One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine we take a look at local relief efforts, mental struggles, and the impacts here at home from the war abroad.
YS is a hyper-local magazine and will always remain that way, but sometimes there are events across the globe that send shockwaves reverberating back home that we must stop and take note of. One such enduring shockwave is the continuing conflict in Ukraine. Headlines are dominated by aid packages and world leaders meeting to discuss arms shipments, but less is mentioned about the local and individual impact this war has on everyone. From gas prices to food costs, the war affects us all whether we have a personal connection to Ukraine or not. Our inaugural piece titled “The World” will take a look at some of the most impactful global events that still move us here locally, starting with Ukraine.
Living with uncertainty
The sound of a high-speed projectile whistles overhead. Hairs stand on end. Muscles tense. Miniscule adjustments let the body know it has entered the fight, flight, or freeze response. Complex webs of chemicals flood the mind. There is no time to think.
Andriy turns to Gleb. They exchange a momentary glance. The two friends need to make an immediate decision: run to the storeroom in the back, or book it to the metro station 200 meters down the street.
“We looked at each other. We just started running. It was like a real epic movie… just to hear explosions around us,” Andriy shares.
Rockets screamed. Windows shattered. The pair dashed towards the underground metro, the most commonly available public bomb shelter, breathlessly making it inside. Even a mundane daily chore, like sending a package in the post office, can turn into a harrowing life or death decision in Ukraine. Moments of true heroism contrast with the banality of daily life.
Snow swirls outside, dumping fresh powder on a bloodied land. This region has seen its share of tragedy earlier in the war but is preciously silent — for now. The scars of war are not always physical. A loud rushing sound followed by a bang startles Iryna and her 8-year-old son. His eyes dart to the window, then look up, scanning for the threat.
“Oh Mom, I was thinking that was the end for us because I was thinking that there was a rocket,” said Iryna, quoting her son.
Snow had slid off the roof and thumped loudly on the winter ground. Nervous relief quickly took over, but the internal damage this conflict has done remains.
“I know that when the war is over, he needs therapy, or he needs the assistance of professionals to help him with his emotional health. He needs the help of a psychologist,” Iryna opens up.
Not everything is grim. The spirit of the Ukrainian people shines a candle in the darkest hours of night. Electricity is typically only available for two to three hours on a given day, but the exact time a household will have electricity is difficult to know. There is an official schedule, but it is seen as something of a comic relief in how unreliable it is. The best way to know when the power is coming is for Ukrainians to look at the building next door, to celebrate when their neighbors have the lights on. That’s the sign electricity is coming.
I was able to listen to these snapshots of daily life in a warzone on weekly Zoom calls organized by former Peace Corps volunteer and Ukrainian-American, Andy Lenec. The weekly calls were formed before the 2022 invasion with the Zoom group functioning as a way to help Ukrainians practice their English skills. Since the invasion last February, it has also morphed into something of an online support group. Members said they feel liberated talking and sharing stories of existing on a day-to-day basis. Everyone still practices their language skills but often in the context of keeping friends up to date with each other as the conflict drags on. There were several people who texted that they were unable to join due to lack of electricity, which is sadly the reality of living in a conflict zone.
“We looked at each other. We just started running. It was like a real epic movie… just to hear explosions around us.”
One fact I’m reminded of by everyone supporting Ukraine is that the country will need help once the fighting ends. It is then that the rebuilding truly begins. Military installations have not been the only targets. Civilian infrastructure has been purposely destroyed as well. The electrical grid was damaged just in time for winter. Russia has run low on ammunition, relying on “dumb” bombs without modern precision guidance systems. These bombs and barrages rain fire indiscriminately, killing and maiming civilians nearly every day.
Residents who experienced the loss and devastation of the Marshall Fire have a small glimpse into the daily realities of millions of Ukrainians. The feeling of helplessness and utter loss watching one’s possessions go up in flames. Seeing entire neighborhoods destroyed in one fell swoop. The acrid smell of smoldering remains. Dark humor as a coping mechanism. Empty smiles.
But they also know the fire was just the beginning. Recovery is not as simple as reconstructing what once was. Damage lasts for years, even decades, internally and externally.
“We don’t know what it’s like to live in war, but when the war started and I wanted to go outside for a breath of fresh air, we’d smell the Marshall Fire.” Ulana Bihun, a Ukrainian-American resident of Boulder County, recalled to me during a conversation which also included Ukrainian-American artist Wira Babiak. Both women were instrumental in connecting me with the larger Ukrainian-American community.
Group therapy, psychological help, monetary funds, relief efforts, volunteer organizations, temporary shelters, and aid workers will all need to come after the military aid, tanks, and weapons we are sending currently.
There are eerie echoes of World War II. Ukraine was torn apart by artillery then as it is now. Pockmarked landscapes full of trenches snake their way through desolate grounds. War on this scale in Europe has not been seen since our forefathers fought in the 1940s. Our textbooks and common lore mythologize the fight to save Europe from fascism. What followed the most widespread war the world had ever seen was also an aid package larger than ever before. Secretary of State George Marshall proposed this massive, multi-year financial support, and President Truman signed it into law. When the time comes, Ukraine will need a modern day Marshall Plan, funded by both the United States and the European Union, in order to succeed. Modern aid packages must also emphasize psychological services and long-term mental health support that will be critically needed.
Geo-Politics: How did it come to this?
The power and influence that Soviet Russia emanated over its territory until 1991 held back many of the long-standing tensions between ethnic groups within the USSR’s borders. The USSR has long since collapsed, but the legacy and perceived military might that the current Russian state carried with it has filled the role of peacemaker, or peace enforcer, throughout its former territory.
Russia failed to achieve its objective of quickly conquering Ukraine. There was no popular uprising in support of Russian soldiers. They were not treated as liberators but as the enemy combatants they truly are. The unexpectedly stout resistance of Ukraine has sent shockwaves reverberating across the former Soviet world. The amount of military power tied down in Russia created a situation where Russian peacekeepers holding the line between Armenia and Azerbaijan did not have the support to intervene when fighting erupted again. This shift in political positioning has profound consequences rippling throughout the region, a simmering stew that will boil if not watched carefully.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former republics of the USSR, had a border dispute erupt into an armed conflict initially leaving nearly 100 humans dead. The border dispute between these two nations has deep roots, but the most recent attack was timed to take advantage of Russian inability to respond.
“There was a very nasty war there in 2020. Russian peacekeepers, Putin, arranged a ceasefire. Russia is closely aligned with Armenia. It has very good relations with Azerbaijan, so both sides could accept Russian peacekeepers,” said Dr. John O’Loughlin, political geographer at CU Boulder specializing in former Soviet states.
The USSR has long since collapsed, but the legacy and perceived military might that the current Russian state carried with it has filled the role of peacemaker, or peace enforcer, throughout its former territory.
This event was somewhat covered in Western media but even less talked about was the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that initially left similar numbers of people killed. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are former Soviet Republics; however this violence is the worst either nation has seen in years. Well over one hundred thousand people were evacuated from Kyrgyzstan last September. Experts believe that these conflicts were in part motivated by the knowledge that Russian forces and diplomats would not intervene, preoccupied with the conflict in Ukraine.
For a myriad of reasons it is easier for Americans to empathize and be affected more by a conflict involving European nations. A common and valid criticism of the Ukraine war coverage is that conflicts of this magnitude are occurring all over the globe with little to no Western media attention.
Dr. O’Loughlin reminds me that there is another menacing reason the conflict between Russia and Ukraine differs from others: “Ukraine has the potential of nuclear war.” Besides the infamous Chernobyl power plant, there are many other nuclear power plants directly in the conflict zone. They are threatened from time to time, and if generators fail, a nuclear meltdown is a horrifying possibility.
We must take Putin’s threat of nuclear war seriously. Sentiment in the United States and in most other NATO nations is that Putin would be signing his death warrant if he deployed a nuclear weapon on the battlefield. Dr. O’Loughlin does not think these are idle threats. “I think it’s a possibility, I really do,” emphasizing Putin’s willingness to use nuclear weapons.
Dr. O’Loughlin believes that if Ukrainian forces attempt to take Crimea, a disputed region between Russia and Ukraine, it may be the bridge too far that would push Putin to use nuclear weapons, something not seen since the end of World War II in 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. “Putin will sacrifice tens of thousands of soldiers to pursue his interest in Ukraine. Let’s not kid ourselves that he cares about human lives. If Russia is pushed to the brink on the battlefield, and that means [losing] Crimea, [they may use nuclear weapons],” Dr. O’Loughlin warns.
Daily disruptions thousands of miles away
War on this scale has global ramifications. Economists see the disruption of food and fuel from both Russia and Ukraine as key factors in driving worldwide inflation. The reason you’re paying more at the grocery store is in part due to the impacts of a disrupted globalized supply chain.
The fact that everyday people are experiencing the effects of rising costs all across the world points to global factors for inflation, not just local, or even national, explanations.
Russia’s government has cut, suspended, and even possibly exploded fuel connections to Europe in an attempt to turn support against Ukraine. Europe faces the real threat of a cold winter with no heat in many areas. Naturally the less wealthy will suffer the most —the less well off nations and people in lower socioeconomic situations within each nation.
This has been a wakeup call at the national level, and it can also serve as a re-awakening on a local level. Globalization has intertwined our economies, and shipping technologies have allowed nations thousands of miles apart to depend on one another.
Most of Europe relies on Russia for its natural gas and fuel supply. The EU is desperately re-tooling its supply chain, but many families have had to go without heat this winter. Coloradoans know what it means to be cold. They know the importance of a good jacket.
The reason you’re paying more at the grocery store is in part due to the impacts of a disrupted globalized supply chain.
Kelli Rohrig of Limbs for Liberty Ukraine told me how they were able to run a successful charity event to have locals here in Colorado donate their jackets to be sent to Ukraine ahead of the looming winter season. Limbs for Liberty received numerous donations of high-quality winter gear. “Being Colorado, the quality of jackets we were sending, NorthFace, Patagonia, some crazy high quality, like Bogners … five-, six-hundred-dollar jackets,” Rohrig shares. Limbs for Liberty is a charity organization that helps procure prosthetic limbs in the United States for Ukrainian soldiers wounded in the war, among other charitable events.
The challenge is not collecting jackets— it is delivering those donations to Ukraine. It takes a coordinated network of dedicated individuals to ensure that localized donations reach the hands of those who need them the most. Not only is it necessary to organize a charity event and promote it, these organizations also need to find a way to navigate international customs regulations and keep in touch with contacts on the ground in Ukraine to make sure the aid is received.
These efforts parallel the massive aid packages and arms shipments that the Biden administration and other NATO members have been providing. The U.S. military has the most impressive logistics system in the globe, able to deliver crucial military equipment nearly on demand, while motivated individual citizens are simultaneously organizing, calling, arranging, scheduling, and dedicating their free time to making sure these more personalized aid packages also arrive where they are most needed.
It may sound cliché but becoming more self-reliant, growing your own food, producing your own green energy, is a rational reaction to seeing real-time fuel shortages in Europe and food shortages in Africa.
The benefits of a globalized economy are the cheap prices of goods, seemingly infinite iterations of choice, and the ability to connect to people half a world away, but many downsides also are apparent in the disruptions we experienced in the past few years. From Covid lockdowns in China preventing shipment of computer parts and gaming equipment to higher fuel prices we pay at the pump due in part to the war in Ukraine, these are the real consequences of international politics that even we here in Colorado experience.
What can we do?
“They don’t have to donate a thousand dollars. They can just take our next amputee out to coffee,” said Rohrig.
Massive international aid packages and arms shipments dominate much of the news regarding Ukraine, but beneath the headlines lies a network of dedicated individuals and local organizations still fighting to give each Ukrainian a chance. Ukraine can feel like a world away for some of us. For others, especially those in the U.S. with Ukrainian connections and descent, it can feel like the conflict has arrived on their very doorstep.
“It was making me physically ill. I had to take a couple steps back and felt incredibly guilty about it,” Lenec opened up to me about his efforts to provide aid to his friends in Ukraine. “I had to figure out how to de-couple my compassion from my physiology. Here I am, there’s no air-raid sirens in Broomfield. There’s no bombs in Broomfield.” Yet the psychological toll of seeing his close connections go through such events, and his drive to do whatever he could, had made him ill. Our mental and physical health are deeply connected and must be taken care of in times as stressful as these.
What can we do to help? The consistent answer among those I spoke with was to keep Ukraine’s story alive. Tell the tales of heroism. Share the stories of the active defenders of democracy. Do not let support waver in the West.
Of course the reality is that money and human resources are also in desperate need. Whether you can contribute money to a recognized international organization like Doctors Without Borders or donate time to the Colorado-based Limbs for Liberty Ukraine, you can rest assured Ukrainians will benefit.
There are many threads that link this current conflict to the Second World War. Our grandparents’ generation — or great grandparents’ generation — fought a war in this very region. Our culture has romanticized our involvement in World War II as a justified and righteous war in defense of democracy and humanity as a whole. Ukrainians today tap into that same spirit, that of defense against a brutal dictator who wants to crush a democratically elected government.
Everywhere we look in this conflict there are parallel worlds coexisting at once. The U.S. government as well as the individual charity organizations. The war is not only a geopolitical event of global importance but a disruption to family life and normalcy for everyday Ukrainians. Parallels between World War II and the invasion last year bring about memories of generations past. Ukrainian communities came together to support the nation, and the international community came together to support Ukraine.
The everyday heroism of Ukrainians to achieve a semblance of normalcy helps contribute to the extraordinary effort of this nation to resist this unjust invasion. The mental aspect of living under these dire circumstances is something that also needs to be addressed. War stories are too often full of heroes, strength, and resistance. We need to emphasize the internal damage and incalculable psychological toll that each individual must endure in their own way as they resist in whatever capacity they can.
Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava.
If we don’t end war, war will end us.
Ways you can help Ukrainians today:
- Limbs for Liberty Ukraine: Colorado-based organization that helps fund procedures for Ukrainian soldiers that have lost limbs in the war.
- Doctors Without Borders: Internationally recognized aid group operating in Ukraine among many other locations globally.
- Peace Corps Ukraine: World-renowned volunteer organization that places members and organizes programs in places of need.
- CO4UA: Local fundraising group that provides supplies directly to Ukrainians most in need.
- Sunflower Seeds Ukraine: Named after the Ukrainian national flower, they provide medical aid and protective gear to Ukrainians.
- HiHello Ukraine: Gathering global support for the efforts in Ukraine by sharing stories of those most involved.