Excruciating to watch Ukraine war from afar
It was about 10pm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when Russia decided to launch rockets against my home country on February 23. I remember sitting at my desk staring, frozen, watching from afar what was happening to my peace-loving, newly democratic Ukraine. The missile explosions in the heart of Kyiv's residential districts meant people's families, apartments, relationships were being ruined — people I know and have known all my life.
I knew the invasion was imminent, based on the numerous warnings coming from US intelligence and my own assessment of the situation. I had been a journalist based in Kyiv since 2014, and I’m now in my first year at the Harvard Kennedy School. Just during winter break, I spent a few weeks in festive Kyiv visiting former colleagues and friends. But it is one thing to “know” and hope that world leaders can somehow magically stop a tyrant, and it is another to see your home being invaded. In an instant, 44 million people went through a massive collective trauma. A fledgeling democracy, so inspiring to so many, full of hope and verve, has been attacked in such a cowardly and malicious manner.
I had a similar experience when I was studying in the US for my undergraduate degree in 2013 and 2014 when Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution broke out. I remember the shock and emotions that came from seeing the first deaths: Ukrainians being mercilessly beaten and shot on the streets of Kyiv by the horde of police and Berkut special forces that were an extension of the Kremlin’s puppet regime under former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych. I remember the lack of sleep, the urge to do something for Ukraine, the exhausting unknown, wrought by Russia’s initial invasion in eastern and southern Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea.
Back then, I organised rallies in front of the Massachusetts State House and worked with other activists to speak to the media and raise awareness about the Euromaidan revolution. And today, Ukrainians from all over the world are pushing the West to provide Ukraine the help it needs. I’m the chairman of the Ukraine Caucus at my school, and we’ve been organising various Ukraine-related initiatives such as panel discussions, information campaigns and fundraising. The wider Harvard community has been asking the university to be more responsive to the events and to reveal whether it receives any donations from Russian entities.
Like every Ukrainian I know, I have had many strenuous nights. We’ve all been doing our part to help the millions of innocents facing Russian missiles, tanks, bullets, rapes: in a word, genocide. It has been difficult for us all, but the main load is on those actually in Ukraine. One person to whom I wrote in Ukraine replied: “We literally don’t know if we will be alive next week.” Another person said they have been sleeping in the bathtub to decrease the chances of being shelled by Russian forces. And yet others have been asking for logistical help on how to seek asylum abroad. These are not unique conversations. There are millions of them across the globe daily.
But despite the early glimpses of a horrific déjà vu to the 2014 attack, Russia's full-scale invasion in late February has been different. Russia has blatantly launched hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles against Ukraine. It is not ashamed to bomb children for the whole world to see, to starve cities to death by denying civilians access to water, food, electricity and heat. Putin’s Russia is not even trying to hide its atrocities.
And Ukraine is different, too. The world now sees what I have known all along: ours is a land of heroes. An unexpected heroic leader — I have been quite critical of him, and for good reason — is Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. His alleged response when US officials told him they could help him leave Kyiv — “I need ammunition, not a ride” — not only exemplifies the overall position of Ukrainians, it stings the West right in its heart with a blunt message: “You can’t hide and run away when life gets uncomfortable, when others need your help.”
It is a reminder of morals and principles that the West keeps drifting away from as it has agreed to shake hands with the devil — Russia’s despot, Vladimir Putin — continually ignoring the atrocities of his regime in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, the Salisbury Novichok poisonings, the attempted murder of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The list is endless. The West's handshakes were endless, too. Perhaps the West is putting such a high price on stability and security at home, even if it means watching children being bombed on a television screen. And, as I've argued before, what is at stake is not only Ukraine, but the West's interests, as well.
Now Ukrainians have had enough. They would rather die than commit deals with the devil and live under his regime. Zelensky is only one example of a changed Ukraine. (Just before the invasion, his ratings were some of the lowest ever, and he was mired in criticism for delaying key anti-corruption reforms.)
There are plenty of heroic stories of Ukrainians during these past two weeks. One is of Vitaliy Skakun, a 25-year-old marine who sacrificed himself when he blew up a bridge to stop Russian forces. There’s the story of the 13 Ukrainian soldiers on Zmiyinyi (Snake) Island who faced a Russian battleship threatening to take their lives. There are also plenty of stories of regular Ukrainians walking towards Russian tanks with bare hands at the risk of being crushed, yet with the hope of stopping them from further violating their homeland.
This new Ukraine is spoiling Putin's plans — and it is his biggest miscalculation. He surrounded himself with sycophants and created a system of fear that enables his barbaric, mid-20th-century thinking. Putin went back in time, but Ukraine went forward. For Ukrainians, it is an act of pride to resist the Kremlin’s atrocious regime. Putin thought that he could continue manipulating and instilling fear among Ukrainians as he does at home. But in Ukraine, Putin is failing miserably. Nothing will stop Ukrainians, and every additional bullet that is being shot, every new rocket launched, will keep solidifying and amplifying hate against his regime.
As in 2014, experiencing the horrid events from afar is difficult. As Ukrainians abroad, we ask: are we more helpful here, or should we help Ukraine on the ground? Can we assist others in finding a place to stay, or should we be helping those hiding in underground shelters? Should we be collecting funds, medical supplies, humanitarian relief and military equipment, or should we be taking care of the logistics across Ukraine’s cities and towns?
Whether home or abroad, Ukrainians will never give up and never forget the crimes against them. And, as most Ukrainians abroad, I am doing everything I can to help my fellow citizens at home. The moment I see these efforts being ineffective, I am heading back.
• llya Timtchenko is a freelance writer and a former business editor and reporter for the Kyiv Post