‘People don’t want to go to Russia’: Putin’s ‘humanitarian corridors’ spark anger

The phrase “humanitarian corridors” has proved to be a misnomer to many Ukrainians in recent days, as they found themselves running into more fear and terrifying dead ends.

Over the weekend thousands of residents in Mariupol and Volnovakha who boarded buses to flee Russian forces twice had to return to dark, freezing bases and shelled-out houses. The International Committee of the Red Cross said both sides had failed to make a “concrete, actionable, and precise” evacuation plan.

Then Moscow’s announcement on Monday that it would authorize more “corridors” from Kyiv, Mariupol and Kharkiv, as well as Sumy in north-eastern Ukraine, was met with anger among Ukrainians when it emerged that proposed destinations included cities in western Russia and Belarus.

“It’s despicable, and cynical in the extreme,” Mariupol’s mayor Vadym Boichenko told the Financial Times by phone. “People don’t want to go to Russia, they want to stay in their homeland, Ukraine. No one wants to leave. ”

Ukrainian leaders described Moscow’s initiative as a publicity stunt designed to produce footage of Russia helping desperate people and to support Vladimir Putin’s propaganda about “denazifying” Ukraine and “liberating” it from its elected government.

“It’s bullshit,” Solomiia Bobrovska, an MP with Ukraine’s opposition Holos party who is involved in humanitarian issues, told the FT. “Nobody wants to evacuate” to countries responsible for killing Ukrainians, she said.

Ukrainian officials and foreign defense analysts said Russia has used the concept of “humanitarian corridors” to distract diplomatic partners and exploit war victims as propaganda tools in previous conflicts. It did so during the war in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas in 2014-2015, and in Syria, where Russia’s bombing campaign helped Bashar al-Assad’s regime crush rebels in cities such as Aleppo and Homs.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke to Putin for nearly two hours on Sunday, dismissed Russia’s proposal as “moral and political cynicism.”

“I don’t know many Ukrainians who want to take refuge in Russia,” he said on Monday.

Separately humanitarian officials and campaigners have accused Russian forces of targeting people during evacuations.

Human Rights Watch said on Monday that Russian forces killed civilians in a “disproportionate and reckless” attack during an evacuation of Irpin near Kyiv on Sunday, where Ukrainian officials said eight civilians had died.

Boichenko said that on Saturday and Sunday, shortly after authorities had arranged buses to transport thousands of people out of Mariupol, “the shelling resumed”, sending civilians back to their bomb shelters.

On Monday, Boichenko said, Russian forces had entered villages they controlled on the outskirts of Mariupol and forced their inhabitants – at gunpoint – to evacuate to Russia. “They said move to Russia or we’ll shoot you,” he claimed. He added that one elderly woman was forced by Russian soldiers to walk 27km to a territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. These claims could not be independently verified by the FT.

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said negotiations on humanitarian issues during the war in Syria were “part and parcel of the military campaign designed to help advance armed efforts.”

“Moscow Used Humanitarian Diplomacy This ITSLF Consistently Undermined, and Processes That Thunder – The US and Uned – Valued More Than Russia Ever Did, He said.

At several points during the 2012-2016 siege of rebel-held east Aleppo, the Assad regime and the Russians offered humanitarian corridors into regime-controlled territory, which people at first were reluctant to use, particularly younger men eligible for military conscription. Later in the war, as Russian and Syrian bombing intensified, more were willing to accept the offer.

Russia and the Assad regime used humanitarian dialogue as a “tool of war” which the western powers and the UN were in effect forced to accept because they did not want to intervene, Hokayem said. “When Russia hit a UN convoy or broke its promises or hindered humanitarian access [the western coalition] kept silent, preferring to maintain the illusion than face the reality and act accordingly. ”

In the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last month, leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions began evacuating some women, children, and men above military age. They said they were doing so to defend civilians but western officials saw the evacuations as part of the narrative Russia was building to justify a war.

On Monday, Russia proposed two escape routes from Mariupol – one east to the Russian city of Rostov, and the other to Zaporizhzhia in western Ukraine, where the pro-Kyiv population has been seeking refuge. One analyst said he believed Moscow was looking to alter the demographics of cities coming under its control.

Putin “wants a general displacement,” said Hugo Slim, a senior fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University, and a humanitarian specialist. “He wants to disperse democratically minded people to the west.”

Bobrovska, the Ukrainian opposition MP, said Russia’s desire for propaganda lay behind its offer. “They are doing this specifically to make pictures,” she said. “They frighten people, and then take photos to say ‘Look, we are giving people bread.”

Additional reporting by John Paul Rathbone in London, Erika Solomon in Berlin and Victor Mallet in Paris

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