Before the current Russo-Ukraine war, Ukrainians were divided on whether their country should be closer to Russia or the European Union and the West. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union just over three decades ago, it’s been a hot topic on the country’s political agenda.
Daniel Ive, a Ukrainian student of marketing communications at Reichman University in Herzliya, said that before the Russian assault on his country he strongly believed that Ukraine should develop closer ties to Russia.
“I was very pro-Russian, I always thought that, for Ukraine, the best thing is to develop good relations with Russia because we have such a big economic influence from that country, that relations with it can only be good for Ukraine’s economy,” he said.
He explained that he never believed that Ukraine would become part of NATO since, in his words, it is a “third-world country” that would bring no benefit to the alliance.
“Before the current invasion, I really thought that we should forget our complicated past with Russia, and renew our ties with them,” he said.
Many Ukrainians felt like him. “I think that before this war started around 30%-35% of the Ukrainians were pro-Russian, despite the fact that they really hurt our citizens in the past,” Ive said.
Now, however, there is no way back from what the Russians have done to his country, he says. “When someone comes with such strength and hurts civilians, destroys their homes, their neighborhoods, no one will forgive that,” Ive said.
Many Ukrainians already felt animus toward Russia’s government because of its past actions against their country, such as the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Indeed, Leah Bril, a Ukrainian Israeli student of history and theater at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that before the invasion two weeks ago there already was anger toward Russia among many Ukrainians. “In the past, they just came and took what they wanted,” she said.
That is why, she said, her family has supported Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy all along.
Much of Bril’s family is in Ukraine, including her father, aunt and grandparents. “My dad was supposed to come back to Israel but then the war started. He decided to stay in Kyiv to help people in need. He helps old people, buys food for families that are in bomb shelters. He gathers donations and helps with what he can,” she said.
Bril is helping from Israel by disseminating information about her father’s donations campaign.
Kristina Lilach Rozner, a Ukrainian student at Tel Aviv University’s School of Nursing, said: “I am very afraid of the war because my [entire] family is still there. I don’t sleep at night, and I don’t know what to do with myself.”
In two days, Rozner will join an Israeli delegation traveling to Ukraine’s border with Moldova, to volunteer to help refugees. “I think that’s the best I can do concerning the situation,” she said.
Most of Rozner’s family is in western Ukraine, close to the borders of Slovakia and Hungary. “There are no attacks there yet, but the city is a huge mess. Everyone is afraid. There is not a lot of food or medicines, the police are catching Russian spies in the city every day. It’s difficult and frightening,” she said.
Some of her family is fighting in the Ukrainian army. “I have been unable to get in touch with them so I just pray for them to get out of the war safe,” Rozner said.
Ive explains how the situation has affected his family.“My dad is now in Romania, my mom and my brothers are in Israel, and my grandparents are in Budapest. Only my grandmother stayed in Kyiv. They lost everything because of the Russian invasion,” he said.
His family left behind seven apartments, two houses, and some cars. His father left his business, a restaurant chain in Kyiv. “Now they have nothing. My family went from being relatively wealthy to having nothing,” Ive said.
Russian citizens also are affected by their government’s decision to invade Ukraine.
Andrey Alekseenko, a Russian Israeli citizen who just finished studying hotel administration and tourism at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, said that it is hard for him to see all the people that are being hurt as a result of the war on both sides, in Ukraine and in Russia.
“I have many friends in Ukraine and I talk to them every day,” he said. On the other hand, he added: “I have a mother and an aunt in Russia, in Saint Petersburg, who are now ‘jailed.’ They canceled almost every flight and there are no more direct flights to many places, so the prices rose dramatically. Many Russians cannot leave the country.”
Also in Russia, because of sanctions, there are almost no products in the stores, there is no technology available, and the currency has been weakened, among many other changes people are experiencing, Alekseenko points out.
And because of this, he believes, people have started to understand that something happened that was not right and more people are going out to protest. “But still it is a very small percentage and it is not enough to stop [President Vladimir] Putin,” he said.
Alekseenko believes that “the Soviet Union and the Putin era have created a generation in Russia that is not interested in politics and stays silent. All my surroundings, including my family, are not interested in politics.”
Most people are not interested in going out to protest, either. “They either think that it won’t help or they are afraid of the government,” he said.
People in Russia are not hearing much about the war, since most social media platforms are blocked, he said.
“With this war and its consequences, Russia didn’t regress 20 to 30 years, it regressed more than 100 years,” Alekseenko said. “There is no freedom of speech. You are supposed to work and stay silent.”
The students who spoke to The Media Line agree that the war needs to stop.
“It hurts me a lot to see this situation, to see that rockets are falling close to my house, to hear that my parents left behind everything they had, but we have to prevent this from becoming World War III,” Ive said.
Rozner added: “In the 21st century, there is no place for these wars, there is no place for the death of masses of people who are not guilty of anything, only because of politics.”
Meanwhile, universities in Israel are showing solidarity with their Ukrainian students, and are opening their doors for Ukrainian academics to continue their careers in the Jewish State.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has offered immediate financial, emotional and academic support to its Ukrainian students whose families have been affected by the war. The university also has offered an opportunity for Ukrainian academics to continue their research in Israel and will provide them with stipends of $2,800 per month and free-living accommodations on campus. A similar offer has been made to master’s degree and doctoral students.
Likewise, Tel Aviv University has offered students at the graduate and post-doctoral levels a full semester on campus, tuition-free and with a living stipend, in addition to the support that it already offers to its Ukrainian students.
The story is written by Debbie Mohnblatt and reprinted with permission from the Media Line