“I can’t protect them”: Ukrainian students respond to Russian invasion
Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, directly impacting daily life for Yale’s Ukrainian students and affiliates.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this Thursday, Ukrainian members of the Yale community spoke to the News about their experiences watching the crisis unfold from afar.
Early Thursday morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine with bombings in several Ukranian cities, including the capital, Kyiv. At least 137 soldiers and civilians have been killed in the attacks thus far, The New York Times reported Thursday.
United States President Joe Biden condemned the Russian invasion in televised remarks from the White House on Thursday. Biden announced new sanctions on Russia in the wake of the attacks, cutting off Russia’s largest banks and companies from Western financial markets, restricting U.S. imports of technology to Russia and freezing trillions of dollars in Russian assets.
In interviews, three Ukrainian students and one Ukrainian alumnus shared how they have experienced the escalation.
“It’s honestly been absolute hell,” said Sofiya Bidochko ’24, whose entire extended family lives in Ukraine. “There is no feeling like trying to carry on with your life here when you don’t know if your family is going to be bombed. The air sirens are going off where my family’s at, and the government issued warnings that there could be attacks tonight. There’s just no way for me to want to study for a midterm when such a tragedy is going on.”
For Yuliia Zhukovets ’23, the escalation of conflict in Ukraine has necessitated a constant effort to stay in touch with her family, who was in Kyiv during Thursday’s escalation.
Zhukovets was in bed when she saw the news about bombings in the city, and worried that her mother would be asleep — the first explosions were reported around 4:30 a.m. in Ukraine. Eventually, Zhukovets reached her mother, who woke up to a call from a friend who heard explosions from the airport. By that time, Zhukovets said, all of Kyiv was awake and trying to leave the city.
“When she wasn’t picking up I was like, ‘Okay, that’s it. They bombed our house. I’m never going to see them again,’” Zhukovets said. “It’s been very stressful and frustrating. The internet hasn’t been great. I’ve just been calling them and checking all the news.”
Once part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, Ukraine has sought to ally itself more closely with the West in recent years. In 2019, Ukraine amended its constitution to include the goal of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
Putin has strongly opposed the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, citing NATO’s potential westward encroachment as a pretext for an invasion. Russia has also continuously claimed that certain eastern regions of Ukraine, which contain Russian-backed separatist parties and citizens who speak Russian, are oppressed by the Ukrainian government and should be part of Russia.
Russia’s latest attempts to regain military power over Ukraine began last fall, when Russia assembled as many as 190,000 troops along the border it shares with Ukraine and Belarus.
In a public address on Monday, Putin argued that the country of Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia” and accused Ukraine of planning hostility against Russia, justifying Russian aggression as self-defense. Shortly before the Thursday attacks began, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged peace in a televised address to the people of Russia.
In an email on Thursday evening, University President Peter Salovey condemned Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, inviting students to a virtual vigil for peace on Sunday at 5 p.m.
The escalation of tensions and the eventual violence on Thursday have consumed the daily lives of several of Yale’s Ukrainian students, including Zhukovets, whose family is among the many Kyiv residents leaving the city for western Ukraine.
Although her family was able to make it out by taking side roads to avoid traffic, the outflux of people trying to leave the Ukrainian capital has made their journey an arduous one.
“It was supposed to take them around ten hours, but it’s taking them around 18 or 20 at this point,” Zhukovets said on Thursday afternoon. “They’ve been driving since like 10 p.m. [Eastern] time last night, and they’re still driving. They have five hours ahead of them.”
Armen Khachaturyan LAW ’93, the president of the Yale Club of Ukraine, wrote in an email to the News that it was “a difficult time for Ukrainians.” Khachaturyan is currently in Ukraine, and was unable to speak to the News due to the conflict’s impact on the phone lines and internet connection in his area.
“On one side, it’s good that I’m not there and my parents don’t have to worry about me,” Zhukovets said. “But on the other side I can’t do anything, and I can’t protect them.”
Oleksii Antoniuk ’24 told the News that his family is currently located in western Ukraine, so is not facing violence currently.
He further spoke about the fierce patriotism he has felt from his fellow Ukrainians. The hatred of Russia in Ukraine is intense, Antoniuk said, and he has no doubt that the majority of the Ukrainian people will be willing to “take arms, shoot Russian soldiers, throw Molotov cocktails — anything.”
“I’m studying national security and global affairs, so I’ve been watching all these war videos from Syria or from Libya,” Antoniuk said. “Watching the same videos from Ukraine wasn’t difficult because, today, the war was not that bad… I was quite proud that it worked out well today. Tomorrow, we’ll see.”
Antoniuk clarified that while the state of the conflict in Ukraine was so far not “as bad as expected” because Ukrainian forces had been able to hold Russia at bay, the gravity of the violence should not be underplayed.
For all three current students, following news coverage and trying to get in touch with their families made it hard to focus on anything else Thursday.
Zhukovets noted that the Yale community has been attentive to the issue, be it through her professor granting her an extension on a problem set or messages of support from her squash coach, the The Office of International Students and Scholars and her friends at Yale.
“From what I’ve seen so far, Yale students pay quite a lot of attention to this issue,” Antoniuk agreed. “I’ve received so many texts.”
Bidochko noted the importance of Yale students educating themselves on the issue as it affects their Ukrainian peers.
“Yale is one of the best places that we can go to get an education,” Bidochko said. “I just really hope that students can make an effort to be educated on this topic and the language that they use. It’s not ‘the Ukraine,’ it’s Ukraine. It’s not ‘Oh, the Russians were trying to restore peace.’ They fully invaded a sovereign nation. Be educated on this to really support your fellow students.”
Zhukovets added that Yale students following the situation in Ukraine should engage thoughtfully with the media they consume about the issue, reading beyond the headline or the first few lines of articles.
Antoniuk also noted that students should avoid getting their news about the issue from Twitter or other social media platforms, emphasizing the amount of misinformation and Russian propaganda available online.
Yale students hoping to support their Ukrainian peers, Zhukovets said, should continue to follow and talk about the issue.
“All you can do is talk and keep Ukraine in your thoughts and pray for them if you’re religious,” Zhukovets said. “Maybe find any figures or people or funds that you would be willing to donate to because it’s not going to blow out in a few days. It’s going to be a long lasting thing and we will need funds to fight them.”
Khachaturyan emphasized that the country has stayed optimistic in the face of Russian aggression.
“We are encouraged by the universal international support Ukraine receives from all over the world and by the determination of each Ukrainian to defend the country and win,” Khachaturyan told the News. “When all the turmoil and warfare is over there will be a different nation called Ukraine and I am happy to be a part of it.”
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Olivia Tucker contributed reporting.
Clarification, Feb. 27: This story has been updated to include additional context surrounding Antoniuk’s comments on the current state of the conflict in Ukraine.