U.N. to Call for Up to $2 Billion in Aid to Ukraine

Already at least 70,000 people have fled the country since the Russian invasion.

By , , and
A woman and two children after crossing the border from Ukraine to Slovakia.
A woman and two children after crossing the border from Ukraine to Slovakia.
A woman and two children walk after crossing the Slovakian-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia, on Feb. 25. Peter Lazar/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations plans on Monday to appeal for up to $2 billion in assistance over the next three months to address a looming humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee their homes for safety and Russian forces continue their attacks on the nation’s major cities, according to a diplomatic source briefed on the plan.

The U.N. assessment comes at a time of mounting concern among world powers that Russia’s invasion could completely decapitate the Ukrainian government. The U.N.’s top relief official cited reports of shelling on urban centers and other communities across Ukraine, population movement, and unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties and damage to residential infrastructure.

“I’m extremely concerned about the impact of the ongoing escalation on civilians, everyday people like us, like you and me,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday. “I think it’s fair to say hundreds of thousands of people are on the move in Ukraine and out of Ukraine.”

The United Nations plans on Monday to appeal for up to $2 billion in assistance over the next three months to address a looming humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, as hundreds of thousands of civilians flee their homes for safety and Russian forces continue their attacks on the nation’s major cities, according to a diplomatic source briefed on the plan.

The U.N. assessment comes at a time of mounting concern among world powers that Russia’s invasion could completely decapitate the Ukrainian government. The U.N.’s top relief official cited reports of shelling on urban centers and other communities across Ukraine, population movement, and unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties and damage to residential infrastructure.

“I’m extremely concerned about the impact of the ongoing escalation on civilians, everyday people like us, like you and me,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Friday. “I think it’s fair to say hundreds of thousands of people are on the move in Ukraine and out of Ukraine.”

Griffiths said the situation on the ground was too chaotic and fluid to say precisely how many people have been displaced or fled the country. But he said early figures compiled “some hours ago” suggested as many as 50,000 had already crossed the border into Poland and another 20,000 into Moldova. He added that the U.N. anticipates a “significant increase in numbers.”

The U.N. is relocating nonessential staff and family members, Griffiths said, but it remains committed to maintaining—and even expanding—its operations inside and outside Ukraine. (The U.N. has had a limited involvement in humanitarian needs in eastern Ukraine since fighting first broke out there in 2014.) “We have not left, we are not leaving,” he said. “Obviously people there are bunkered down at the moment, but we’re expanding our presence in Ukraine and scaling up efforts to help meet the needs of people affected across that country.”

Griffiths said the U.N. is continuing to finalize its funding pledge, but he confirmed that “it will be well north of a billion dollars.” He said the U.N. hoped that a significant portion of that money would be provided in cash, which can then be delivered to needy beneficiaries via the internet.

There could be spillover effects for relief operations well beyond Ukraine, he warned. World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley told Griffiths Friday that Ukraine produces about 50 percent of the wheat the organization distributes to needy communities around the world.

The move comes as Ukraine’s neighbors, including Poland, Hungary, and Romania, are preparing for a major influx of Ukrainian civilians fleeing conflict that could amount to the largest internal refugee flow Europe has seen since the end of World War II. On Friday, there were reports of lengthy lines at the Polish border with Ukraine.

In a press briefing, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova said that three government ministers had been assigned to coordinate the country’s humanitarian response and were putting together a needs assessment, gathering supplies, and working to make a plan to quickly distribute aid through the country. Markarova, who spoke on Thursday with U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, could not confirm how many people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting so far.

In the months before the invasion, as Russian President Vladimir Putin slowly began amassing forces near Ukraine’s borders, top officials in Kyiv warned that a full-scale war could force millions of Ukrainians to flee west. “The human cost for Ukraine would be catastrophic, but Ukrainians would not mourn alone,” Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, wrote in December 2021. “The sudden appearance of between three and five million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion would be just one of many major concerns facing European society.”

By Friday, Russian forces had advanced to parts of the outskirts of Kyiv, the country’s most populated city and seat of government, as Russian missiles and shells pounded the city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country would continue fighting despite the mounting odds.

“We are not afraid of anything,” Zelensky said in an address to the nation after Russia launched its invasion. “We are not afraid to defend our state. We are not afraid of Russia. We are not afraid to talk to Russia.”

On Thursday, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, urged Ukraine’s neighbors to keep their borders open to those fleeing the war and pledged to support efforts to help those forced to leave the country. European Union countries near Ukraine, such as Poland, have already set up reception centers for refugees and pledged to support Ukrainians fleeing the conflict with food, shelter, and medical care.

“We have already seen reports of casualties and people starting to flee their home to seek safety,” Grandi said. “The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating.”

Prior to the invasion, U.S. intelligence analysts reportedly warned policymakers that war in Ukraine could lead to between 25,000 and 50,000 civilian deaths, 5,000 to 25,000 Ukrainian military deaths, and 3,000 and 10,000 on the Russian side.

“The intensification and spread of the conflict risk a scale of death and destruction that are frightening to contemplate, given the immense military capacities involved,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the top U.S. foreign aid agency, announced on Thursday it was deploying a specialized disaster assistance response team to Poland to coordinate the humanitarian response.

Some humanitarian workers have also expressed concern that sweeping Western sanctions against Russia could have knock-on effects on vulnerable Ukrainian populations, including restricting the flow of food and commodities into the regions controlled by Russia and driving up the prices of key staple goods.

Private relief groups have been urging the United States and its partners to ensure that tough sanctions against Russia don’t impede the flow of aid into Ukraine, according to one humanitarian source. In the past, the United States and other key powers have introduced humanitarian exemptions to sanctions, but those measures have often been characterized by relief agencies as inadequate. Griffiths said he would work with key countries sanctioning Russia to ensure that humanitarian supplies reach those in need.

Even before the crisis, some 3 million people were in need of assistance in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, and the U.N. anticipated that 1.8 million were at risk of displacement, according to Griffiths.

Griffiths said that the effort to plan for the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine has been complicated by the difficulty of predicting who will have authority on the ground there. He said that he has been in contact with Russian authorities and would have to establish some kind of notification system with the Russians to ensure the safe delivery of assistance. But he suggested it was unclear what role the Ukrainian government would play. “It’s too early to say exactly how we’re going to deal with who at this point,” he said.

“I’ve been 45 years dealing with conflicts all over the world,” he said, “and I have never seen a situation like this before in terms of the parameters of contingency planning. Contingency planning for what might or might not happen in Ukraine was of the highest degree of uncertainty.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Sara Hagos is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @_sarahagos

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