Civilian Protection in War

24 August 2023

Today is the eighteen-month anniversary of Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine’s summer counter-offensive has made little headway. Now, both Ukraine and Russia are trying to develop the ability to resource their troops for a longer-term conflict. They want to develop the capacity to sustain the fighting over the next year, two years, three years or however long it takes. As Christians and churches, we need to pray even more earnestly for peace yet at the same time we must address the excesses in the conduct of war.

On both sides, killed and injured are well in excess of 100,000. A country with a population of 43 million has 8 million refugees (the largest numbers are in Poland, Russia and Germany) and at least a further 5 million people internally displaced in Ukraine.  That would suggest that as much as one in three of the population have had to leave their homes.

All war is barbaric but this one has been particularly brutal. In December of last year, Archbishop Justin Welby visited Irpin and Bucha as an act of solidarity following the mass executions of civilians. “Their blood calls from here, from this land, to heaven” he said while standing at the site of a mass grave. “A good ear must hear the cry of that blood”.[1] The evidence for such atrocities must be documented in the hope that there might later be an account of how and why they took place, and maybe also a reckoning for the perpetrators.

Civilian protection in war is a fundamental principle that we must strive to maintain. War is tragic but some actions in war are criminal. Russia was forced to make a major retreat in April 2022 and is now faced with the prospect of being beaten back in the Southern provinces. It has responded by taking war-fighting to a new level of destruction.

  • Fuel depots and power stations may well support an army when a country is on a war footing but the civilian population relies on this infrastructure. Port facilities and grain supplies in Odessa should not be a target for attack.
  • Dams and dykes get a specific mention in the second addition protocol to the Geneva Convention as “installations containing dangerous forces”. The destruction of the Nova Kakovka dam has been described by one Ukrainian official as the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.[2]
  • Anti-personnel mines kill civilians long after a conflict has finished. Although 80% of states have ratified the international landmine treaty others, such as Russia, still factor the use of landmines into their military strategies. Ukraine has signed the Ottawa Treaty but it has also been accused of using anti-personnel mines.[3]
  • Cluster munitions litter civilian areas with unexploded bomblets that kill children and adults. We have come a long way in recent years in establishing a norm against their use and production[4], but evidently not far enough. President Biden’s decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions will see over 1 million unexploded bomblets littering Ukraine within the short space of a year.[5]
  • Russia’s clumsy blundering missiles and artillery shells have flattened whole cities and towns. Mariupol, Bakhmut, Volnovakha, Chernihiv, and Popasna are just a few of the places where whole neighbourhoods have been levelled.
  • In the face of this destruction it might seem disingenuous to draw attention to the drone strikes on the residential neighbourhoods of elites and the business district in Moscow. The only plausible motivation must be to exert a psychological impact on Russian people in the expectation that this might cause more to turn against the war. President Zelensky has defended these attacks saying that “this is an inevitable, natural, and absolutely fair”. While I feel pain for the suffering of Ukrainians, I would like to suggest that it is none of the three.

These excesses in war need to be named, as otherwise there is a danger that they become accepted as inevitable. In the midst of war, criticism from state leaders across the world will often be partisan and muted. As civilians have greater freedom to speak up for citizens wherever they may be. Mindful of God’s love and grace to all let’s name the abuses so that when this war comes to an end we can hope to re-affirm our common humanity and recover vital international norms.

A new resource is available to help us think broadly about the Russian invasion and ensuing conflict and the situation of churches in Ukraine and Russia. We welcome your feedback in order that in the midst of suffering we can think about peace and the roles that our churches might eventually play.

Steve Hucklesby
Policy Adviser
Joint Public Issues Team

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: a briefing and resource for reflection, discussion and action.
The Joint Public Issues Team have produced this briefing and supporting resources to engage with the challenging questions posed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


[1] Archbishop of Canterbury visits Irpin and Bucha | The Archbishop of Canterbury

[2] Dam Attack Is Europe's Worst Disaster 'Since Chernobyl' | HuffPost UK Politics (huffingtonpost.co.uk)

[3] Ukraine: Banned Landmines Harm Civilians | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)

[4] Screening companies for involvement in cluster munition production has become a vital exercise for mainstream banks and institutional investors.

[5] Why the US should change course on sending cluster munitions to Ukraine (jpit.uk)