Ukrainians Fatalistic Amid Fears of Russian Invasion

“Where could we flee? We have nothing to lose.”

Ukrainians Fatalistic Amid Fears of Russian Invasion

“Where could we flee? We have nothing to lose.”

Ukrainian soldiers walk past destroyed buildings on the front line on December 8, 2021 in Marinka, Ukraine. A build-up of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine has heightened worries that Russia intends to invade the Donbas region.
Ukrainian soldiers walk past destroyed buildings on the front line on December 8, 2021 in Marinka, Ukraine. A build-up of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine has heightened worries that Russia intends to invade the Donbas region. © Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Wednesday, 12 January, 2022

In late December, with over 100,000 Russian troops amassing on Ukraine’s border, Kharkhiv resident Yuliia Pimenova felt an eerie sense of déjà-vu.

Just over eight years ago when conflict broke out in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, she joined hundreds of volunteers assisting the flow of people fleeing from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Many arrived at Kharkiv railway station with nothing, she recalls, with no money, no documents, sometimes in their nightclothes, and with little understanding of what they should do.

With fears of an invasion rising, on Christmas Day the 38-year-old turned to Facebook to list some tips for people finding themselves in a similar situation.

“Save documents in the cloud… passports, codes and licenses, but also real estate documents related to property and ownership rights,” she wrote, advising people to pack all vital medicines, memorise some addresses and telephone numbers.

And, she added, “If you have a small child, put a note in your pocket with your phone number.”

Amid fears that Russia is planning a military incursion into Ukraine, a claim that Moscow denies, Ukrainians juggle their daily lives suspended between worry and resignation.

“We just keep ready a backpack with documents in a case of war,” said Kateryna, a professor at Kharkiv National University who like many others interviewed for this article did not want to be identified. “I don’t get rid of children’s mattresses, blankets, warm clothes; they would be useful for sitting in basements.”

Nonetheless, like many other Ukrainians hardened by a war that has claimed over 14,000 lives, she remains doubtful that the Kremlin would invade Ukraine.

Ivan, an artist in Kharkiv who asked to remain anonymous, is of the same opinion.

 “The pro-Ukrainian part of society is now more decisive and mobilised [than in 2014], and much more numerous than the pro-Russian,” he said. “Russians would need more forces to invade, and they would need a reason. I do not see a possibility of destabilising cities like Kharkiv in the way they did in 2014,”

The city of 1.5 million lies a mere 40 kilometres from the Russian border and, in early 2014, saw large pro-Russian demonstrations resulting in violence, but no military clashes. 

With international diplomacy in full swing to deter any possible invasion, US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke twice in December and officials from Washington and Moscow held a seven-hour meeting in Geneva on January 10.

But over the holiday season in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv the festive atmosphere of the winter was more obvious than any fear of an invasion. A 31-metre Christmas tree wrapped in a gargantuan garland of lights towered over the central Santa Sophia square, which was turned into a winter wonderland. Hundreds glided on the ice rink set up near the presidential office and thousands strolled down markets and parks adorned in dazzling illuminations.

Some preparations for possible conflict are underway. The Kyiv city council published a map of bomb shelters – some 5,000 sites where its almost three million residents could find refuge in case of attacks. They include parts of the metro network, offices, restaurants, bars, apartment blocks with basements and parking areas.

Scrupulous residents however found that many were neglected, closed, or in ruins. The list caught some off-guard as they discovered that their basements were shelters – like former Donetsk resident Said Ismagilov, mufti of the Muslim community of Ukraine, who found the basement of Kyiv’s Islamic Cultural Centre included in the shelters’ mapping.

The administration has also published instructions for what to do in case of “an emergency situation of a military nature”, like remaining calm, avoiding wearing a military uniform in the streets and staying away from windows.

Some say that they are ready to fight back in the event of any military action.

In Sumy, a city close to the Russian border in north-eastern Ukraine, Oleh Medunytsia, a civic activist and regional council member, thinks that the Kremlin is just waiting for an occasion to invade Ukraine.

“There are a few shelters but there is nothing to bomb here, the city has no critical military infrastructure,” he told IWPR. “I am getting ready to resist militarily, either in the army or in the territorial defence units. It wouldn’t be easy for occupying forces in Sumy. They wouldn’t be met with hospitality.”

An invasion is “unavoidable” also for Andriy, an IT specialist who volunteered to provide support to the military at the beginning of the conflict in 2014.

“Do I prepare myself? If only by checking equipment and expiry dates of ration packs in my “alarm” cupboard,” he told IWPR. “And with my friend from a territorial defence unit we have drafted an action plan with [for example] how to connect each other, how to move our families from dangerous areas.”

Mykola, a war veteran and reservist who asked to remain anonymous, doubts that Kremlin will push into Ukraine, but notes that the problem is Moscow’s unpredictability.

“Still, I am always ready,” he says. “There is an algorithm of actions, where I should be and what I should do in a case of invasion, and I do understand how to help my family. No need for any specific preparations.”

Ukrainian veterans or with a military background may consider how to resist, but many civilians appear resigned in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

“Where could we flee?” wondered Anna, a resident of a village in the southern region of Zaporizhia, on the Azov sea. “We are poor. We have nothing to lose.”

“We discuss the situation at work every day,” said Kristina, a communications specialist from Donetsk who now lives in government-controlled Kramatorsk. “We know what to do in case of shelling, but where should we flee if wherever we go there is war? I do not pack an alarm bag because I do not have an impression that there is anywhere I can go.”

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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