Caught between Russia’s sabre-rattling at the borders and Western warnings calling on their nationals to leave Kyiv, Ukrainians understand they are pawns in a heightened round of brinksmanship and psychological warfare. But it’s a war of nerves that most Ukrainians are determined to win as they answer President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call to make Wednesday “a day of unity”.
On Saturday morning, Tetyana Ogarkova, a Kyiv-based literary scholar, began receiving messages from concerned friends abroad offering help if she planned to leave the Ukrainian capital. The messages were thoughtful, supportive and well-meaning, but they increased her stress.
Ogarkova, who also runs the international department at the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, has a network of friends that includes foreign journalists and officials, and the 42-year-old Kyiv resident was intently following news updates.
They were not reassuring, to say the least. Following a US embassy evacuation order, the UK, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and several other countries began advising their nationals to leave Ukraine. Even Russia announced that it was reducing its embassy staff in Kyiv in what Moscow called an “optimisation” of diplomatic staff. As Moscow announced the Russian Black Sea fleet had started training exercises near Crimea, the Pentagon announced the withdrawal of all military advisers in Ukraine.
Ogarkova was not the only Ukrainian with a buzzing, ringing, pinging phone. “We were exchanging information, asking if we had heard the latest. At times like this you think someone out there might know more than you; it’s very stressful,” she explained.
But when someone who she believed might know more did contact her, it only made things worse. “I got a message from a high official in a neighbouring country,” said Ogarkova, declining to name the country in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
“He is a close friend and when he said, ‘I’m trying to stay optimistic, but if you want to come or if your family wants to come, I will do what I can,’ I thought: This is serious.”
‘You feel alone’The mother of three children between 3 and 13 years of age began to discuss plans for the kids with her partner. “We were thinking, should we send the kids away? Should we ask our parents to visit family in Germany and take the children with them? We were trying to make the best decision,” she recounted.
By the afternoon, the decision was out of their hands. Some airlines, such as KLM, cancelled flights to Ukraine. Other Kyiv-bound flights were rerouted to the Moldovan capital. As news of flight cancellations began trickling in, Ogarkova and her family resolved to stay put. “We had no choice. It was actually kind of a relief – we didn’t have to run around, organising papers, authorisations, packing … we decided just to stay together here,” she said.
The massive Russian military buildup around Ukraine’s borders, sparking US warnings of an “imminent” invasion, has taken a psychological toll on the citizens and residents of this country. The emotional onslaught rises and ebbs, with Kyiv’s residents adopting coping mechanisms on an as-needed basis – from shrugging it off to acknowledging the stress and then handling it as best they can.
For several weeks, residents of the capital dismissed the Russian buildup as posturing and the US warnings as overblown. Pulled between Zelensky’s calls on the West to refrain from creating a panic, Moscow’s denials of any intention to invade and the drumbeat of warnings from Western leaders on missions of shuttle diplomacy, Ukrainians went about their lives with admirable calm. Shops in the capital remained stocked, there was no run on the banks and there were no signs of panicked shopping for necessities.
Over the weekend, though, as Western embassies began evacuating staff as well as military advisers, the threat began to feel more real. “When people are leaving the country, you feel alone … you feel anything can happen,” said Ogarkova.
But even as the emotional strain of the latest war on nerves was mounting, Ukrainians were drawing on their experience with their eastern neighbour and putting the mental health lessons they have learned over the past few years to the test.
Conflict-related mental health issuesSince Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and began supporting separatist forces in the eastern Donbass region, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has killed nearly 14,000 people, according to official figures. The grinding war in the east may have been largely forgotten by the international community, but in Ukraine it forced authorities to address conflict-related mental health issues.
The mental health needs of troops and veterans who have served on the front line as well as people living in towns and villages near the “contact line” remains high, according to the medical NGO Doctors Without Borders, which runs programmes to help empower family doctors and community nurses to provide basic mental health care to communities in the region.
Earlier this month, the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF put out a warning about the conflict in eastern Ukraine affecting the mental health of boys and girls in the region. The UN agency and its partners provide mental health and psychosocial support services for children living along the more than 420-kilometre-long contact line that divides government and non-government controlled areas, according to a UNICEF statement.
Last year, UNICEF support reached over 70,000 children, youth and caregivers. Teachers were trained to offer psychosocial support, including helping children cope with the fear and stress of the conflict.
In October 2019, Lifeline – the country’s first nationwide 24-hour suicide-prevention and mental-health support helpline – was launched in a bid to address the problems faced by soldiers and other combatants in the war. The service has since expanded to non-combatants and has received more than 14,000 calls or messages from people across Ukraine seeking support over the past two years.
Watching Ukrainians being so calm & level-headed, but also preparing for possible new attack made me think how incredible our people are. We could have achieved so much more if we faced domestic issues only & not an external enemy obsessed with undermining our nation
— Olena Halushka (@OlenaHalushka) February 14, 2022
Political ‘theatre’ from Moscow soothes nervesResilience is a trait Ukrainians have developed over the past seven years in the face of Russia’s overt and covert aggression. But the heightened US warnings, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called “hysterical”, added a new element to the psychological warfare confronting Ukrainians.
Ogarkova, however, views the US warnings with a certain measure of equanimity. “We understand that the Americans have their own game, maybe [a tendency] to overreact. But we understand their objectives are in Ukraine’s interest. They’re playing with our nerves, but it’s in Ukrainian interests, not Russian interests. If it is effective and it works, we are ready to suffer,” she said.
The central issue for many Ukrainians was not the volume of Washington’s warnings, but the strategies and plans in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s head. Trying to decipher the latter has turned into a national sport these days, and Ogarkova has been monitoring the diplomatic tea leaves – and the TV – carefully.
Following the stress of the weekend, Putin appeared on TV on Monday in a carefully choreographed “conversation” with Lavrov that had Ukrainians rolling their eyes over the “theatre”, as Ogarkova dubbed it.
Sitting at a huge rectangular table, Putin formally addressed Lavrov in the officially released video clip. “Sergei Viktorovich”, he began, “in your opinion, is there a chance to agree, to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues … or is it just an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process that has no logical conclusion?”
“Vladimir Vladimirovich”, Lavrov replied. “You have already said more than once … that we warn against endless discussions on issues that need to be resolved today. But still”, the Russian foreign minister paused before uttering the words Ukrainians wanted to hear: “I must say that there is always a chance.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow on February 14, 2022. Alexei Nikolsky, AFP
The Russian signal that diplomacy still had a chance felt like the release of a pressure valve for many Ukrainians.
“It was a kind of a play,” Ogarkova said of the Putin-Lavrov conversation. “But things have been much more calm and cool from Monday. They said maybe some [Russian] military training near the border had come to an end. For us, it was a new sign of hope.”
As the Ukrainian population seesawed between hope and alarm depending on what was coming out of Moscow and Washington, their president seized on an initiative to lift the national mood. Zelensky took to the airwaves on Valentine’s Day to announce that Wednesday, February 16 – a date some Western media reported could be when Russia would invade – would be a national “day of unity”.
“They tell us February 16 will be the day of the attack. We will make it a day of unity,” Zelensky said in an address to the nation, calling on Ukrainians to fly the yellow and blue national flag.
Ogarkova believes that is not a bad idea. “This date, February 16, was announced as the day of attack,” she said. “But it could be a happy day, when people can get together and carry flags and can feel normal.”
© Studio graphique France Médias Monde