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Ukrainian troops fire a missile at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region on August 2, 2022

‘Into military targets’ How Russian propaganda utilized and distorted allegations by Amnesty International that Ukrainian troops endanger civilians

Source: Meduza
Ukrainian troops fire a missile at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region on August 2, 2022
Ukrainian troops fire a missile at Russian positions in the Kharkiv region on August 2, 2022
Evgeniy Maloletka / AP / Scanpix / LETA

On August 4, the human rights organization Amnesty International published a report titled “Ukrainian Fighting Tactics Endanger Civilians,” warning that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas.” The report has provoked a strong backlash in the West, including criticism by President Volodymyr Zelensky and Amnesty’s own local office in Ukraine. The report proved immediately useful to the state media in Russia, where propagandists have insisted since the start of the war that the Ukrainian military uses civilians as “human shields.” Meduza reviews the reactions to Amnesty International’s controversial findings.

What does Amnesty International’s report actually say?

“The Ukrainian military’s practice of locating military objectives within populated areas does not in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks,” Amnesty International concluded in its report. After spending several weeks investigating Russian strikes in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Mykolaiv regions, Amnesty’s researchers found that 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’s report states that “such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets.”

Researchers noted that Russia also attacked residential areas without any Ukrainian military presence. In some areas of Kharkiv, for example, the organization “did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military.”

What has the United Nations said about fighting tactics and human rights in Ukraine?

On June 29, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report about the human rights situation in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as it stood between February 24 and May 15. Researchers found that both Russian and Ukrainian troops had occupied positions in residential areas and near civilian infrastructure without adequately protecting the civilians there.

For example, in the town of Stara Krasnianka, in the Luhansk region, Ukraine’s armed forces entered a care facility strategically located near an important road. The building was also home to older persons, people with disabilities, and support staff. Two days later, the soldiers exchange fire with “Russian affiliated armed groups.” On March 11, the invading forces attacked the care house with heavy weapons, apparently killing dozens of patients and staff. According to the UN report, Ukraine nevertheless failed to take measures required under international humanitarian law to protect the civilians present.

The UN report also describes the Russian military’s civilian endangerment, not just involving attacks on Ukrainian positions but also concerning the mistreatment of noncombatants in occupied areas. For example, also in March 2022, Russian troops in the Chernihiv region held 360 residents (including 74 children and five persons with disabilities) in the basement of a school, seeking “to render their base immune from military operations, while also subjecting them to inhuman and degrading treatment.” Ten older people died in these conditions.

How has the pro-Kremlin mass media used Amnesty International’s report?

Russia’s federal censor has blocked Amnesty International’s website since March 11, 2022, but the organization’s report on fighting tactics in Ukraine was major news in Russia on August and became a trending story on the Yandex News aggregator, which does not index the independent media. To examine how the report reverberated in the news media that isn’t technically blocked in Russia, Meduza looked at three groups: (1) the state media, (2) the formally independent and neutral media that still complies with the Kremlin’s wartime censorship and unspoken rules, and (3) the formally independent but pro-Kremlin media.

With little nuance, these media outlets reported on Amnesty International’s findings by focusing almost exclusively on the allegations that the Ukrainian military has endangered civilians and violated international humanitarian law. The coverage ignored Amnesty’s underlying conclusions that Russian and “Russian affiliated” troops are the ones firing on civilians, and that Ukrainian violations of humanitarian law do not in any way justify Russian strikes that kill and injure civilians.

What details from Amnesty’s report were missing from Russian media coverage?

  • Reported by RIA Novosti, TASS, RBC, Kommersant, and Komsomolskaya Pravda: Ukraine has operated military bases in residential areas, including schools and hospitals, and opened fire from residential areas. Missing: “Such violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks, which have killed and injured countless civilians.”
  • Reported by RIA Novosti: Ukrainian forces have endangered civilians by using weapons systems in populated areas, including schools and hospitals. Missing: “as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February.”
  • Reported by RBC: Establishing combat positions and firing from these areas makes them into military targets, leading to attacks that kill civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure. Missing: Russian forces are responsible for launching these attacks.
  • Reported by RBC: In at least three towns, Ukrainian forces moved closer to schools after attacks against their previous positions. Missing: Russia’s military has attack numerous school buildings where Ukrainian troops had taken up positions. Ukrainian soldiers moving closer to schools have relocated to avoid attacks by Russia’s armed forces.
  • Reported by RBC: On May 21, several nearby homes were damaged in an attack against a university building in Bakhmut that was being used as a military base. Missing: Russian soldiers carried out the attack, which killed seven people.
  • Totally ignored: In some areas of Kharkiv, Amnesty did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military.
  • Totally ignored: “International humanitarian law does not specifically ban parties to a conflict from basing themselves in schools that are not in session. However, militaries have an obligation to avoid using schools that are near houses or apartment buildings full of civilians, putting these lives at risk, unless there is a compelling military need.”
  • Also totally ignored: “Many of the Russian strikes that Amnesty International documented in recent months were carried out with inherently indiscriminate weapons, including internationally banned cluster munitions, or with other explosive weapons with wide area effects.”

Reactions from Ukrainian officials

Ukrainian officials have denounced Amnesty International’s report as “absurd,” “offensive,” and “disrespectful” (according to Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk), and as an attempt to establish a “false equivalence between the villain and the victim” (said Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba). Presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak even suggested that the allegations of international humanitarian law are meant to “undermine” Western support for supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Deputy Defense Minister Anna Maliar argued that Ukrainian troops establish positions in residential areas to defend civilians against Russian invasion. “While we wait around in a field for the Russian enemy, the Russians would occupy all our homes,” she reasoned. Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned that the Ukrainian government “will not allow our army and our defenders to be vilified.” (On August 5, journalist Tanya Kozyreva cited anonymous sources claiming that Ukraine’s military has already revoked the accreditation of Amnesty International staffers.)

Some of the harshest criticism has come directly from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who faulted Amnesty’s “immoral selectivity,” claiming that the organization ignores Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine. “Everyone who grants amnesty to Russia and facilitates an informational context wherein some terrorist attacks are justified or rationalized cannot be unaware that this helps the terrorists,” Zelensky said on August 4.

Reactions from journalists and human rights activists in Ukraine

Numerous journalists and human rights activists in Ukraine have joined the government in criticizing Amnesty International’s report, accusing researchers of equating Ukraine’s self-defense with Russia’s invasion.

Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Executive Director Oleksandr Pavlichenko says Ukraine’s legitimate combat mission includes the defense of populated settlements, arguing that Russia bears responsibility for any attacks against civilians in these areas. Pavlichenko also accused Amnesty International of omitting data about the use of civilian facilities by occupying troops in Ukraine.

In a post on Facebook, Public Interest Journalism Lab cofounder and war correspondent Nataliya Gumenyuk noted that militaries have the right to establish positions in residential areas so long as they warn the local population. (Amnesty’s report also states that militaries “should warn civilians and, if necessary, help them evacuate,” but researchers say they didn’t find evidence of this in the cases they examined.)

Gumenyuk says her own observations in the field and communications with both soldiers and noncombatants indicate that Ukraine’s armed forces are doing their best not to endanger civilians. She also noted that Amnesty neglected to highlight Russia’s use of excessive force against targets in populated areas, for example, by firing missiles into residential districts because a handful of Ukrainian soldiers were present.

Echoing government officials, Razumkov Center Foreign Policy and International Security Programs Co-Director Oleksii Melnyk warned that Amnesty’s report is “very convenient for Russian narratives.”

Reactions from other experts

Boyd van Dijk, the author of the recent book “Preparing for War: The Making of the Geneva Conventions,” condensed the criticisms of Amnesty’s report in a thread on Twitter. According to the University of Melbourne historian, the “most important critique” of the work is that “the Ukrainians are fighting a just war against illegal aggression and alien occupation,” and that it would be “unfair to call out their relatively marginal [international humanitarian law] violations compared to grave breaches by [the] Russian aggressor.”

Explaining that holding victim states strictly accountable for observing humanitarian law has been controversial since the laws were first adopted in 1949, van Dijk also pointed out that the Soviet Union supported an initiative by Jewish survivors of World War II that rejected “belligerent equality” when it comes to fighting tactics used by aggressors and defenders. He says Amnesty’s allegations against the Ukrainian military mischaracterize the laws in question:

The point being here is that it would be better both analytically as well as normatively to embrace the richness of [international humanitarian legal] history, rather than framing it as a strict codebook with severe limitations for those fighting against aggression and/or genocide, as the Amnesty report does.

Human rights lawyer Kirill Koroteev, who oversees the Agora human rights group’s international practice, stresses that not all violations of humanitarian law constitute war crimes. For example, using human shields is a war crime, but occupying an empty civilian building is not. The former offense is directly subject to international prosecution, while the latter is treated as a violation of human rights treaties or the national norms in a particular country.

What does Amnesty International have to say about all this?

According to the organization’s own rules, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Department is responsible for documenting violations and crimes during armed conflicts.

Amnesty’s Ukrainian office was not involved in creating the August 4 report, but staff protested the document’s publication, believing it to be one-sided and incomplete. The office refused to translate it into Ukrainian or publish it on their website. On August 5, Ukrainian branch chief Oksana Pokalchuk resigned in protest, stating in a Facebook post that her team’s work had “crashed against a wall of bureaucracy and a deaf language barrier.” She also faulted the organization’s “failure to understand the local context” and its decision to “ignore the position of the human rights community in Ukraine.”

In a widely criticized tweet after the report’s release, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard accused “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls” of waging “war propaganda, disinformation, [and] misinformation” against her organization’s investigation. “This won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts,” she added.

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