Ukrainians in Marin fear for family abroad

President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation” in Ukraine on Feb. 24, following months of political tension. Putin said the operation aims for the “demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine.” After facing significant Ukrainian resistance during the first days of the invasion, Russia’s latest attacks are becoming more intense and appear to be targeting civilians along with soldiers.

On March 2, Russian forces captured the key southern port city Kherson. Despite this major development in their advance, Russia has still failed to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and Kharkiv, their second-largest city. Kharkiv, in particular, has been a major target of Russian airstrikes and artillery, as Russia has switched from measured aggression to more brutal warfare. 

While more than a million Ukrainians have fled the country, many have stayed behind to either fight or shelter from Russian attacks. Senior Ivan Lazarenko, whose father is a former member of the Ukrainian government, has many relatives still living in Ukraine.

“[My relatives] couldn’t get out of the country. Due to the inaccessibility of fuel for cars, they had no choice but to stay,” Lazarenko said. “They’re currently sheltered in their apartment. There are no real bunkers or in-depth metro systems for them to go to.”

Distracted by a picture book, Ukrainian children shelter inside a subway station in Kyiv. (Image courtesy of Timothy Fadek, CNN)

Although tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been high, Putin’s invasion was a major escalation. Lazarenko did not expect Russia to actually invade and was surprised when he first heard about the advance.

“[There] was a sense of shock and fear,” Lazarenko said. “We didn’t really have a direct connection with our family. And since [my family members] live so close to the border of the [attacked] regions, we were pretty fearful that they would immediately be swept up in the fighting, which was, unfortunately, exactly what happened.”

Vlad Bosiuk and Olga Bielska, a Ukrainian couple who have lived in Marin since 2019, also have a lot of family sheltering in the country. 

“My parents live in Vyshhorod, about 15 minutes from Kyiv. They often spend [nights] in the basement of their home, because Russians [are attacking civilian homes with] bombardments,” Bosiuk said.

Bielska, who is from the separatist-controlled region of Donetsk, says she expected a Russian invasion.

“I believed [they would invade], knowing what Putin did in my native city and how brutal that was. He has no mercy for Ukranians,” Bielska said.

Prior to his invasion of the country, Putin recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states and ordered Russian troops into the two regions. He justified this action and the eventual full-scale invasion by claiming that “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood.” 

“A lot of my extended family thought [Putin’s claim] was very funny,” Lazarenko said. “Ukrainians are a very proud people; they’re really ingrained in the culture that has been there for centuries. [Putin’s claim] is absolutely absurd. Ukrainians have every right to their own country, [like] anyone else does.”

Although Russia has recently resorted to more aggressive measures, Ukrainians continue to effectively resist the invasion of their country. 

“There’s a big difference in morale. Our soldiers are defending the sovereignty and freedom of our people, [whereas] the Russian army basically has no [personal] interest,” Bielska said. “I think many of them partially know that they are not liberating [Ukraine] from Nazis.”

Gripping his rifle, a Ukrainian soldier stands by a destroyed Russian vehicle near Kyiv. (Image courtesy of Serhii Nuzhnenko, AP Photo)

Putin has faced significant criticism from Russians and the international community. World leaders and organizations have condemned Putin’s actions and expressed support for Ukraine, especially after seeing the country’s determination to fight. Bielska claims this support is important, as the war has broader global implications.

“If [Russia] had been stopped in 2014, [the situation] wouldn’t have escalated to what it is now,” Bielska said. “[It’s] the same thing now. American people should understand [that] if Ukraine is easily taken by Putin, this will make him hungry for something else.”