Ukrainians concerned as Red Cross considers opening office in Russia

The International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed it’s considering opening up an office in Russia near the Ukrainian border in a bid to scale up humanitarian efforts in the embattled area — a move that stoked concerns among some Ukrainians.

Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said the charity desperately needs to scale up its humanitarian aid in Eastern Ukraine.

The organization is looking at whether it could get supplies into Ukraine through Russia.

“There are ongoing discussions [of] where we can set up a logistical base. But for the time being, we don’t have an office,” he told CBC News.

With more than $82.5 million raised in Canada to support the charity’s work in Ukraine, some have concerns about the optics and implications of the move. Ukraine’s government on Sunday said it strongly objects to the prospect of the Red Cross setting up an office in Russia.

Ukrainians living in Manitoba also voiced their objections to the move. “We were appalled, frankly,” said Myroslava Pidhirnyj, a board member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s Manitoba provincial congress.

“Would they be negotiating with Hitler? Would they be establishing a center in Germany when people were actually being brought to their deaths? A similar thing is going on in Ukraine now.”

Myroslava Pidhirnyj, a board member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress’s Manitoba provincial congress, says she and other members are ‘appealed’ that the Red Cross would consider setting up an office in Russia. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

‘Overwhelming bulk’ of aid money to be spent in Ukraine: Red Cross

No money has been spent in Russia yet, and the “overwhelming bulk” of money will continue to be spent inside Ukraine, Stillhart said.

Right now, three-quarters of funds raised by Canadians are going directly into Ukraine, while the remainder is being spent in neighboring countries helping refugees, like in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, he said.

Stillhart said it’s important for the Red Cross to engage with Russia.

“We need to be perceived on the ground by the warring parties as neutral,” he said.

“We need to have a minimum consensus that we can operate across these front lines. And that is what will help us and will continue to help us, hopefully, to reach even more people than today.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends an interview with some of the Russian media via videolink, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues. Ukraine has asked the International Red Cross to not set up an office in Russia. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Russia could exploit situation, expert says

Paul Larson, an expert in the supply chains for humanitarian aid and professor at the University of Manitoba, applauded the Red Cross for trying to stick to its principles of neutrality and independence.

But he said doing so in this case is a “very tricky matter,” and said the optics of working in Russia could be perceived as the Red Cross endorsing the lies the Kremlin is espousing for its invasion.

“I can say personally, if it seemed like even an appearance of them endorsing that lie, they probably got my last donation for some time to come,” he said.

Larson also warns there is a “big possibility” that supplies and resources sent into Russia for Ukraine could be stolen by the Russian military.

“There’s numerous examples of aid going into war torn countries to help civilians, but that’s essentially been stolen by the military powers or the guys with the guns,” he said.

“Given the recent history of what Russia is doing, I have no doubt that if they had a chance that they would they would exploit the situation.”

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