Ukrainian Bomb Shelters: The Debate Between National Security and Access to Information

The lack of up-to-date information leads to the loss of civilian life

18 July 2023

Tetyana Oleksiyuk

Future of Ukraine Fellow

In times of war, many “normalities” can be abandoned for the sake of national security. However, the rationales for limiting the public’s access to information regarding bomb shelters in Ukraine are misconceived and constitute a real danger to life.

Russian troops bombard Ukrainian cities and villages daily, significantly damaging infrastructure, homes and public spaces.

Kyiv is a constant target for attacks: on just one day, 6 June 2023, 35 Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles were fired in the direction of the capital, according to the Air Force Command of UA Armed Forces.

This attack has tragically influenced the lives of countless innocent civilians, and their safety has become an issue of daily importance for the central and local governments.

Disseminating information

Ukrainians are informed about attacks by the Air Raid Alert Map of Ukraine website, special mobile phone applications and siren sounds.

However, merely being aware of the situation is insufficient; the people urgently require secure and adequately equipped bomb shelters for protection. Providing these shelters is crucial to ensuring the safety and well-being of the affected communities.

Most shelters in Ukraine are categorised as “basic”, often basements or other underground structures deemed suitable for human habitation.

As bomb shelters should be life-supporting facilities with proper ventilation, water, food and communication, this requires considerable expenses, which public funds cover. The absence of these crucial elements raises concerns about the adequacy and effectiveness of the existing shelter infrastructure, calling for immediate attention and improvements to ensure adequate protection.

Lack of information

It seems logical that citizens have the right to know about the expenses and costs of any project funded by the state or local budgets, including maintaining bomb shelters.

The issue has gained a lot of traction recently after several investigations uncovered the inadequate state of many of the shelters. However, not only the condition but also the exact location of shelters is a problem.

Unfortunately, it took a tragic event when three people – two adults and a child – were killed by a Russian rocket in front of the closed door of the shelter for the situation to be addressed directly.

Now, a map of bomb shelters has been developed by Kyiv”s local government, and it also provided via the “Kyiv Digital” city application. The application’s functionality allows one to report if the shelter is closed or inaccessible.

Government justification vs public interest

Well-developed Ukrainian laws on access to information help citizens effectively detect and avert cases when local authorities do not fulfil their obligation.

In Ukraine, similar to many European countries, legislation on access to public information prescribes procedures for public control over the state authorities’ effectiveness and spending of public funds. This is a valuable measure to prevent corruption, particularly in matters related to public procurement. So, can the state limit access to information about bomb shelters?

The answer is based on three assertions. Firstly, this information has been lawfully made public before for the purposes of the civil protection of the citizens, for example, according to the Code of Civil Protection of Ukraine.

People should be informed about where to find the closest shelter in case of a missile attack, and it is vital to keep this information available and easily findable. There should be signs on the buildings and notifications on public transport about the closest bomb shelter available. If this information is available by signs and notifications, it seems unreasonable when the local government classifies it in the requested documents.

Secondly, this information is related to the spending of public funds and, therefore, should be open by default. According to the Ukrainian law “On Access to Public Information” and laws on the freedom of information in most European countries, the gold standard is to have official information freely accessible when it comes to disclosing information about the allocation of public funds.

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Finally, it is information of significant public interest; the life and health of citizens depend on its availability.

There are objections, such as the enemy being able to strike the shelters if they knew the locations. It is true that under Ukrainian law and the legislation on freedom of information of many European countries, in cases where the disclosure of official information may harm national security, such information may be lawfully classified.

However, such classification must not be arbitrary and instead must pass the so-called “public interest test”, where the responsible public officials give a valid and justified answer on why the protection of national security in this particular case outweighs the public’s right to know the information.

A Ukrainian court case illustrates this point well. In 2015, just after the annexation of Crimea and the Russian invasion of the eastern regions of Ukraine, Dmytro Karpiy, а journalist from the city Brovary near Kyiv, filed a lawsuit challenging the decision of the Brovary city government to classify the information about the amount and the maintenance of bomb shelters in his city. In his request, he was mainly interested in information about the condition of the bomb shelters, the number of people that these bomb shelters can accommodate and the amount of costs that the local authorities incurred for their maintenance.

The city council refused based on national security reasoning. With the support of the Centre for Democracy and Rule of Law, an NGO specialised in protecting the freedoms of media and information, the journalist won the case in the appeal instance.

Moving forward with security

Addressing civil control over the costs of maintaining bomb shelters brings forth numerous crucial questions, ranging from the competence of government officials in decision-making regarding public information disclosure or classification to the accountable and engaged attitude of citizens themselves.

Solving these issues will probably take more than one day, but it is extremely necessary to do it both in Ukraine and in those countries that, fortunately, were not affected by the war as ultimately, the preservation of life must be at the forefront of the government’s concerns.


Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Ukraine Under Attack: Documenting the Ru” (CC BY 2.0) by manhhai.

Tetyana Oleksiyuk

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Tetyana Oleksiyuk is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as a researcher, lecturer and advisor on national legislation and international standards related to access in the information sphere. Her work has significantly contributed to improving access to information legislation and administrative practices in Ukraine by collecting information from various sources. She is an active advisor to key stakeholders, including the Ombudsperson, Council of Europe, UNDP, representatives of official authorities, the Supreme Court of Ukraine, and civil society organisations.

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