How do young Ukrainians and Russians feel about another war?
While tensions between Moscow and Kyiv reach boiling point, young people on both sides of the border hope for peace.
War is increasingly on Vitaly Kolschitzky’s mind.
The 27-year-old Ukrainian, who grew up in Sumy, 50km (30 miles) from the Russian border, is mentally preparing for the worst-case scenario as war fears mount – putting some money aside and buying long-lasting food and clothing, just in case.
“I wish I did not have to say this, but I think war is likely,” he told Al Jazeera by phone. “Young people are really afraid.”
As tensions between Russia and Ukraine reach boiling point, young men from the two formerly united Soviet states are unenthusiastic about the prospect of fighting in a large-scale conflict.
High-level talks involving all sides of the conflict – Ukraine, Russia, the United States and European leaders – have failed to ease tensions.
Western powers fear Moscow may be preparing to attack Ukraine, given it has massed more than 100,000 troops and military equipment at the border. Russia denies it has any designs on Ukraine, and instead accuses NATO of undermining the region’s security.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on NATO to heed his security demands – chief among them blocking Ukraine from membership – but the alliance has refused his request, meaning the crisis remains deadlocked.
Kolschitzky, who regularly meets young Ukrainians across the country as head of Ukraine’s Youth Parliament, said that 2014 – when Russia annexed Crimea – was a turning point.
Not one person “wasn’t touched by it” he said, referring to the deadly war eight years ago.
He lost a primary school friend to the conflict in Donbas.
“If there were many points of view before, every year more young people consider Russia an enemy,” he said.
Kolschitzky believes that more young men are now ready to take up arms if necessary.
Ukraine would likely need to conscript recruits if war broke out as its army stands little chance against Russia should a land invasion go ahead.
Sasha Ivanitski, an 18-year-old from Kyiv, said many young people would consider fleeing if war broke out.
“Half of young people don’t seem to care while others are debating, ‘Where can I go where there will be no war?’” he said.
“To be honest I would move away myself if a war started.”
A Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey in December suggested half of all 18-29-year-olds would move to another region in Ukraine or abroad if Russia launched an attack, the highest percentage of any age group.
Volodymyr Yermolenko, the 41-year-old editor of the political journal Ukraine World, said it was “quite likely” young men would be conscripted if conflict erupted, but argued growing up in a capitalist society has made young Ukrainians less willing to fight than their parents.
“The biggest generational gap between young people and older people is their ability to suffer,” he said.
“Their parents were brought up in a very ascetic society, which told them that they need to suffer. The new generation developed with the kind of thinking that there are pleasures around us that the good capitalistic world has given us,” he said, adding young Ukrainians above all want to live “a normal life”.
Max Kovalev, an 18-year-old history student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, is sceptical about the leadership’s own resolve when it comes to talk of war.
“Most of our generals are corrupt and they will flee first if there is a war,” he said. “I would join the Ukrainian army, but if there’s no resistance, I think there is no sense in fighting.”
While Ukrainians have little pubic trust in the elites, some young Russians have a sense of indifference.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Bogdan Ilyk, a 20-year-old politics student from Moscow. “It’s kind of scary, but nothing will really happen.”
Ilyk said young Russians do not believe a war could take place because past military exercises amounted to nothing.
“[Apathy is] a product of Putin’s authoritarianism – because the goal of the regime is to make people not interested in politics,” he said.
Fewer than 1 in 5 of Russians aged 18-29 had any interest in politics, according to a survey published by German research group Friedrich Ebert Foundation in 2019.
Ilyk emphasised that young Russians are less susceptible to anti-Ukrainian propaganda as they do not watch state-controlled TV, which has stepped up negative coverage in the past few months.
“What could be the aim of NATO? That it wants to destroy Russia? This makes me laugh – it’s hilarious, it’s extremely absurd,” he said.
But the lack of access to independent news sources on Ukraine leaves older, less-savvy Russians more vulnerable to government narratives, said Kataryna Wolczuk, associate fellow at the UK-based research institute Chatham House.
“[Older] Russians are inclined to think in line with the official ‘narrative’ that Russia is defending Russian speakers in Ukraine, so it’s about offering protection rather than aggression,” she said.
“Russian youth is much more apolitical and they don’t see Russia’s policy towards Ukraine is something important and relevant.”
Having grown up with the two countries separated, young Russians have little support for the idea that the two countries belong together – an imperial ideal touted by some senior Russian officials.
In July last year, Putin penned an article claiming Ukrainians and Russians were “one people” in ancient Rus, and were later separated through “mistakes”.
“Young people have a different point of view and tend to support the Ukrainians more,” said Tonya, 20, a film school student from Moscow.
“We feel more compassion towards [them],” she said, adding that some of her friends refuse to visit Crimea in protest against the Russian annexation.
“It’s good that Ukraine is being supported by the US.”
The independent Russian pollster Levada last March found that Russians aged 18-24 were the most sympathetic towards Ukraine of any age group, with 68 percent saying they felt “mostly good” about the country.
“On the one hand, I do feel certain patriotic values. But on the other, this is a stupid war and on those grounds, I would not take part in it,” said Ravil, a 20-year-old Muscovite studying jurisprudence at university.
Ultimately, Ravil said, young Russians have other worries.
“I’m concerned about exams, economic difficulties and careers. We have bigger problems.”