Ukrainian civil defence is integral to the response to Russia’s invasion

Civil defence has been crucial to Ukraine’s survival since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russian aggressors in Ukraine have already killed, injured, raped and robbed hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, displaced millions of civilians and destroyed substantial non-military infrastructure.

According to the latest UN statistics, Ukraine has suffered 27,149 civilian casualties so far in the war, comprising 9,614 killed and 17,535 injured. But these figures count only the victims the UN has been able to confirm, and it acknowledges that the actual civilian casualty toll is likely much higher. The dead from still-occupied areas, including the tens of thousands killed in still-occupied Mariupol alone, are yet to be counted.

Other grim statistics include more than 120,000 civilian buildings destroyed and 105,000 war crimes registered. The fighting has displaced at least 13 million Ukrainians, and an estimated 174,000 square kilometres of land has been contaminated by unexploded ordnance.

In this war, there are several threats to Ukrainian civilians, primarily from the air, but also from land and water.

Russian missiles, bombs, artillery rockets and shells, and kamikaze drones affect Ukrainians daily. Russia has repeatedly targeted civilian areas far from the frontline, including with missile strikes on targets as far afield as Lviv, near Ukraine’s western border with Poland.

The only densely populated area reasonably protected from this is the capital Kyiv, where a missile-defence system, including the latest generation of Patriot interceptors, can thwart Russian attacks. But even this cannot guarantee complete protection—falling debris still regularly threatens Kyiv’s inhabitants and damages infrastructure.

In some regions, more deadly and immediate threats come from the land. Mines are being left in battlefields and unexploded munitions litter the territories closest to the fighting.

Water-based threats include Russia’s targeting of dams, which has caused intense flooding, destroying communities and drowning civilians and their animals. Russian naval mines in the Black Sea and Ukrainian anti-amphibious minefields on the coast near Odessa claim further victims.

The long-term impacts of these threats include environmental damage—such as the destruction of forests and pollution—and damage to the critical infrastructure supporting key services like education and health care.

The war is a challenge of a magnitude that Ukraine’s civil-defence system wasn’t designed to handle. Few believed such a large-scale and destructive war would come to Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression has exposed many weaknesses in Ukraine’s civilian defence.

Shelter is one such issue. After independence, the Ukrainian government found that most of the shelters inherited from the Soviet era were poorly maintained and sold them to private enterprise. Before this war, Ukraine’s civil protection planning focused on scenarios that involved evacuations and rescues in a temporary emergency, rather than shelters for defence and survival in a war.

The invasion has shown that air defence is essential to civil defence, and Ukraine was unprepared to defend the population and critical infrastructure. The Russian military has targeted civilian electricity, heating and water infrastructure throughout the war. At the outset of the invasion, strikes on fuel depots worsened acute shortages, and at the height of the bombing campaign last winter, more than 50% of Ukraine’s energy sector was hit, causing widespread temporary blackouts.

Notwithstanding its pre-war deficiencies, Ukraine’s civil defence has shown resilience.

The government has demonstrated its ability to maintain general control over the war effort and to coordinate the interior ministry’s specialised teams with the efforts of Ukrainian communities.

Substantial digitalisation of public services has allowed the government, local authorities and other providers of critical services to function adequately throughout the war. The stability of mobile phone and internet services has played an important role as a lifeline for civil-defence control and coordination. As the war escalated, private providers quickly established independent power supplies to keep access continuous and stable.

Digitalisation has also given financial institutions the stability they need to operate, and the readiness of Ukrainian cyber systems to withstand Russian attacks was crucial to this. Ukraine’s transportation system also proved resilient, at least enough to support evacuations and conceal military logistics.

Ukraine’s air-raid alert system has provided timely warning all over the country, apart from areas closest to the frontline. Soon after the start of aggression, Ukraine adopted an early warning system similar to Israel’s, combining radar, optical and other signals to detect incoming threats. Further mapping of these signals culminated in systems that warn citizens through mobile phones, the media and sirens.

Ukraine has also been working to combat Russia’s toxic disinformation campaign. Ukrainian authorities strive to maintain a careful balance between ensuring the freedom of the press and strong information-security measures and have significantly inhibited the success of Russian propaganda.

As Russia continues to target civilian populations and infrastructure across Ukraine, the resilience of these measures is crucial. Since the invasion, traditional civil-defence functions, including state emergency services, the national police and local authorities, have demonstrated a high capacity to coordinate and expand their efforts.

During the first year of the war, Ukraine brought together seven new state emergency units for chemical, biological and radiological protection and 15 new rescue units. It also established 24 new fire departments and more than 1,000 volunteer fire brigades in cooperation with local authorities.

The government made changes to enable local authorities to take radical measures for the safety of local populations in residential areas, and amended construction documentation requirements to introduce compulsory civil-defence measures for buildings that permanently house more than 50 people or temporarily accommodate more than 100 workers or visitors. It raced to develop more sophisticated shelter systems that better protect civilians, especially those studying and working, and supported evacuation efforts.

Landmine removal efforts are ramping up too. While Ukraine’s partners provided significant transport assistance and equipment, it was impossible to meet the demand rapidly and the government sought help from local businesses and the defence industry. The personnel numbers in demining units have increased by the hundreds.

Particular attention was paid to people with higher needs, especially children. Except in schools near the frontlines, formal education has continued in areas with suitable air-raid shelters. In areas where that’s not the case, children receive their lessons online. In addition to normal schooling, the military, police, rescuers, public organisations and charitable foundations have been offering a selection of courses and lessons on how to behave in extreme conditions. For example, Ukraine’s emergency services now provide online safety classes for children that teach them practical skills for responding in emergencies.

The testing of civil-defence systems in Ukraine has naturally led to important discussions about how to protect civilians in war. Whether it be maintaining air defences, removing landmines, handling chemical or biological hazards, firefighting, providing shelters and stable supplies, or ensuring transport systems can handle evacuations, the war in Ukraine has shown how important it is to be prepared. With Ukraine hoping to welcome millions of evacuated Ukrainians back home after the war, robust civil defence must remain a top priority and will be a key factor in Ukraine’s future.