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Russia’s ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ Come From Syria Playbook

  • Russia is strategically using and abusing humanitarian corridors in its war in Ukraine.
  • On Tuesday, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said at least 9 humanitarian corridors were open.
  • Experts say Russia has used the evacuation routes as both targets and negotiating chips.

Russia is touting its “humanitarian corridors” in Ukraine as evidence it does not wish to wage war on Ukraine’s civilian population. But experts familiar with its use of such corridors in Syria — and those observing their implementation today in Ukraine — say that Moscow is only using them as a deceitful accessory with the aim of gaining ground in its war against Ukraine.

Ukraine’s deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Tuesday that at least 9 humanitarian corridors were opened in conjunction with Russia, with 150,000 civilians escaping areas like Mariupol, Kyiv and Sumy.

But the news comes in the backdrop of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian NGO leaders repeatedly accusing Russian forces of shelling humanitarian corridors, laying landmines along them and generally disrupting the safe passage of aid workers and medical supplies. 

Oleksandra Matviychuk, chair of the Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian humanitarian NGO founded in 2007, is still based in the country. She told Insider that much of her group’s day-to-day work involves coordinating which corridors are open — and having volunteers monitor them to see if they can actually evacuate people safely.

“Some days the evacuations are shelled by Russians,” Matviychuk said. “Some days the corridors aren’t open.”

The tactic — attacking the very humanitarian corridors it establishes — is one that Russia repeatedly implemented in Syria, Sasha Ghosh-Simionoff, a Syria expert and the head of aid and development firm People Demand Change, told Insider.

In Syria, the strategy often played out as the regime of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, besieged entire cities and framed the offer of humanitarian corridors as an olive branch and alternative to a scorched-earth policy.

“The way in which Russia would agree to opening up humanitarian corridors with the opposition and then shell those corridors or prevent people from leaving — and the willingness to use siege warfare like they’re doing in Mariupol and other cities — is all reminiscent of what they did in Aleppo in 2016,” Ghosh-Simionoff told Insider. “They would set up corridors, but say, ‘You can only leave to regime-held areas.'”

And in Syria, like Ukraine, Ghosh-Simionoff said, Russia uses the corridors to gain territorial control and international sympathy, playing the role of humanitarian while pushing Ukrainian cities to surrender.

‘Ceasefires’ don’t stop the shooting

Flimsy ceasefires usually accompanied the agreements in Syria, as is playing out in Ukraine now too.

Both Ghosh-Simionoff and Matviychuk also described other similar dynamics playing out.

According to the United Nations, more than 3 million Ukrainians have become refugees in neighboring countries, while almost 2 million are internally displaced within their own country.

“They need accommodations, they need medical assistance, they need psychological assistance,” Matviychuk said of those Ukrainians stuck living in “destroyed cities, villages, settlements, and couldn’t be evacuated.”

“It is a humanitarian crisis here, and today the humanitarian assistance also can’t reach certain cities because Russians don’t allow it,” she said.

Ghosh-Simionoff added that similarities between Russia’s military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine include “the way in which Russia has tested what the UN and the West and specifically the United States was willing to tolerate in terms of abuse or disregard for international standards and norms.”

“The tolerance for the level of abandonment of international standards and norms was quite high, especially the use of chemical weapons, and the use of total warfare strategy,” Ghosh-Simionoff said. “So besieging whole towns or cities, intentionally targeting civilian non-military infrastructure, like hospitals, use of cluster munitions — they did all of that in Syria from 2015, when Russia intervened in the conflict. And time after time again, the West did nothing.”

In Ukraine, civilians, journalists, schools, hospitals and nuclear facilities have all been fair game for the Russian military.

The US has accused Russia of lying about the US or Ukraine planning to use chemical weapons, arguing that it signals that the Kremlin may itself use the weapons.

In Syria, there have been at least 17 chemical weapons attacks, according to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons, which has charged the Syrian army with carrying out many of the gruesome attacks. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that the Syrian army used chemical weapons.  

“To me, that’s an indication that Russia may be preparing to use chemical weapons,” Ghosh-Simionoff said. “It could be to create a false flag attack that they then blame on Ukraine and try and muddy the waters, or simply just to tell the Ukrainian people, “Look, we will destroy everything in your country to win. Don’t think we won’t.” And to send that message through the use of a chemical weapon is extremely insidious and extremely scary.”

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