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Photography Yehor Milohrodskyi

3 young Ukrainians explain the ‘scary’ looming conflict with Russia

As tensions mount along the Russia-Ukraine border, the country is coming to terms with the possibility of war

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia now looks set to escalate into war, but strained relations between these two countries is nothing new. The tension can be traced back to the end of the Cold War in 1991: following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly-independent Ukraine sought to forge its own identity and break away from Moscow – which came as a huge blow to Russia.

Since Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, the Kremlin has endeavoured to regain control over its former “sphere of influence”. They tried to do so subtly at first – but when the pro-Russian candidate in the 2004 Ukrainian election, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted in favour of pro-Western candidate Victor Yushchenko, Russia turned aggressive. This culminated in Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014: since then, over 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed and 1.5 million have been internally displaced.

In 2015, France and Germany orchestrated a peace agreement between the two countries, but tensions have continued to fester between Ukraine and Russia. Recently, this conflict has threatened to boil over into a full-blown invasion, as Putin wants assurance that Ukraine won’t join NATO while Ukraine refuses to rule out joining the Western military alliance. Satellite images from November illustrate how Russia is dramatically increasing its military presence along the Russia-Ukraine border: an invasion looks almost inevitable.

It’s a terrifying time to be living in Ukraine, where the possibility of war looks likelier and likelier by the day (although that hasn’t stopped the country’s official Twitter account from making endless memes about it). The mounting tensions are taking their toll on the country’s youth, too: here, Dazed asks three young Ukrainians what it’s like to live in Ukraine right now.

Sophie, 25, PR and communications manager

“Right now, living in Ukraine is like sitting on a powder keg. It’s overwhelming: it makes your seemingly-stable mental health wobble and constant fear becomes your new buddy. Of course, it isn’t that obvious from the outside. My friends and I continue to do our routines and at least this helps to keep us distracted, because when we start to overthink and imagine worst-case scenarios, that’s when the panic comes in. We try to be informed and separate truth from propaganda, but not buried in the news.

I feel super lucky that my family comes from the Western part of Ukraine, which might seem safer for now. But I’m incredibly worried about a lot of my friends from other regions, and we’ve already discussed the possibility of their families coming to my parents’ home, if what we fear most will happen.

“When you’re so young, all you want to do is express yourself through your work and create beautiful things – certainly not fight in a war”

The worst is living in this uncertainty. It seems that you’ve just been trying to figure out your own life, and here come these circumstances which you just can’t influence in any way. For a moment it seems that there’s no place for your hopes, plans, and dreams anymore, and that destabilises your emotions so much. When you’re so young, all you want to do is express yourself through your work and create beautiful things – certainly not fight in a war against the imperial ambitions of one individual.”

Oleksandr, 24, creative manager and publicist

“In autumn 2018 I moved to Kyiv from Kharkiv, which is located near the Russian border. I am the only person in my entire family who moved away from Kharkiv – all of them still live there. So now I feel that they are in much more concentrated danger than I am because they are much closer to Russia. My parents in Kharkiv live around 30 kilometres from Russia, so it just scares me a lot to think that some random Russian people could be there in just half an hour after crossing the border.

When I visited my family in mid-December 2021, we just started to discuss this whole situation. We discussed some vital, important things for the whole family, like our possible actions in case of this crisis. It was a very basic evacuation plan, like what should we take with us? How much money do all of us have saved in total? What are the cities we can move to so we can escape? Is there some other country we want to live in? For example, I have grandparents. They are old, they can’t work, and they obviously can’t stay here, but they feel that they are too old to move somewhere far away. But we can’t leave them here. We just started to think out loud. Because this is a situation where we have to act like one person, we have to be together in this.

“This is probably the one time when I’ve felt the most like an adult, because I have to be fully responsible for what I do and for my family – and this is a pretty scary thing to do”

I can’t avoid thinking that my family is closer than ever to this danger. And I can’t plan anything – I can’t just live my life without thinking about what could happen. I have two jobs to work at and I have quite a lot going on right now in my life, but this is something I really can’t get over. I can’t just avoid it, I can’t delay it, I can't ‘complete’ it like any other task because it's something I can’t control. This is probably the one time when I’ve felt the most like an adult, because I have to be fully responsible for what I do and for my family – and this is a pretty scary thing to do.”

Julia, 22, analyst

“Last week, my family and I started preparing an evacuation plan and thinking about where we would live if there is an immediate threat to Kyiv. The Russian troops are actually located not that far from Kyiv, only like four hours or five hours away.

There's a lot of tension, people feel very stressed. How are we even doing our everyday tasks and going on with normal life – doing some projects, trying to work – when maybe we should already be packing and thinking about how to leave? So far, I don't think people are leaving, but the news about the US Embassy pulling their staff and families out of Kyiv was actually very alarming. It gave us a sign that the situation is really grave and dangerous.

Overall, I think apart from being emotional, people are trying to stay calm and educate themselves on strategies: like how to give first aid, where to hide if there are any airstrikes, how to organise themselves in times of crisis. For example, people in my company have started raising questions to our executive office, on whether our company has a clear plan and a clear strategy on what to do if the situation escalates.”