International Politics

The unbearable agony of Ukraine

While their relatives and friends back home are suffering the Russian onslaught, Ukrainian expats are raising the alarm that if Putin is not stopped, Kyiv won’t be the only capital to suffer the Kremlin’s aggression. 

A protester holds a poster with Putin face bloody during an anti-war demonstration at Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome on Friday. Credit: Independent Photo Agency/Alamy Live News

Olga Stignii weeps as she talks about her sister, who, with her young children, has been forced to hide in a basement. Outside Downing Street, to a backdrop of a noisy and well-attended protest by the British Ukrainian community, she tells of her sister’s flight from her home in Kyiv. They packed what they could carry and made for Lviv, which just 50 miles from the Polish border, they assumed would escape Russia’s wrath. 

But they were wrong. 

The city has many military installations, not least an airfield, and Russia launched a bombardment. While no one was hurt, it was a stark demonstration of Putin’s destructive reach. So, Olga’s sister and her family tried to cross the border into Poland, only to find the roads clogged. After seven or eight hours in the car, they turned back. They tried again at a different border crossing, but the wait here was two to three days. Not wanting to put their children through the trauma of the freezing cold of the Ukrainian winter, they had no choice but to postpone their plans. They went to a friend’s house, in a small village outside of Lviv, and there they remain and hope for the best.

Olga moved to London fifteen years ago, but all her family is still in the country. She visited her relatives at the beginning of February, but the day before she was due to return to London, there was talk of flights being grounded, because airlines worried insurance would no longer cover them. When that didn’t happen and her plane took off, she hoped against hope that the crisis would blow over, and Putin wouldn’t make good on his threats.

But he did.

While the people of Lviv live in fear, in areas closer to Russia, they live in terror. People like the childhood friend of Elena Karacharova. She phoned Elena from the primary school they used to attend on the outskirts of Kyiv. She has an eight-year-old son who’s followed his mother’s footsteps and is now a pupil at the school. But Elena’s friend didn’t phone for a catch-up, or to reminisce about their old school days, but to tell her how they were sheltering in the school’s basement with other parents and children. A Russian barrage rained down nearby.

Olga too, knows people still in Kyiv. One friend tells her the approaching war is a constant worry which plays on her mind. The bombing is constant, and it’s not just the initial explosion but the blast waves which fray her nerves and make life in the capital unbearable.

Elena is active in the Ukrainian expatriate community and is keen to draw the world’s attention to the suffering of Ukraine’s people: the residential kitchen in Kharkiv destroyed by an artillery shellthe motorist in the same city who narrowly avoided a rocket barragethe elderly man whose car was run over by a tank and who remarkably survived. Then there are touching human stories, such as the woman who gave birth to a baby in the Kyiv subway.

Olga has seen the footage coming out of her country, too. “It’s heart-breaking to see the photos of people hiding in underground stations with tiny kids. Today I saw the videos of children – they were just born and had to be evacuated from the hospitals–because they (the Russians) are hitting nurseries, hospitals, civilians. It’s very sad. That’s why we’re here protesting. That’s why we’re raising money.”

Dan Zenchuk is another person who has been deeply affected by the war. Born in the UK, his grandparents were displaced by World War 2 and moved to the UK. Dan’s active in the Ukrainian expatriate community, and just after Christmas, with the threat of invasion growing, he felt he had to act. He got involved with an appeal run by a friend. Dan manages his own logistics company and volunteered to collect donations and aid for shipping to Ukraine. Items which are too bulky they purchase out there. They recently bought winter tires for first aid vehicles and volunteer ambulances, and toolsets to keep them running. But medical items, certain food items, thermal wear, and other such gear, they purchase in the UK and ship to Ukraine.

The news out of Ukraine is that resistance is stiff, and the Russian advance has stalled. Dan says this is no exaggeration. “The queues at the volunteer units are out the door and around the block. I think after Putin gave that first speech the threat became apparent. People are not fleeing. People are gonna stay and stand their ground. And you’ve got Ukrainians in Poland and surrounding countries, leaving those countries to go into Ukraine to join the fight. There’s no running away. There’s no evacuating. People are standing their ground and taking up arms. The President announced they will arm anyone that’s fit and able to fight and there’s pretty good uptake on that.”

While Ukrainians tell of their compatriots’ resistance with pride and feel relief at the sluggish pace of the Russian Army advance, many fear what Putin might do next. And they nervously note estimates the Russian Army has yet to commit the majority of its amassed forces. Alongside the stories of resistance and survival, there are others too, which are difficult to verify. Rumours persist that Russian soldiers have gone door to door and forcibly searched for snipers. There are reports of people whose homes were searched being shot. Whether these are true, they ratchet up the fear.

So why do Ukrainians believe Putin has launched the invasion of their country? 

Vlodko Pawluk, a Ukrainian community activist, says. “Putin is trying to rebuild his Russian empire. NATO, I think, is an excuse. I think he wants Ukraine back in the Russian sphere of influence.”

His friend, who will only give his name as Bob, interrupts to give an economic explanation. “In the time of the Soviet Union, 40% of the Soviet GDP was generated by Ukraine. The Russian population is ageing. They’ve got all kinds of social problems, so they’re not producing anything. Ukraine’s population is younger and more energetic.’

Dan agrees. “Did you see Putin’s speech? It was an hour-long rant. Full of pure hatred for Ukraine. He denied Ukraine should even be a country or had any to exist. He wants to reconstruct the USSR. He sees the fall of the USSR as something that never should have happened. And he’s not getting any younger. He’s nearly seventy. This is his last hurrah. He can go out having reunited the USSR. I think that’s his goal. I think he’s still living in a world from 30 to 40 years ago.”

But Olga’s view is starker. “Putin’s a terrorist. I don’t know why the world is waiting, why NATO is waiting to protect us.”

Meanwhile, some Westerners are openly rooting for Russia. Christelle Neant, a French self-described journalist (who allegedly took on the citizenship of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic) and the founder of the Donbass Insider, a pro-separatist media organisation, echoes Moscow’s narrative. She says the conflict has been misrepresented in the West from the very start and describes the Maidan revolution as “an anti-constitutional coup d’état led by the USA.”. When asked how the people of the breakaway republics see the current Ukrainian government, she says, “They feel the post-Maidan authorities are oppressive. The first decision of the Ukrainian parliament after the Maidan was to remove the status of the Russian language. They (the West) portray it as a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Which it is absolutely not. It is a civil war.”  Neant’s work in the Donbass has been described by the European External Action Service as effectively recycling stories provided by Russian state-controlled media outlets which in turn repurpose Donbass Insider articles as supposedly unbiased Western opinion. Indeed, her arguments of alleged anti-Russian discrimination measures by Kyiv authorities are virtually identical to anti-Ukrainian narratives that the Russian state has been actively pushing in its various propaganda operations at home and abroad since 2014.   

Not surprisingly, Christelle’s portrayal of the breakaway republics in the Donbass as liberated areas whose populations have been under siege by the Ukrainian state is one justification Putin used for his invasion of Ukraine. Yet, as Bob points out, in 1933 close to 10 ½ million Ukrainians starved to death due to Stalin’s collectivization policies, followed by a process of Russification and ethnic cleansing in the Donbass. Vlodko Pawluk says Soviet policy reserved jobs in vital industries for Russian speakers, and only Russian speakers could attend university. 

Olga too, takes issue with the idea that the people of the Donbass ever wanted to be part of Russia. “My auntie’s husband, he is from Donbass. I’ve been there as a child, we spent summers there, it was beautiful. Yes, they speak Russian, but so do we in Ukraine’s west. It doesn’t mean we’re Russians. I know the language, I speak the language, I respect the language, but I have my own language, which is Ukrainian. If you speak multiple languages in a country, it doesn’t mean it’s Russia. It’s still Ukraine. And Putin is lying. These areas have always been Ukrainian. He’s just taking things part by part. The Donbass has a lot of agriculture, a lot of coal mines. That’s why he wants it. He wanted Crimea for the pipeline going through to the Black Sea. It’s all to do with power and money.”

Another major plank of Russia’s so-called ‘justification’ of its invasion of Ukraine is NATO’s inclusion of Eastern European member states since the 1990s. The Russian government points to the map of the alliance drawing ever closer to its western borders and wishes to reverse the alliance’s border to those it had in 1997, before the accession of its Baltic and Central European members. “In 2019, NATO pointed to Russia as an opponent,” Christelle Neant says. “Since the USSR fell, we have seen how aggressive NATO is. They attacked the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya. It’s not a charity organisation.” This ‘whataboutist’-narrative has been a regular staple of Moscow’s disinformation campaigns that was also touted by Putin in his press conference with Chancellor Olaf Scholz immediately prior to the invasion. 

But if Putin really believes this, Dan thinks his actions are self-defeating. “The one thing Putin has achieved is to unite Ukraine more than ever because of the way the people in those areas have been treated. We’re reading this week they’ve introduced conscription in the Donbass, illegally. They’re trying to get kids as young as 15/16 to take up arms and fight against their own people. If you behave that way, you’re going to turn the people against you. And if you look at the data, I saw a survey of how many Ukrainians want to join the EU, how many want to join NATO. And the percentages of both have risen sharply, and mostly in the last eight years since Russia first invaded.”

Olga’s response is simpler. ‘Why should they tell us what to do? It’s our country, we choose what to do. We wanted to join the EU in 2014, and this is when Russia was shooting people in Kyiv, because they didn’t want us to be in the EU. And now we have the same thing with NATO, though this time we have a war.”

So, what do Ukrainians think about the West’s response? And what more do they want the world to do? There are different opinions on this. All are grateful for the help they’ve received, and the weapons supplied, such as the anti-tank missiles sent by the UK. And they’re thankful for the outrage Russia’s invasion has sparked, and the outpouring of support. They welcome sanctions, too, though many feel they haven’t gone far enough. At the protest in London, there were calls for Russia to be booted from the Swift banking system, which has, at least partially, happened. Another popular rally cry was for a no-fly zone to be enforced to ground the Russian air force, a move unlikely to happen due to the heightened possibility of a nuclear exchange between NATO and Moscow.

But whatever the differences and debates, all are united in the belief that Putin needs to be stopped and stopped now.

“Ukraine is not the end goal, it’s just the starting point,” Dan warns. “You’ve got Russian units in Belarus who were supposed to be there for an exercise and then just never left. Belarus has been annexed without Belarusians even knowing. And Putin’s got a willing collaborator in the president of Belarus. A few weeks back, there was the uprising in Kazakhstan, and Russia interfered in that. Moldova’s already got an area that Russia’s pushing to be independent, similar to Donetsk and Luhansk. And then beyond that, you’ve got the Baltic countries: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania. And that’s where it gets interesting because they’re NATO countries. So, I think the problem is if he’s not stopped soon, he racks up these victories, and he gets more confident. And I think he’ll be harder to stop when he gets to that point, than if he was faced with resolve now.”

A journalist and author, James worked for over 10 years in Current Affairs television and documentaries, researching and producing films for Channel 4 Dispatches, PBS Television and National Geographic.

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