CINCINNATI – Olga Yurovski is more than 5,300 miles from her hometown of Dnipro, Ukraine, but right now she’s never felt closer or more connected to it.
What You Need To Know
- Recent widespread attack on Ukraine by Russia hits home for Olga Yurovski
- Many of her family members and colleagues are debating next steps as Russian forces move through the country
- The immediate build-up is weeks old, but current tensions between the two nations dates back to 2014
- A University of Cincinnati professor believes the conflict stems from a battle over who controls Ukraine - Russia or the "West"
On Thursday, Russia launched a widespread attack on Ukraine after the nation's president, Vladimir Putin, ordered a "special military operation" on its neighbor.
Yurovski, who’s ethnic Russian, but grew up in Ukraine, continues to watch nervously hour after hour as details of the invasion have dominated TV news channels around the globe.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday 137 Ukrainians were killed in the first 24 hours of Russia's invasion, with more than 300 people wounded. Widespread damage has been reported in areas across the nation.
By Friday, Russian forces had pressed forward toward Kyiv, claiming to have captured a strategic airport just outside Ukraine’s capital city, according to the Associated Press. The effort reportedly aimed to cut off the city from the west.
Zelenskyy has ordered a full military mobilization to counter the Russian aggression. In a decree issued Thursday, he said it would last 90 days.
All men from 18 to 60 were told not to leave the country.
“I'm feeling like it's a surreal dream that I'm gonna wake up from any moment. I just think I'm still in this denial phase,” Yurovski said.
‘It’s been difficult to focus on anything else’
Yurovski lives in Cincinnati with her family. She’s the CEO of Shopperations Research & Technology. Although the computer software company is based in Southwest Ohio, her development team is based in Dnipro.
She’s made several attempts to call over the last few days. They’ve discussed emergency contingency planning, but little of those conversations involved business matters.
“It’s been difficult to focus on work,” Yurovski said. “It’s been difficult to focus on anything else, really.”
Dnipro is one of Ukraine’s largest cities, with a population of nearly 1 million people. It’s situated about 240 miles southeast of the Ukrainian’s capital Kyiv on the Dnieper River, from which its name derives.
The city is on the eastern side of the state – often known as “the Russian side.”
Yurovski has watched the gradual buildup of tensions during the last two weeks. She has talked to friends, family and even business colleagues during that time to get ground reports, but was caught off guard by how quickly things transpired.
“I realized that possibility was definitely there, but I didn't expect it to happen so soon,” she added.
Yurovski feels many people in Ukraine have felt western media were being “almost alarmist” in recent weeks.
“In Ukraine, on the other hand, until very recently, until maybe a few days ago… they were very optimistic and they were essentially minimizing this threat,” she added.
Yurovski believes many people living in Ukraine feel they’ve been living under Russian “pressure” since 2014, and have been “desensitized to the news of possible invasion.”
Until a few days ago, people like her parents weren’t overly concerned about the possibility of open conflict with Russia.
“I feel the narrative was very, very different until just a couple of days ago, so honestly I haven't spoken to them much,” Yurovski said. “I'd spoken to them several weeks ago… and everybody was like, ‘We're just we're business as usual. We're not concerned.’”
In recent days, Yurovski grew worried enough that she began to develop an emergency plan for her parents, who are in their late 60s and early 70s. “I was sending them links to Ready.gov and like explaining how to pack a bugout bag, trying to help them figure how where the bomb shelters are,” she added.
The United Nations reported Friday that more than 50,000 Ukranians have fled in their homes in the 48 hours since Russia launched its attacks.
In video calls, her parents insisted they were doing fine. “I'm begging them to leave but they don't want to because that's where their whole life is,” Yurovski said. “They have a house, a garden, friends, a social network, and jobs.”
Her parents had heard “bombardments” starting around 5 a.m. local time Thursday.
“Maybe it will change if there's an imminent threat to life and they realize they want to survive,” she said. “I don't know. I'm hoping they change their mind sooner so it doesn’t become too late.”
How we got here
Brendan Green, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, said Russia’s invasion took place in three or four directions at once to essentially cut the nation into several different pieces.
Over the past few months, the Russian government has been building up military forces all along the borders of the Ukraine and issuing diplomatic threats about what it seeks.
“Over the past 72 hours, we saw the Russians essentially sign a treaty with the breakaway parts of Ukraine, recognizing them as independent states and making defense pacts to defend them and then flow Russian military forces into those breakaway provinces,” Green said. He estimated the number was somewhere around 200,000 soldiers.
The invasion wasn’t an out-of-the-blue attack. This has been building up for more than a decade, Green said. And it has to do with competition over whose sphere of influence Ukraine was going to be part of – Russia’s or the West/NATO’s.
Things hit a fever pitch in 2013 and 2014 when a revolution in Ukraine led to a pro-western government coming into power and writing a new pro-western constitution.
“The west ‘won’ – with quotes around that – won the first round of that competition,” Green said. “But the Russian side never gave up on Ukraine.”
Putin responded by taking the Crimean Peninsula with military force that same year, in 2014, backing a rebellion in the eastern parts of Ukraine. That was a show of force, according to Green. The goal was to show Ukraine was vulnerable and couldn’t operate independently if it was going to go into the western sphere of influence.
What’s unfolded over the past several months, Green said, is a result of the Kremlin losing patience with Ukraine.
“Putin has given up on that strategy. This is an invasion whose aims are to destroy the Ukrainian regime as it presently exists and set up a new government, probably, I'm guessing, with a new constitution that will be friendlier towards Russia and less pro-western orientation,” he added.
While Russia is to blame for the war, Green believes the United States, its allies and NATO share some of the responsibility.
“Ultimately, the biggest share has to go to Putin, because nobody forced him to do this. But the alternatives he was being faced with from NATO and the United States were not palatable alternatives,” he said. “Given that no one in the west is willing to fight to defend Ukraine, I think that western policy should have been more accommodative and they should have made attempts to reach a negotiated solution with the Russians.”
The ethnic Russian Ukraine
Yurovski grew up in Ukraine in the 1980s and early ‘90s when the nation was still part of the former Soviet Union. And she was there in August 1991 to witness Ukraine officially declare its independence.
Despite the action, the idea of a unified Ukraine was always a challenge because Ukraine is ethnically and culturally diverse, and there are factions that remain loyal to Russia.
“It's divided in many different ways, but perhaps the biggest division is the division between the Russian-speaking eastern portion of the nation and the western part of the nation, which tends to speak Ukrainian and be more western oriented,” Green said.
There’s also a small Hungarian minority within Ukraine.
The Russian-speaking portion of Ukraine largely exists east of the Dnieper River, which essentially divides the nation in half, as well as some portions in the far south of the nation. Yurovski’s family lives on the eastern side of the Dnieper.
“Those two regions and those two sets of people likely see the war in very different ways,” Green said.
Yurovski grew up speaking Russian at home – and her parents and family members who still live in Ukraine speak Russian. Yurovski also learned Ukrainian.
Growing up, she didn’t remember any sort of ethnic tensions, largely because the nationalistic tendencies were severely repressed in the USSR. She thinks the nationalism witnessed today in Ukraine has to do with recent challenges to the nation's autonomy.
“The nationalism right now in Ukraine is on the rise, ironically, because Putin is threatening Ukraine so much, and people are just being more defiant and prouder of their heritage and their language,” Yurovski said.
But Green mentioned there are many legitimate complaints against Ukraine’s government and how it has treated the Russian minorities since the new government formed in 2014.
For instance, the Ukraine’s government has made it illegal to have children educated in any language other than Ukrainian.
“Those are absolutely legitimate complaints,” Green said. He wouldn’t go so far as to say persecution though.
“Many of the claims that Putin has been issuing about what is happening to Russians in Ukraine are simply lies,” he added.
Yurovski said she “never felt threatened” being in Ukraine, telling people that she’s native Russian or speaking Russian.
“My family still speaks Russian,” she added. “I did learn how to speak Ukrainian and I fluently speak and understand Ukrainian, but for me that was just not my first language, so I never felt pressured to speak it.”
She first came to the United States in 1995 as an exchange student and later returned to get her master’s degree in 2001, before making Cincinnati her permanent home.
“I loved America and I felt like America offered so many more opportunities for success and prosperity and just freedom. It wasn't because I was fleeing anything. It was just purely economic. I just wanted my children to grow up in this nation, and I just decided to stay.”
Green downplays any analogies to World War II as being “overdrawn.”
As it stands, this is a war between just two nations, he said. The biggest threat to escalation would be accidental engagement between Russia and a NATO nation. He gave the example of a warplane from Russia inadvertently entering a NATO nation’s airspace, which could lead to confusion.
But Green believes some of the more extreme reactions are understandable given the history of the two nations and the fact this is the first major military ground operation in Europe since World War II.
“It’s understandable when Ukrainians will reach back to their memory of World War II to describe what is happening now, even if that analogy is not super accurate,” he said.
It’s too early to tell what next steps will look like, Green believes, but he doesn’t see any situation where the U.S. would get involved militarily.
“The United States has made it abundantly clear – not just under Joe Biden, but under Donald Trump and under Barack Obama – that it will not fight for Ukraine. So, I expect that there will be almost no circumstances under which American troops would end up in Ukraine," Green said.
Instead, the U.S. government seems intent on waging economic warfare.
President Joe Biden announced a broader set of financial penalties on Russia one day after they launched the attack, stating the invasion was occurring exactly as U.S. officials have been warning about for months.
"Putin is the aggressor," Biden said. "Putin chose this war, and now he and his nation will bear the consequences."
Green said it’s not yet sure what will happen with the sanctions because strong sanctions against Russia might also end up hurting Europe.
“I'm not sure that the Europeans are ready to sign up for that,” he said. “I expect the United States to enact sanctions that are as tough as it can enact.”