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Iaryna Iasenytska is struggling to see Russian soldiers as human beings.
The recent University of Maine graduate is at home in her native Kyiv, watching as the war rages around her and Ukraine shows the world what it means to fight for freedom and safety.
She lives about an hour from once picturesque suburbs of Kyiv, including Irpin and Bucha, which Russian forces have pounded with shelling and terror in recent days as they inch closer to the capital city. Russian soldiers are using inhumane tactics, like shooting in places that are designated as humanitarian corridors, to advance their positions, said Iasenytska, 23.
“Civilians and servicemen and whole families were wounded or died during these evacuations,” she said Tuesday. “International law or what it means to have a ceasefire has no meaning nor importance to the Russian forces.”
Iasenytska, who studied international affairs with minors in legal studies and Spanish at UMaine, completed an Honors College thesis last year about Russia’s territorial expansion, called The One-Eyed Man and the Wicked Boar. It was almost like a foreshadowing of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has led more than 2 million people, mostly women and children, to flee the country. She is now enrolled in an online International Security Studies graduate program at the University of Arizona.
The following interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
Where are you now? Are you safe?
I am in Kyiv, one of the epicenter cities. For safety purposes, I will abstain from going into details about where exactly I am and how I am managing my safety, but I can confirm that our government on a regional and national scale does everything to make sure people are as safe as they can be. Russian forces and their diversion groups continue to target Ukrainian civil society, similar to the events seen in Georgia, Aleppo and other conflicts they’ve participated in.
The Geneva Convention, international law and treaties have no importance to Russia. Russian forces have shot kids, women and even pets. Even if someone tries to evacuate in cars or buses, the [Russians] will open fire with no questions asked. Doctors and hospitals have also been a big target for Russian aviation attacks and bombs, not to forget schools, shelters and other infrastructure.
How are Ukrainians feeling about the war? Tell us what you’re seeing and hearing.
It is important to remember that Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, but its recent invasion on Feb. 24 started under the premise of a “special operation on Donbas,” though in reality, this operation meant the invasion of Ukraine and terror of her people. No Ukrainian soul wanted to meet Russian barbarians with flowers, as some Russian officials might have thought.
Instead, every Ukrainian, be it the Ukrainian army or ordinary civilians, stood up against the Russian invasion. We are all protecting our nation, democratic values and the right to choose our government. Everyone stays vigilant. Everyone looks out for one another.
There are sirens. We hear explosions. We stay careful, [and] we fight off. We stay smart about how we go about staying safe and make sure we don’t fall into Russian traps. Russia is trying to send in their diversion groups inside our cities, but they are met with civil counteraction.
Do you have any family or friends in Russia? What are they saying about the war?
I don’t have any connections to Russia except that it is an invader that wants to take over our country, our freedom and choose our future for us. We see reactions from the Russian population, which are limited if we are talking about being proactive.
For example, many Russians say, “We are beyond politics. It’s our government, not us,” or “We cannot stand up against Putin.” Some are eager to celebrate this attack on Ukraine and create TikToks and Instagram posts to show their support for Russian forces to bring the “Russian World” to Ukraine and erase those who are against it.
What do you want Americans to know about the situation in Ukraine? How can they support Ukrainians?
The Ukrainian war is a war for democracy and peace in all of Europe. Not a long time ago, I depicted in my thesis that historically, Ukrainians have always been democratic and strived to uphold democratic values, despite constantly meeting aggressions and invasions from Russia. With the events happening today, it is clear that the Russian authoritarian expansionist agenda is not a relic of the past, but that it has always been a priority of the Russian Federation. One of the best deterring mechanisms against Russian authoritarianism would be a restoration of “the Gate of Europe,” which Ukraine has served in the past, providing European safety. This comes in the form of Ukrainian strength and Western support, where the allies would provide stable military assistance and enact diplomatic pressure to keep Russia away from succeeding in its expansionist agenda. We need your help. Immediate help comes in three forms:
Donate to American and Ukrainian groups. Reach out to your representatives. Ask them to act on the Russian invasion and terrorism in Ukraine. Talk to your officials and ask them to support Ukraine through military aid, financial support and humanitarian resources. Ask them to continue employing stricter measures and sanctions against Russia.
Follow and share official information with those around you. President Zelenskyy’s official accounts can be used, and be sure to avoid Russian propaganda and fake news. Talk about it with your inner and outer circles, and don’t be deceived. Ukrainians are still fighting. Every one of you is a key that can help reach government officials and get them to hear us.
Do you want to share anything about Ukrainian people and your culture?
While studying with many Americans, I saw that we share similar democratic values, which are certainly worth defending no matter who might challenge them. No matter how much Russian propaganda is trying to tell the world that Ukrainian people are divided, this war has shown the opposite reality. We might have different views on domestic politics, like any democratic country, but it is only our right to choose who will lead our nation. No one else has the right to intervene and determine our future.
Ukrainian language, literature and culture serve somewhat as armor for our warriors today. They also function as a unification tool that helps us recognize one another from afar while also keeping us safer in many ways.
Of course, I cannot forget to mention the great help that comes from our allies. Their military support, humanitarian assistance, financial help and diplomatic measures have had an immense impact on helping many in Ukraine stay safer. I thank everyone who has helped and is helping today, and will ask you not to leave this fight and continue it with us. As President Zelenskyy expressed in his address to the EU Parliament, if you continue this fight with us then, “Life will overcome death, and the light — darkness.”
As someone living and fighting through these events, I can say that freedom has a high price, but it is certainly worth fighting for.
If you want to support Ukraine, Iasenytska suggests these organizations:
Find your representatives and senators and their contact information here.
Valerie Royzman is a reporter for the Bangor Daily News originally from Toledo, Ohio. Valerie is a proud daughter of immigrants from Ukraine. She has relatives in Kropyvnytskyi (formerly known as Kirovohrad), Odessa and Kyiv. You can read her first-person accounts here and here.