A row of destroyed apartment blocks in Mariupol.
A row of destroyed apartment blocks in Mariupol. © T. Kopteva

Russia’s Weaponisation of Starvation in Mariupol

Civilians deprived of health care, food, and water in what may constitute a war crime.

Tuesday, 2 July, 2024

At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its forces laid siege to Mariupol, a city in the south of Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast on the coast of the Sea of Azov. The siege lasted from February 24 until May 20, 2022 and ended in a Russian victory.  

In June 2024, Global Rights Compliance (GRC), a not-for-profit focusing on international humanitarian, criminal and human rights law, produced a report detailing Russia’s alleged use of starvation as a tactic of war in Mariupol. The Hope Left Us: Russia’s Siege, Starvation, and Capture of Mariupol City will form part of a larger dossier to be submitted to the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

GRC contributors Naomi Prodeau and Ohla Matskiv explained to IWPR’s Natasha Rimalovski how the report utilised open source intelligence, including analysis of 1.5 billion square metres of satellite imagery, to reach its conclusions.  

What was the purpose of the report? 

Prodeau: The purpose of this report was to highlight how pro-Russian forces used starvation as a method of warfare against Ukrainian civilians during the siege of Mariupol city between February and May 2022. This is the first report to date to examine the siege in its entirety through the prism of starvation as a calculated strategy for war.  

It revealed a deliberately calculated method of warfare, to accelerate the capitulation of the city by starving civilians. We also wanted to engage in this analysis because it highlights the indignity that civilians suffered as a result of being starved in multiple different ways, through deprivation of health care, food, and water.  

Considering Mariupol is still under occupation, how were you able to gain access to the information described in the report? 

Prodeau: This was an open-source investigation in which we collaborated with some expert partners like defence intelligence specialists who supported us with weapons analysis, military analysis, order of battle analysis, and corroboration of sources. Also, with open-source intelligence and geolocation experts, we analysed 1.5 billion square metres of satellite imagery.  

We analysed hundreds of photographs, videos, official public statements, and digital data, including a lot of social media intelligence. We also created an algorithm that cross-referenced damage identified by online mapping data with information from weapons specialists, as well as information that we received from the Ukrainian government and military experts. 

Matskiv: We also communicated with Ukrainian humanitarian organisations who shared important information that brought additional context and showed us the resilience strategies that civilians employed in order to meet their very basic needs.  

Do you believe Mariupol is reflective of a wider Russian policy of using starvation as a war tactic? 

Prodeau: It is undoubtable that there has been a weaponisation of food by Russian forces throughout this conflict. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, we saw that Russian and pro-Russian forces resorted to a variety of starvation tactics, like attacks against critical civilian infrastructure that provides electricity, shelter, energy, water supply, and heating. We also saw quite a few other uses of siege tactics beyond Mariupol, like in the city of Chernihiv. These included attacks on objects indispensable to survival, such as hospitals, food distribution points and obstructions to humanitarian access.  

In the south we saw an entire operation of grain theft; Ukraine was the breadbasket of Europe, and most of its grain was destined for export to countries that are heavily food insecure. We’re also incepting some research into attacks on water pipelines and poultry farms which was a Russian tactic used previously in Syria.  

Matskiv: Another way Russia starved civilians was by banning the use of our Ukrainian national currency and forcing people to use the Russian rouble. This made it so people who didn't have any roubles could not buy any food or medicine. Now we are looking more at their tax on grain storage. Grain for Ukraine has a very deep meaning; it is not only a source of food, but also a big source of income for a lot of small Ukrainian farming households. Grain is also a symbol of our country. So, destroying grain is not only destroying something we can eat, but also like taking out a brick from the base of our country. 

Prodeau: Russia also has a history of weaponizing starvation during the Holodomor, which was the great famine that the Soviet Union perpetrated against Ukraine in the 1930s. They took Ukrainian grain to feed people within the Russian territory of the Soviet Union, which essentially took away Ukrainians’ means to eat and survive. This was done to continue the propaganda of the Soviet Union as being a prosperous society but was also done by starving people. There's strong symbolism behind Russia stealing grain from Ukraine that resonates with past crimes and past trauma. 

Starvation as a war crime has not been prosecuted before. Why have you chosen to focus on it and what sort of precedent could this set for future cases? 

Prodeau: Under the law, it is a matter of intent, that there was an intent to deprive civilians of objects indispensable to survival. These crimes were not conducted by accident. And when looking at the pattern of attacks, the intentionality really comes through. There has never been a case of starvation before international courts. But it is critical for this crime to be taken on because it reflects a pattern of criminality and the intent to starve people. So, there's a particular perversion to this crime. And the way it's conducted is not in just one act, it is over a multitude of acts that courts need to apprehend. It reflects the indignity that comes from being starved slowly as opposed to an instant death.  

Russian forces claim they facilitated humanitarian aid into Mariupol; have you found any evidence to support these claims? 

Prodeau: Humanitarian aid should be impartial, and it was not here. The policy for Ukrainian aid coming in was obstruction in various forms. There’s some evidence - but very problematic evidence - from Russian forces and representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) who supported the Russian forces, that Russia provided aid. Throughout the siege, they released multiple statements claiming that Russian supporters were delivering humanitarian aid to Mariupol. But when this aid was delivered, for one, it was only ever delivered to areas that had fallen under Russian control, which was mainly to the eastern side of the city. Under the siege, any movement between the two riverbanks was only permitted for people who held special documents. So, any relief that was delivered by Russian forces could not have reached residents who were under siege.  

Matskiv: Also, Russians started a filtration where they checked everything about you: your mobile phone, all your documents, even searching your body for tattoos. In the late stages of the siege, they forced people on the left bank to even change the registration of their cars and property to Russian ones to receive any aid or any additional help. That's why I don't think we can say that they provided people with any food, water, or other objects indispensable for survival. 

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