Do not fuel the fire: no arms transfers to Ukraine or opposition forces

© 2015 Human Rights Watch - A man holds a photograph of his daughter and son-in-law who were killed when a shell struck their garage in Oleksandrivka on 16 January 2015.The US government is considering initiating arms transfers to the Ukrainian government. A recent report issued by a coalition of US think tanks advocates for the transfer of weapons, including multiple launch rocket systems, anti-tank missiles, and artillery. Both sides in the conflict have used these and other types of explosive weapons in populated areas, causing high levels of civilian causalities and severe damage to civilian infrastructure.

WILPF argues that it is imperative that all arms flows are halted immediately, that no new transfers are made, and that the parties to the conflict and their allies instead invest fully in a peace process to achieve a sustainable, nonviolent solution to the crisis.

The humanitarian costs

Over the last few weeks, the United Nations (UN) reports that at least 224 civilians have been killed (and 545 wounded), bringing the overall death toll to 5358 people (with 12,235 wounded) since April 2014.

Bus stops, marketplaces, schools, hospitals, and houses have become battlegrounds, with severe damage to civilian infrastructure and transportation alongside deaths and injuries.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein criticised Ukrainian and opposition forces for the bombing and shelling of populated areas in both government- and opposition-controlled areas.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in trying to bring food, water, medicine, and shelter to civilians on both sides of the frontlines, has noted that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas has sometimes made it impossible to reach people in need.

“The situation is getting worse by the day,” warned Michel Masson, head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine. “People are hiding in basements for days on end and those who dare to venture out to collect basic aid risk being wounded or killed.”

Yet as the fighting escalates, the US government is considering sending weapons to Ukraine.

In support of this, a coalition of US think tanks released a report urging the US government—and those of Canada, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the Baltic states—to initiate arms transfers to Ukraine. Concerned that the Ukrainian military is being overwhelmed by the opposition, whose forces are reportedly bolstered by Russian arms and troops, these groups argue that the “appropriate goal” of Western military assistance is “to give the Ukrainian military additional defence capabilities that would allow it to inflict significant costs on the Russian military,” in order to deter Russia “from further aggression”.

The main objective of these transfers is allegedly to bolster Ukraine’s air defence systems. The opposition forces have been using man-portable air defence systems, surface-to-air missiles, and multiple launch rocket systems such as the Grad rocket. The Ukrainian armed forces have requested systems to detect incoming missiles but also target their own multiple launch rocket systems, artillery, sniper weapons, and precision anti-armor weapons.

While the weapons requested by Ukraine and recommended by US think tanks may be used to defend against opposition attacks, they can also be used to launch attacks.

Furthermore, the use of these explosive weapons in populated areas, whether framed as “defensive” or “offensive” operations, will cause similar levels of harm to civilians.

Multiple launch rocket systems, including Grads, have already been used extensively by both Ukrainian government and opposition forces. The Grad can fire up to 40 unguided, high explosive rockets in less than 20 seconds. They are designed for saturating wide areas with explosive force. When used in populated areas, the cost to civilian lives and infrastructure is devastating.

In Mariupol on 24 January 2015, 19 Grad rockets used by opposition forces killed 30 people and injured over 100 in about 35 seconds. In July 2014, the Ukrainian army and pro-government militias killed at least 16 civilians and wounded many more in opposition-controlled areas of Donetsk and its suburbs in at least four attacks.

The economic cost

While civilians in Ukraine pay the price of this escalating conflict with their lives, their economy is also buckling.

The Ukrainian government is spending 5–10 million USD per day to fight the conflict, according to estimates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ongoing fighting has also destroyed infrastructure and reduced production capacity in eastern Ukraine, and has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. The IMF suggests that it will take about 15 billion USD of extra funds (in addition to a 17 billion USD two-year IMF programme already agreed last year) to survive the economic crisis.

In the meantime, the recommendation by the coalition of US think tanks is for arms transfers valued at 3 billion USD over the next three years. This expenditure, funded by tax contributions from people in the countries supplying the weapons, will fuel this conflict and benefit arms manufacturers.

The political cost

This money could be better put to use pursuing a practical plan for peace. Continuing the influx of weapons, on either side, only stokes the conflict and reduces opportunities to negotiate a nonviolent solution.

The report from the US think tanks argues that the provision of military assistance will not cause Russia to escalate the conflict, because it has continuously escalated it already. Others believe that the transfer of weapons to Ukraine by US and other NATO states will provoke Russia’s involvement even further.


The United States and other NATO countries must not aggravate the crisis by providing weapons. Concerned governments should aim to prevent human suffering and facilitate the pursuit of a political solution.

  • All weapons transfers to parties to the conflict in Ukraine must stop, whether from Russia or NATO countries. No further weapons should be introduced to the crisis.
  • Armed forces must be removed from populated areas, as called for by the UN Secretary General.
  • Regardless of where attacks are launched from, parties to the conflict must not use explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • Parties to the conflict should seek a ceasefire immediately, followed by negotiations for a sustainable peace agreement.