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Russian Invaders in Ukraine Targeted Law Enforcement

Invasion coupled with lawlessness increases vulnerability to traffickers.

Key points

  • When Russians invaded Ukraine, they worked to degrade law enforcement capabilities.
  • Experiencing lawlessness on top of an invasion multiplies trauma.
  • Traumatized refugees are particularly vulnerable to traffickers.

When the Russians invaded Ukraine back in February, they deliberately attacked the infrastructure of law enforcement. In Kyiv, the Russians destroyed five police buildings and 25 police cars, and they degraded the ability of police officers to communicate with each other.

That put citizens up against the dual nightmares of being attacked by foreign invaders while simultaneously enduring lawlessness, as criminals now roamed the area unimpeded. According to Max MacMillan (a pseudonym, for security reasons) of Silent Bridge, an organization of law enforcement officials, policy experts, and business executives intent on stopping the sexual exploitation globally, the dual nightmare had a purpose: to create so much stress that it would undermine people’s ability to function.

MacMillan has seen firsthand what such stress does people’s ability to function. Refugees from Ukraine can be almost uniquely vulnerable to human traffickers, he says. They may be so traumatized that as they cross the border to supposed safety, they lose all situational awareness and stumble blindly into the clutches of waiting traffickers.

One Woman’s Experience

Ukraine has a population of 44 million people, and since the war began, roughly 5 million have fled to neighboring countries. One is Oksana Melnyk (a pseudonym). MacMillan describies her experience, careful to disguise the details, because it is representative of what can happen to refugee women.

Before the war, Melnyk lived quietly and safely with her husband and their 5-year-old daughter. Her husband was a civilian working in the local Mariupol steel plant.

In the days before February 24th, the couple was aware that Russia could invade their country, but they didn’t believe it would actually happen. They were sure that world opinion would deter an invasion. They were convinced that the massing of Russian troops on the Ukraine border was just saber rattling and intimidation.

But then the war came to Mariupol. Oksana and her husband began experiencing the Russian bombing and shelling. The two agreed that Oksana and their daughter would flee to safety in Poland, and he would stay in Mariupol to fight for his country.

The trip to Poland was arduous. What would normally be an 18-hour drive took five days. It meant travel by train, bus, and walking. With the breakdown in law and order, Melnyk was in constant fear for herself and her child.

By the time she arrived at the crossing point to Poland, she had what MacMillan describes as the “1000-yard stare.” Between fear and exhaustion, plus being torn from her family and her support system, knowing that her home was now rubble and that her husband was fighting for his life, unsure if she’d ever see him or any other family member again, she was, in MacMillan’s evaluation, “hardly there.”

The Danger Point

At the reception center in Poland, she met kindly people from NGOs who were looking out for her, offering her food, water, coffee, soft drinks, even a toy for her daughter. Her defenses were down, or more accurately, non-existent.

A kindly man approached her and told her, “Come with me. I’m here to take you to where you can get a hot meal and a place to sleep.” He escorted her to a waiting van.

The man was a human trafficker. If bystanders hadn’t intervened, she’d probably never have been heard from again.

“Part of her problem,” explains MacMillan “is she had no idea that there could be predators on the other side of the border. She didn’t come from the economic class that would have made it possible for her to travel outside of Mariupol, and compared to the world she was entering, she came from a sheltered background. Quite possibly she had never even heard of human traffickers. Tired, exhausted, traumatized, and unsuspecting, she was an ideal target for the predator.”

War-torn areas are exactly what human traffickers are looking for, says MacMillan. Their targets are especially easy because so much trauma means “they just don’t have their wits about them.”

What Can Be Done?

Silent Bridge.would like to take away from the traffickers one of their biggest advantages: that their victims are unsuspecting. MacMillan urges all NGOs be more aware of the high vulnerability of the Ukrainian refugees to being trafficked. And he'd like the NGOs to put more effort into warning potential victims about the danger.