, do communicate with the ICRC in Ukraine. Most of us are relatives of Azov soldiers. The problem is that ICRC can’t get to the Azov defenders. We don’t know in what conditions they are kept. We do have an idea where they are held, and in which colonies, thanks to information from prisoners who were already exchanged. But throughout the period of their captivity, no one from the ICRC has visited prisoners from our unit,” she says.
“That’s just my understanding at the moment; I don’t see the full picture of ICRC work and don’t have the right to criticize”, Klempouz adds. But she notes that ICRC has certain rights and privileges as a result of its status and that when Russian troops were accused of murdering as many as 50 Azov captives at Olenivka on July 29, the Red Cross had not visited the scene. “I was so angry about that. It’s an international organization with a certain constitution. With certain duties . . . ”
The Russian department of the ICRC did not want to speak to this author. However, the Ukrainian branch was willing to converse.
As we begin our discussion, Kyiv-based ICRC Media Relations Officer, Oleksandr Vlasenko, says that ICRC’s general aim in war zones is to restore the lives of those affected by war closer to normality. The ICRC is concentrated on vulnerable categories, helping them with food, hygiene, and housing restoration. “We work a lot with local authorities, to help them get through the cold season, to restore water supplies. We help hospitals, giving them ‘wounded kits.’ It doesn’t matter if wounded are military or civilians, a wounded person isn’t a combatant anymore . . . ” he explains.
Vlasenko is “ready to talk about everything”. Except about visits to prisoners-of-war, because that can be harmful, he says,
“We are restricted here, we never say what we see during visits, what violations have taken place, how many people we visited. We don’t talk about that,” he explains, adding that the ICRC gets to see “hundreds of prisoners, but there are thousands of them”.
Since December, when the organization visits prisoners-of-war, it been able to deliver letters from relatives, and to take back letters to family.
“I can say that we never criticize any officials. We seek to maintain access. I can say that we don’t have access to 100% of people on either side. We’d like to see everyone . . . But we don’t have keys from the jails, we can’t kick the doors open and say that we want to take a look at this or that. Of course, if they don’t want to let us in, they won’t let us in,” Vlasenko explains.
He also mentions the organization’s searches for missing people and its acceptance of requests from relatives on both sides.
“Our organization has a unique role”, he sums up.
I accept this, as do many Ukrainians. The ICRC really does have a unique role and a long history not only applying international humanitarian law but also influencing its development. There are reasoned defenses to its approach.
But there is another side to this. Firstly, it faces a ruthless country absolutely indifferent to the suffering of anyone, military or civilian. On May 8, for example, Russian missiles struck the main Red Cross warehouse for the Odesa region, destroying the 10,000 square feet facility and its humanitarian aid stocks. Russia murders prisoners on the battlefield and in prison, tortures and burns, and rapes as routine policy.
Putin’s Russia is a monstrosity and it faces an organization that knows all about such regimes, but not how to deal with them. Famously, ICRC officials were hoodwinked at the height of the Holocaust in 1944 when they visited the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. All was well, the ICRC said. It really wasn’t.
Unfortunately, international humanitarian law is often fiction. It can be a statement of a hoped-for perfection while the on-the-ground reality is far different. Its representatives never kick down doors. Even when that door conceals someone being tortured to death.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.