Ukraine: Stress Takes Its Toll
Amid ongoing uncertainty, citizens try to prepare for every eventuality.
The stress began to really get to Valeria and Ivan in late January. The couple struggled with the flow of information about the Russian troop build-up along Ukraine’s borders, warnings of a supposedly imminent invasion and news of military drills over the frontier with Belarus. They felt surrounded and the pressure was taking a toll on their mental health.
So they filled a few suitcases, put their two children, their guinea pig and hamster onto the car and headed to western Ukraine, close to the Polish border.
“It is unlikely that he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will take Kyiv or even Kharkov [Ukraine’s second largest city, close to the Russian border]” Valeria, 35, told IWPR. But the fear for the lives of our children turned out to be stronger than healthy logic.”
The couple did not inform their employer, a US-based IT company for which they work remotely. Their children’s school have moved classes online.
Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov said that there was some logic behind this decision.
“If Putin takes the risk to invade Ukraine, which I personally think is unlikely, he will only have enough forces for a small operation and in a small area,” he said. “Therefore, the part of Ukraine that is near the border with Russia is considered potentially dangerous. The further away [from there] the safer.”
The January 26 announcement that the US state department was starting to evacuate American diplomats shocked Ukrainian society. The measure was “standard practice,” former US ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst said, but since then other countries, including the UK, have called on their citizens to leave the country.
The major gap between US warnings of an invasion and Ukraine’s determination not to panic in the face of aggression has heightened feelings of uncertainty among many Ukrainians.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated that warnings of an all-out war are having a dire impact on the country’s economy and public psyche.
“We understand all the risks,” he said on February 12. “Right now, the people’s biggest enemy is panic in our country.”
The same day, the government announced it was setting up a 17-billion-hryvna (600 million US dollars) fund to underwrite flights after international airlines announced they would stop flying in and out of Ukraine.
For Valery Pekar, calm is the best defence against panic. A professor at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business institution, Pekar is among the initiators of #миготові - #weareprepared – a hashtag detailing what food supplies people should stock up on, what to pack in a ready-to-grab suitcase and how to prepare children in the current volatile situation
“Children need to be aware of the danger, not because something is about to happen, but so that they build their strength in any situation,” child psychologist Svetlana Roiz told IWPR. “Knowledge of how to behave and what to do is strength… talk calmly and slowly for 15-20 minutes to your children and observe their reaction.”
Since the conflict began in 2014, Valentina Petrovska has been telling her two children that “bad uncle Putin” behaves badly.
“I have told them he again violates the rules of conduct…and how [we can] carry on living,” the 35-year-old explained.
Dmytro Zolotukhin, an expert on information warfare who served as deputy minister of information policy until 2019, points out that Ukrainian society is today more prepared than it was in 2014, when Russia seized control of the Crimean Peninsula and armed militias in the east of the country.
“The war in Ukraine has been going on for eight years, the population has simply got used to the constant threat,” Zolotukhin told IWPR.
While coping with the uncertainty, people have been reacting in different ways to the anticipated peril. Schools and kindergarten practice duck-and-cover, the enrollment of civilians in military training has spiked and first aid courses are in high demand.
“War is something that the psyche cannot ignore. And even though there are no Russian tanks in Ukraine, everyone remembers 2014,” well-known psychologist Larisa Voloshina explained to IWPR, adding that international support does help people feel safer.
“Ukrainians… are gradually getting out of their state of shock. There is less and less fear, there is determination and a willingness to fight.”
A banner reading “Ukrainians will resist,” led the 10,000-strong procession that marched along Kyiv’s main throughfare on February 12 to send a signal that people would fight back should Russia invade.
The troops surrounding the country are not the only destabilising threat. Ukrainians are also coping with a wave of fake bomb threats that security services see as another element of Moscow’s hybrid war to sow panic among the public. They target schools in particular.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the foreign ministry, stated that in January alone police received over 400 bomb alerts in schools. They were all fake, but pose a heavy pressure on teachers, children and families
“A nine-year-old girl [recently] asked me ‘Do we need to evacuate somewhere?’. I replied,not yet, and received the answer, ‘Ah, so there are no problems,’” teacher Zhanna Mosiychuk told IWPR. “Another child, aged 17, said that she didn't believe in a military takeover. This confrontation, she said, will continue at the political level. But they both associate Putin with danger. Such is the experience of [our] children since 2014.”
The standoff affects also Russians living in Ukraine.
“I don't feel any difference with the Ukrainians. Only once a veteran showed minor aggression… most people only ask why I moved and where is better. It is clear where, since I live in Ukraine,” Mikhail Oreshnikov, who moved to Kyiv in 2021, told IWPR. The musician, who hails from Cheboksary about 670 kilometres east of Moscow, is one of the some 52,000 Russians who relocated to Ukraine since 2015, according to the country’s state migration service.
Oreshnikov’s mother regularly asks him whether the war has already started in Ukraine, something he attributes to the Russian media’s disinformation.
“The propaganda has shifted all the focus to NATO, and Ukraine is mentioned as NATO's tool in this game. Like, the Russian government doesn't want a war with Ukraine and NATO, but Russia will not stand aside if Ukraine attacked the Donbas. I don't believe in a Russian invasion. Putin, as always, flexes his muscles to beautifully get out of the situation of invasion, which he himself created,” he said.
The shuttle diplomacy that has brought international decision makers and heads of state to Ukraine has re-assured some Ukrainians, but for some it was a short-lived calm. Valeria and Ivan returned to Kyiv in early February - only to pack everything again and travel back to western Ukraine after a week.
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.