Ukrainians, Russians in Australia unite against Putin’s war

Australians describe hopelessness, anger at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian man burns his passport during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine
A Russian man burns his passport during a protest in Sydney [Steven Saphore/AFP]

Ukrainian and Russian communities in Australia have come together in outcry since Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine.

Protests have taken place across Australia, gathering crowds of Ukrainians and supporters.

As Russian forces close in on Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, many in Australia feel helpless in the face of a military offensive so significant that leaders are warning of “ramifications well beyond Europe”.

Two of the women behind the marches and rallies in Melbourne said that they are “still in a state of shock”.

Liana Slipetsky and Teresa Lachowicz led hundreds of people to the steps of parliament in Melbourne last week in protest against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Us Ukrainians here in Australia, we feel helpless and somewhat privileged,” said Slipetsky. “And… it’s just the two don’t go together.

“We can’t even send financial aid,” she continued, adding that friends and family on the ground in Ukraine “can’t get cash out of ATMs”.

“All I’ve offered them is to buy plane tickets for them, or if they need to relocate I’m happy to find them accommodation,” she said, “Other than that, I’m just lost for words… I’m just shell-shocked.”

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‘Ukraine finally had a chance’

Lachowicz and Slipetsky were both born in Australia to parents who had fled the Soviet Union.

They worry for Ukraine’s future, fearing that “history is repeating itself”.

“[Ukraine was] just starting to stand on its feet, economically, culturally, democratically, socially,” said Slipetsky. “Ukraine finally had a chance.”

Lachowicz said she fears for her politically active friends who would likely be targets under a Russian regime.

“Then there’s the Ukrainian church, that will be decimated,” said Lachowicz. “The LGBTIQ community will be crucified. All of the indignities that Russian people suffer, Ukrainians will now be subject to again, all the freedoms that we take for granted, they will be stripped.”

Another Ukrainian-Australian, Lesia (name changed over safety concerns), said Ukrainians “don’t want to… be a part of some union”.

“We are on social media, we watch programmes, read books and news from Russia and we know that there is no freedom of speech, that they can’t stand opposition,” she said.

She fears for her family based in Russia and Ukraine.

On the ground, Russian forces have entered Kyiv with fighting breaking out on the city’s streets. People are concerned about running out of food, she said.

“People are worried at the moment about their inability to flee, and [lack] of petrol because the queues are enormous.”

She said that some of her relatives in Kyiv have fled while others have stayed.

“I’ve just heard from my brother that [my flat] was under heavy shelling just three hours ago,” she added. “On our street, there was artillery and the factory that we can see from our kitchen window was on fire.”

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Peter Kuzmin, a Russian-Australian and president of the Victoria branch of the Svoboda Alliance, a pro-democracy movement of Russian speakers across Australia and New Zealand, grew up in the middle of the anti-war sentiments caused by the former Soviet Union.

“I really believed in [it],” he said. “There were all these slogans everywhere that ‘We don’t want war, war is the worst thing that can happen.’”

The trauma of World War II was also still felt among his generation – his grandfather was badly wounded in the war – and the concept of Russia being historically a defender against invasion became part of his identity.

“I could never imagine that my country would be an invader itself,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine it in my worst nightmares… and then the reality set in that Russian bombs were falling all over Ukraine, and not just along that disputed territory, but everywhere.”

Kuzmin has been standing up against the war, helping to coordinate protests with the Svoboda Alliance and the Ukrainian-Australian community.

“Ukrainians are our brothers,” he said. “There’s such a close cultural affinity. All that logic that Putin has used to attack Ukraine, for me, it’s the justification not to attack Ukraine.

“It’s the justification for why we need to live as independent and equal nations with mutual respect and cooperation,” he continued. “That’s the way to create a kind of a union, if the people want [a union]. That’s how you do it. You don’t do it by force.”

Dr Michael Baron, another Russian-Australian, said that there was “no rational logic” to the invasion and “it’s not clear what he’s [Putin] aiming to achieve”.

Baron said he was not politically inclined until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but the recent events made him feel very involved.

“The madman has no logic, or has his own kind of logic, and with Putin, anything is possible,” he said. “It’s not about him being evil, it’s about him being mad.”

Kuzmin agreed with Baron, saying “we really have a suicidal maniac with a messianic complex… [Putin] is detached from reality”.

He added that Putin had also misjudged the level of support he would get from his own people.

Kuzmin said he is part of a WhatsApp group of childhood friends and he posted an “impassioned speech” in the group, “fully expecting… some might be supporting the war”.

“Nobody. Nobody in that chat supported the war,” he said. “There were people who said that they can’t believe this [is] happening, they want to do something but they’re scared, they’re afraid to protest, they’re saying that the risks are so high.”

In Russia, at least 3,000 people have been arrested over protests against the war.

Kuzmin said this is what is needed to stop Putin: an uprising from the Russians.

“I’m really hoping that it will increase,” he said. “I really hope that people will start opposing the war effort… through whatever ways they can.”

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He will not stop at Ukraine

Lachowicz and Slipetsky, meanwhile, said the war is very much a Western war too and “challenges the world order”.

“The peace [and stability] of the world as we know it today could potentially be changed forever,” said Slipetsky. “Europe as we know it may be no longer.”

Melbourne-based Ukrainian-Australian Yuriy Verkhatsky, agreed, speculating that Putin “will not stop at Ukraine” and the Baltic region will be next, followed by Poland.

Many feel that the West is not doing enough in the face of this threat.

Sanctions have been placed on Russia, with Biden stepping in on Friday to join Europe in even tighter sanctions, placing restrictions on Putin, his foreign minister and members of his security team.

Australia has also instigated direct sanctions on Putin and placed financial punitive measures on members of Russian politicians and oligarchs.

But while diplomatic action may be effective in the long-term, said Verkhatsky, it is not enough in the short term.

“Maybe they will feel [the] result of those sanctions in a year, but when the mad criminal attacks you with arms, [something really serious] should be done right now,” he said, adding that the people behind Russia’s assault “don’t care about lives… of Russians, Ukrainians, of anybody.”

For Baron, this immediate action has also got to be more unified. The wider world should also “start moving towards a complete removal of dependence from the Russian energy supplies”, he said.

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‘How many lives will be lost?’

The clock is ticking as Ukraine fights to stave off Russia’s intensifying attack, battling military forces on the very streets of its capital city.

While Verkhatsky firmly believes that Ukraine will be the eventual winner of the war, he remains worried about the loss of life.

“The question is, how many lives will be lost?” he said.

More than 150,000 Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia launched the invasion last week, and more than 200 people have been killed, including children.

“There might be hundreds of thousands [of] lives lost and a lot of damage will be caused,” said Verkhatsky, who added that he wants to speak out in whatever way he can. “Every little drop matters.”

For Slipetsky and Lachowicz, this is the only way forward. More marches are taking place across Australia this weekend and in the coming weeks.

What Ukraine lacks in military power, it makes up in patriotism, said Slipetsky. “All we have is our words, so we have to speak to as many people [as possible].”

Source: Al Jazeera