Amnesty International said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces are violating international law and putting civilians at risk by setting up bases in residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, sparking an angry reaction from Kyiv.
Kyiv said the rights group was drawing a “false equivalence” between the actions of Russia’s invading forces and the Ukrainians defending their homeland.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said later on Thursday in his daily address that Amnesty tried to “pardon the terrorist state and shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
“There is no condition, even hypothetically, under which any Russian strike on Ukraine can be justified. Aggression against our state is unjustified, aggressive and terrorist aggression.
“If someone makes a report in which it is assumed that the victim and the aggressor are somehow equal, and if some data on the victim is analyzed, and the aggressor’s actions are ignored at the same time, that cannot be tolerated,” he added.
Amnesty said in its report that the tactics “in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks” and that some of Russia’s “war crimes”, including in the city of Kharkiv, are unrelated.
But she pointed to incidents that emerged when Ukrainian forces put civilians at risk in 19 towns and villages in the Kharkiv, Donbass and Mykolaiv regions.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces endangering civilians and violating the laws of war when operating in populated areas,” said Amnesty International’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard.
“Being on the defensive does not exempt the Ukrainian army from respecting international humanitarian law.”
The report said residential areas where Ukrainian soldiers have been stationed are miles from the front lines, and there are “viable alternatives” available that will not endanger civilians.
But she said the soldiers did not ask civilians to evacuate the areas, even though their strikes on Russian forces exposed them to retaliatory fire.
Amnesty International researchers have seen Ukrainian forces use hospitals as “de facto military bases” in five locations, and in 22 schools.
Although schools were closed during the conflict, they were located in civilian neighbourhoods.
“We have no say in what the army is doing, but we are paying the price,” the report quoted a resident as saying.
The Ukrainian government responded strongly to the report, with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba calling the allegations “unfair”.
“This AI behavior is not about finding the truth and communicating it to the world, it is about creating a false equivalence – between perpetrator and victim, between a state destroying hundreds and thousands of civilians, cities and territories, a state that is fiercely defending itself.”
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov called the report an “aberration” as he said he called into question the right of Ukrainians to defend their country.
Senior presidential aide Mikhailo Podolyak insisted that Ukraine’s armed forces take all measures to move civilians to safer areas, and noted that Amnesty is complicit in spreading disinformation about the Kremlin.
“The only thing that poses a threat to Ukrainians is a (Russian) army of torturers and rapists coming to (Ukraine) to commit genocide,” he wrote on Twitter.