This post is co-authored by Yevheniia Korotka and Suleiman Mamutov

Armed conflicts entail a long list of risks and losses for those who do not directly participate in the hostilities: civilians. To lower these risks, parties to armed conflicts should create and promote an environment that is conducive to the protection of civilians. Issues that pose conflict-related threats and hardships for civilians often stem from poor communication and, in some cases, a low level of trust between civilians and members of the military. That being said, there are measures that can be implemented to help both groups overcome these problems and cultivate better relations, including through trust building, improved understanding, and constructive dialogue.

For more than six years, civilians and the military have been learning to live alongside one another in dozens of Ukrainian villages and towns in the government-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Constructive dialogue between these two groups to jointly address issues that naturally arise from coexisting for long periods of time will not only pave the way for better relations, but it will also make the lives of civilians safer.  

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) met with representatives of four communities along the contact line to discuss and identify issues they regularly face as a result of constant military presence in the region. The phrase that came up most during these sessions was: “We live like neighbors.” What the community members meant by this was, as is the case in any relationship between neighbors, there are good days and bad days. Trust-building flourishes in an environment of mutual understanding and recognition of each other’s concerns, interests, expectations, and goals, and being able to have an open and honest dialogue is a prerequisite for building this environment.

Based on our conversations with members of the community, we selected and refined a few of the key issues civilians raised that, if adequately addressed through measures like constructive dialogue and trust building, could lead to significant improvement in their daily lives.

  1. Civilians often do not know how to communicate with the military to articulate their needs.

“People open up and speak very willingly because no one has asked them about [civil-military relations] so far,” says Margarita Oksanichenko, CIVIC’s Ukraine Protection Officer. This demonstrates that there is a desire for communication among civilians, but current mechanisms lack the efficiency to encourage regular dialogue.

The long-lasting armed conflict causes severe stress and trauma for everyone. As civilians feel less protected, they often find it challenging to pinpoint and voice their problems to the military. “We don’t know what’s going on. They don’t tell us anything,” Novotroitske activists say. “I, for example, do not know whom to approach for help [among the military],” says a resident of Mariinka.

In many cases, the issues civilians want to raise actually directly relate to the activities of the military. For example, locals face restrictions on their movement within the settlements they live in due to checkpoints involving lengthy identity checks, which were put in place by the military.

The military and civilians could openly discuss such issues and jointly look for solutions. For example, the military could pre-vet lists of civilians living within the settlement to decrease the time spent on ID checks, or they could inform the next checkpoint when they check a car so that when a person arrives to the next checkpoint his/her car is not checked again. These are just a couple of possible solutions. However, through a comprehensive dialogue between civilians and the military they might come across other ways to address the problem.

Military leadership and initiatives to establish a regular dialogue through clear and systematic communication channels will substantially advance civil-military relations.

  1. Civilians see weapons every day.

Communities living in frontline settlements know well what weapons look like because they see them on military personnel every day. This increases general fear of the military and leads to an increased feeling of danger among civilians. It also exacerbates the trauma civilians have already experienced over the course of the almost seven years of conflict. Children are especially vulnerable to conflict-related stress and anxiety, which may result in serious mental health issues.

“They take weapons everywhere: to the post office and the store. Our children see guns every day,” said a resident of Mariinka.

Indeed, according to the Law of Ukraine On the Statute of the Internal Service of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, “servicemen during the performance of their duties have the right to store and use weapons as prescribed by law”.

However, there are ways to decrease civilians’, and especially children’s, daily exposure to guns, and therefore build a stronger foundation of trust between them and the military. The military should understand that there is no clear military or security necessity to carry weapons in certain places, like in shops or cafes.

  1. Civilians are concerned about military rotations.

Communities visited by CIVIC in July 2020 explained that every four to six months there is a “rotation” or complete replacement of the military brigade. In some communities, residents note that it is challenging to establish contact with the new rotation unless their commander is the first to take the initiative immediately upon arrival.

“New [military rotation] have arrived and the same old game started again,” said activist Oksana from Mariinka.

“After the rotation, the military move around with weapons, even in shops, they are rude and swear obscenely at remarks from residents,” said a member of the village council during a group meeting.

CIVIC’s 2019 report, “Falling Through the Cracks: Improving Ukraine’s Assistance to Conflict-Affected Civilians”, stresses how civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) staff deployed to the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) zone should be members of a permanent stand-alone CIMIC unit. The frequent rotation of temporary CIMIC Joint Centers and Coordination Groups affects the military’s efforts to build civilians’ confidence, as the performance of short-term officers often does not live up to their expectations. In some cases, the CIMIC staff don’t have the necessary skills to engage in dialogues with civilians, and in other cases they are just not motivated enough to build long-term relationships with civilians in their area of responsibility.  

As a result, civilians may not fully trust the Armed Forces in order to openly discuss with them their needs and concerns. Brigade and battalion commanders should better use their CIMIC officers to engage with communities in their areas of responsibility. This would include an understanding of the strategic value of building long-term relationships with civilians along the contact line and guidelines to stipulate a smooth handover of civilian contacts, issues, and past practices – which can’t be achieved without building the military’s dialogue and communication skills.

  1. “Success stories” of cooperation between civilians and the military are not known widely.

In some cases, civilians and the military help each other and participate in joint events, just like good neighbors would do. Although such cooperation is rather unsystematic and directly depends on military rotations, these instances are a great example of how mutual trust can be built.

In May 2014, the AFU first initiated CIMIC, which aims to provide systematic support and assistance to civilians, coordinate initiatives, and develop measures to protect populations in frontline settlements.

CIMIC officers are in the best position for gathering information on civilian needs and addressing the harm suffered by residents. A systematic dialogue between civilians, the military, and local authorities can solve many problems civilians have been facing throughout the duration of the conflict.

“The military is the same people as we are. They came to us to take a bath and recharge phones,” says Ivan Ivanovych, a pastor of the local “Kovcheg” church in Krasnohorivka, recalling the events of 2014-2015 when the military had problems with water and electricity supply.

“Do they help? Yes. They bring humanitarian assistance, unload coal for older people, buy candy for children,” said the residents of Novotroitske village.

Their children stayed at home, so [the servicemen] are very kind to children. When we meet in the store, they always buy something for our kids,” said a woman from Mariinka.

“They have a delicious field porridge,” reported several of the civilians CIVIC interacted with.

To make such positive stories more common, we recommend military-civil administrations, local governments, and the AFU share their best practices and disseminate them among communities and across military structures. This will allow for cross-learning and will build the confidence of both the military and civilians in the conflict zone to engage in dialogue for the sake of joint problem-solving.  

Above all, the residents of frontline communities in Ukraine dream of an end to the war.

“I want peace,” Leonid, a pensioner living in Novotroitske, frankly answered when asked what would help him to feel safer in his community.

With the support of the European Union, CIVIC is implementing a project, “Building Capacity for Civilian Protection in Eastern Ukraine,” within which CIVIC trains civilians from five communities of Donetsk oblast as well as CIMIC officers to develop their skills in civil-military dialogue.

CIVIC’s approach focuses on the need for civilians to play an active role in their protection and develop the ability to cooperate with all interested parties, including the military, to solve protection issues. We believe that high-quality dialogue between the military and civilians can help establish mutual trust and build confidence in each other, which, in turn, will help civilians and the military to become good neighbors.

This material has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of this document are the sole responsibility of Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

Image courtesy of CIVIC Photo/ Yevheniia Korotka