It was 11 p.m. when Iuliia Marchenko finally had the chance to charge her phone after her late-night class at The University of Tampa. When her lock screen powered on, she read the gut-wrenching message that began her sleepless nights; “My parents hear bombing in Kyiv.”
Marchenko, second year MBA student at UT, is an international student from Berdyansk, Ukraine, a small seaport city in the southeastern region of the country. On Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia initiated a full-scale unprovoked war in Ukraine, and only four days later, Berdyansk had been occupied by Russian forces.
According to an article by The Wall Street Journal, Russian president, Vladamir Putin conducted this invasion out of fear of a modern western leaning Ukraine. Specifically, Russia feared that Ukraine, their neighboring country, would place The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on their borders by joining the alliance.
Marchenko’s parents still live in Berdyansk and despite Russian attempts, she has maintained consistent contact with them over the internet.
“It’s very hard to believe that something like that would happen especially with a country that we have a very close connection with,” said Marchenko.
Russia and Ukraine share deep cultural and ancestral ties because, along with Belarus, they are a part of the East Slavs which is an ethnic and linguistic group in Europe. However, the past few decades have been a key turning point in their relationship with one another.
Ukraine used to be a part of the Soviet Union. However, in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine declared its independence.
“We are very aware of our path to independence and how much of our blood and sweat it took to get to where we’re at,” said Marchenko.
She added that one of the prominent factors that has distinguished Ukrainian culture from Russian culture in the past few decades is their sense of freedom.
“That’s why so many people [Ukrainians] are fighting so fiercely right now,” said Marchenko.
While Russian soldiers in Berdyansk have remained relatively peaceful, other cities like Mariupol, which is only 80 km away, have experienced consistent bombing. As it stands, around 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes due to the war, according to The Washington Post.
Citizens in Berdyansk have hosted Mariupol refugees using the humanitarian aid that they have received from other countries. Even in relatively peaceful cities like Berdyansk, Russian forces have cut off food distribution.
After a month of fighting, Russian forces have not taken over any of Ukraine’s major cities. While Russia has reported that they have lost 1,300 troops, NATO estimates that 7,000 to 15,000 Russians have died in the fighting. On March 12, Ukrainian President Zelensky reported that about 1,300 of their troops have been killed in action.
In response to President Putin’s attempts to invade Ukraine, the U.S., U.K., and EU have enacted unprecedented sanctions on Russia and hundreds of international companies have pulled out of the country. These sanctions have had crippling effects on the Russian economy and citizens.
“I went from having good job opportunities and a good future in Moscow to having absolutely nothing,” said Andrew, a Russian and Canadian dual citizen.
Andrew was born in Russia but throughout his life, he has moved back and forth between the two countries.
He had only been living in Moscow for five months when the war began, prompting him to leave Russia on the very last flight to Cancun, Mexico.
“Not only did he [Putin] make a horrible decision, not only was the decision badly timed and proven to be a failure, but the decision also changed my life,” said Andrew.
After months of military buildup by the Russian military, Andrew was shocked when troops invaded Ukraine because he didn’t believe that Putin would jeopardize the Russian economy.
“The citizens suffer while the governments fight. The citizens are the people that send the soldiers,” said Andrew. “Putin isn’t going to send his son to battle, he’s just going to stay there in his chair.”
When Putin positioned his troops on the border, many Russian and Ukrainian citizens had come to the common consensus that he was simply flaunting his power. For many, the idea that he would go through with an invasion was unrealistic.
“Many believed that the costs would have been great compared to the benefits that Russia would derive,” said Denis Rey, associate professor of political science. “The idea that Russia could defeat, control and occupy Ukraine wasn’t realistic, so in most people’s minds, it wasn’t rational.”
Marchenko is confident that her country’s government, citizens, and military will defeat the Russian forces.
“We’ve realized that we’re in this alone. It has become very clear to us that no one is going to come to help,” said Marchenko. “It all depends on us and that’s why we’ve held on for 25 days and believe that we can win this.”
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