Russia’s attack on Ukraine will have “devastating” humanitarian consequences, the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) warned on Thursday.
“We are gravely concerned about the fast-deteriorating situation and ongoing military action in Ukraine,” Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement.
“The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating. There are no winners in war, but countless lives will be torn apart.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a military intervention in Ukraine early Thursday, targeting key areas of cities with weapons and missiles, according to reports, just days after recognizing two Russian separatist-held enclaves in eastern Ukraine.
Grandi said there were “reports of casualties and people starting to flee their homes to seek safety.”
“Civilian lives and civilian infrastructure must be protected and safeguarded at all times, in line with International Humanitarian Law,” he stressed.
The official said the UNHCR is coordinating with “the authorities, UN and other partners in Ukraine and is ready to provide humanitarian assistance wherever necessary and possible.”
“To that effect, security and access for humanitarian efforts must be guaranteed,” he added.
“The UNHCR is also working with governments in neighboring countries, calling on them to keep borders open to those seeking safety and protection. We stand ready to support efforts by all to respond to any situation of forced displacement.”
Grandi said the UN agency has “stepped up … operations and capacity in Ukraine and neighboring countries.”
“We remain firmly committed to support all affected populations in Ukraine and countries in the region,” he said.
Donbas crisis and Russia’s military intervention
The February 2014 “Maidan revolution” in Ukraine led to former President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country and a pro-Western government coming to power.
That was followed by Russia illegally annexing the Crimea region and separatists declaring independence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Donbas in eastern Ukraine, both of which have large ethnic Russian populations.
As clashes erupted between Russian-backed separatist forces and the Ukrainian army, the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements were signed in Moscow after the intervention of Western powers.
The conflict, however, simmered for years with persistent cease-fire violations.
As of February 2022, some 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Tensions started escalating late last year when Ukraine, the US and its allies accused Russia of amassing tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine.
They claimed Russia was preparing to invade its eastern neighbor, allegations that were consistently rejected by Moscow.
Defying threats of sanctions by the West, Moscow officially recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states earlier this week, followed by the start of a military operation in Ukraine on Thursday.
Putin said the operation aims to protect people “subjected to genocide” by Kyiv and to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine, while calling on the Ukrainian army to lay down its arms.