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Orest Deychakiwsky

Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine: The Human Dimension


Orginally published in The Ukrainian Weekly

Ukraine’s existential fight to defeat Russian aggression is not just about regaining lost territory.  It is also about some 5 million men, women and children living under Russia’s boot in nearly 20 percent of Ukrainian territory whose elementary rights and freedoms have been trampled over with impunity.
To be clear, even if the territory occupied by Russia was uninhabited, Ukraine would be legally and morally justified in fighting to liberate every inch of that land.  Russia has flagrantly contravened the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Final Act, including those of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders that are so essential to peace, security and international order.
One of the other principles that is a cornerstone of international peace, prosperity and justice is respect for human rights. Russia’s abuses of human rights in the Ukrainian lands it forcibly occupies are on a scale not seen since Stalinist times.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent disingenuous proposal for a cease-fire along current front lines is a non-starter. The truth of the matter is that any cease-fire or peace agreement that does not result in the liberation of all internationally recognized Ukrainian territory would consign nearly 5 million Ukrainians to untold misery. There can be no just and lasting peace so long as Ukrainian land remains under Russian domination. In the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Oleksandra Matviichuk, “Ukrainians yearn for peace – but occupation is not peace.”
We can look no further than the horrendous war crimes that have been documented in now-liberated territories, including such places as Bucha and Irpin. Or we can look at the abysmal human rights climate in Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the decade since Russia’s initial 2014 invasion. They are an ugly playbook for what is happening throughout Russia-occupied Ukrainian lands today.
A recent United Nations human rights report describes the situation thus: “Russia has instilled a pervasive atmosphere of fear in the occupied regions of Ukraine, perpetrating egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws in an attempt to cement its control.”
Several recent reports, including the State Department human rights report covering the Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine, chronicle the serious, widespread abuses perpetrated against civilians in the occupied territories. Among them, we see summary executions, disappearances, unlawful detentions and torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including sexual violence. Adults and children are abducted and forcibly transferred to Russia. The Russian occupiers and their lackeys especially target pro-Ukraine activists, and even those simply opposing or believed to oppose the occupation, including Crimean Tatars, journalists and civil servants. There are numerous political prisoners and detainees. Prison conditions are harsh and life-threatening. Relatives of the repressed have been punished. People are encouraged to report on one another, exacerbating the climate of fear. Cultural artifacts are looted, and places of worship have been appropriated or destroyed. Homes and businesses are pillaged. These are just some among the litany of horrors that take a toll not only on the victims but on their loved ones. Russia’s actions in Ukraine even traumatizes larger communities.
There are also severe restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, peaceful assembly and association, religious and minority freedoms and abuses of those who attempt to exercise these rights.  Mind you, this is far from the complete list of human rights violations and restrictions of freedoms.
The Russian government is conducting a systematic program to integrate the newly occupied areas, as it has been doing for the last 10 years in Crimea and the Donbas.
There is a relentless campaign of Rus­si­fication. Individuals are forced to take Russian citizenship in a so-called process of “passportization.” Woe to those who refuse, as it is virtually impossible to receive health care, social benefits, humanitarian aid, work in the public sector or even drive without a Russian passport. As newly-minted Russian citizens, individuals are forced to serve in the Russian armed forces. All of this grossly violates international humanitarian law.
The Kremlin is working intensely to erase the Ukrainian language and rewrite history books. Moscow’s satraps eliminate Ukrainian literature and replace it with Russian propaganda that glorifies the invaders and demonizes Ukrainians as neo-Nazis and allies of Satan.  Additionally, Russians are being brought in to colonize Ukrainian lands.
As is often the case, children bear the brunt of the trauma and harm, with Russian curricula replacing Ukrainian education in schools, or kids face indoctrination into Russian ideology and a rejection of all things Ukrainian. Russian military and patriotic education centers proliferate in occupied Ukrainian cities. They aim to prepare youth for military service. Child­ren from “questionable” families are deported to Russia. All these practices fall squarely in line with the Kremlin’s despicable attempts to eradicate Ukrainian cultural, religious, historic, political and national identity.
One stark expression of Russia’s contempt for democracy was the farcical September 2023 local and March 2024 Russian presidential elections held in the Russia-controlled parts of the illegally annexed Zaporizhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. These elections did not meet even the bare minimal standards for democratic elections. People were intimidated and coerced to vote – sometimes at gunpoint. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that Russia’s pattern of holding sham elections in occupied Ukraine was a cynical attempt to “legitimize Putin’s illegal attempt at a land grab.”
The contrast between Ukrainians who live in the 80 percent portion of the country that is free – even under wartime conditions of martial law – and those who live under the Russian yoke could not be more glaring.
The Ukrainian government’s goal, shared by most Ukrainians, is to free their repressed fellow citizens living under Moscow’s terror. Putin’s goal is to keep the illegally annexed territories and forcibly integrate them into Russia. The two goals are diametrically opposed. As much as we yearn for Ukraine to emerge victorious, we simply do not know what the future will bring. But we do know that continued Western commitment vastly improves the chances that, sooner or later, Ukrainians in Russia-occupied territories will be liberated from bondage and their human dignity will be restored.

Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at orestdeychak@gmail.com.