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400 kilometers in these shoes: Realities of war in Ukraine

Arizona lawmakers voice opposition to military intervention, support for banning Russian oil

More than 1 million Ukrainians are now refugees, having left their homes as Russia invaded. Hundreds of thousands more are displaced inside that country, such as Veronika, who told her family's story to the Tucson Sentinel.

In the early morning hours of Feb. 25, Veronika was in Bila Tserkva, about 35 miles southwest of Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, caring for her elderly mother.

Until that morning, Veronika, 45, lived and worked in Kyiv with her husband. She worked as a freelance graphic designer, and, together with her husband, she also operated a small business selling vintage audio components. Their apartment was located on the 12th floor of their building, with a view of the southern part of the city. From there, in peaceful times, they could watch planes flying in and out of the nearby Kyiv International Airport.

As she watched the news while preparing for bed on the evening of February 24, the Kyiv airport took on a darker significance. The nation was bracing for a full-scale Russian military invasion, and all the airports were being closed. Heavy vehicles had been rolled out and parked on the runways to block incoming air traffic.

The news precluded any possibility of sleep for Veronika, who asked the Tucson Sentinel to withhold her last name. At about 2 a.m., she said, information began appearing on the Internet, indicating Russia planned to attack at 4 a.m.. She heard the first explosions from airstrikes at 4:30 a.m.

Veronika's father had died two years prior and her mother, now 81, had suffered a debilitating injury. As such, Veronika was often by her mother's side in Bila Tserkva. As the sounds of explosions continued — sometimes sounding like they were coming closer, and sometimes sounding further away — she woke and dressed her mother, telling her "we must be ready for anything." She called her husband, in Kyiv, and he told her there had been a missile attack there.

The Russian attack seemed a long time in coming.

In March 2014, Russia invaded, and subsequently annexed, Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Also in March 2014, Russia and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region launched a war of secession against the Ukrainian government. Just short of the eight anniversary of the Donbas War, on Feb. 21, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the "independence" of the contested breakaway territories and announced that Russia would deploy "peacekeeping" soldiers to the region. By that point, Putin had already surrounded Ukraine with an invasion force of nearly 190,000 soldiers — stationed to Ukraine's north in Belarus, north and east in Russia, to the south in Crimea, and to the south-west in Moscow-backed Russian separatist territory of Moldova.

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Neither Ukraine or Moldova are members of NATO, a defensive military alliance of 30 nations, which includes the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and most of Europe. Russia is not a NATO member, and is an adversary of many NATO member nations. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states an attack against any one NATO member can be considered an attack against all NATO members, and therefore elicits collective defense.

At the time of Russia's full invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine had been attempting to join NATO for several years, and those NATO aspirations may well have served as part of the impetus for Russia's assault. Putin has repeatedly indicated that he sees Ukraine as being an illegitimate nation that truly belongs to Russia, and, prior to the Russian attack on Ukraine, Moscow repeatedly demanded that NATO bar Ukraine from membership.

Political leaders across the globe fear that Russia's war of aggression has implications that reach far beyond Ukraine, as that country shares borders with so many NATO nations. Russia's pulling of the country of Belarus closer to its orbit, including using it as a staging location for the invasion, has created further concerns. Sweden and Finland, previously studiously neutral since the end of WWII, have expressed interest in joining NATO. On Feb. 26, Russia warned those countries there would be "serious military-political consequences" if they seek to join NATO.

According to Veronika, information purported to be Russia's full leaked invasion plan for Ukraine began circulating on the Internet as early as January, though she said few in Ukraine really believed Putin would really pursue a full-fledged invasion of their nation.

Ukraine is Europe's second-largest nation, and Russia is the first. Such an invasion would amount to a massive land war in Europe — the likes of which has not been seen since World War II. Further, given Ukraine's continuing desire to join NATO and its shared borders with NATO nations, many believed such an act of military aggression could precipitate world war, or even nuclear war. Besides, as neighboring nations with much shared culture and history, Ukrainians and Russians have close relationships — friends and family. Veronika herself is from a Russian-speaking family and has family in Russia.

"It was written there, point by point," said Veronika of reading the alleged Russian invasion plans for her nation on the Internet. "First of all, an attack on all military and strategic facilities in all cities of Ukraine, and their main goal is to encircle Kyiv, destroy all communications there, cause hunger and panic. This plan sounded terrible. I couldn't believe it."

After the invasion began, Veronika called family and Russia to try to explain the realities on the ground in Ukraine, that this was no "peacekeeping" mission. Trying to talk to her own family, she said, was like talking to a "solid wall that cannot be broken through," built of the Kremlin's relentless domestic propaganda. She found no sympathy or understanding, and she "started to just shake."

As the bombing continued and dawn began to light the sky of Feb. 25, Veronika went out into the streets of Bila Tserkva with her dog. She saw people up and down the streets, loading whatever they could into their cars and leaving. The car Veronika shared with her husband, a 1995 Audi 80 that has some difficulty starting, was in Kyiv with him, and he had recently filled it with gas in anticipation of the Russian attack. Her husband soon arrived in the car. The family — Veronika, her husband, her mother (who is unable to walk and is confined to a "stroller"), and their dog — loaded into the car, praying that they'd be able to make it somewhere safe, to the west, away from Russia and its invading forces.

As the family drove, they went through what Veronika described as "an apocalypse on the roads," passing many abandoned vehicles on the outskirts of the city, huge queues at gas stations, and many gas stations that "were not working." They had calculated that they had enough gas to make it 200 kilometers, but had not anticipated the gridlocked traffic of all those suddenly fleeing bombing. Stuck in traffic, crawling through short distances over long stretches of time, Veronika thought of the amount of fuel they were burning, but they did not dare turn the vehicle off because of its problems restarting.

Someone had given the family the address of a home in the area of Khmelnitsky where they could spend the night. Khmelnitsky is almost precisely 200 kilometers (124 miles) west of Bila Tserkva, and Veronika considered it a miracle — which she attributes to their near-religious adherence to Google Maps course recommendations (others who took other routes did not make it, she observed) — that they made it to the safe house that afternoon. She said they were joined there by their 17-year-old son, who had traveled to meet them there with his girlfriend's family.

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The following morning, her son's girlfriend's family departed, headed for the Polish border. Veronika and her family continued to move another roughly 60 miles (approximately 96 kilometers) westward, to the city of Ternopil, where they had distant relatives.

"In Ternopil, as well as throughout Ukraine, air sirens sound every day, urging people to take cover and be ready for anything. Every day rockets fly to Ukraine from Russia and Belarus, their target can be any city in Ukraine. Of course, the main goal is still Kyiv and Kharkiv (Ukraine's second largest city, in eastern Ukraine). Kharkiv already looks like the city of Stalingrad during the Second World War. The shelling from artillery weapons does not stop in Kharkiv," said Veronika.

"It's just unbearable to watch. The poor people who are there," she added.

'Planning is not yet possible'

Veronika told the Sentinel that she and her family do not plan to move any further than Ternopil. Her mother had a very hard time being moved from Bila Tserkva.

This weekend, Bila Tserkva was undergoing rocket attacks that have reportedly targeted residential neighborhoods.

"Planning is not yet possible. I cannot assess the correctness of our decision," said Veronika. "We still have relatives and friends in Kyiv, some left. Each made a decision for himself individually. Many went to he Kyiv region (Kyiv Oblast, the province which contains the city of Kyiv), but then it turned out that this was not the right decision — since the Kyiv suburb was very badly damaged."

Speaking to this uncertainty and chaos, Veronika poured out a litany of the violent upheaval her nation, family, and friends are suffering through.

"My friend told me that his friend went to country house, and Russian tanks were just coming from there. Now the roads around there are blown up, there is no electricity there and he cannot get through to him.

"We have recently been very actively developing and building in the suburb of Kyiv. Built beautiful houses an cottage towns, developed parks and infrastructure. Many young people bought apartments and houses there. People rejoiced that life is getting better an everything is changing for the better. And now our beautiful towns of Bucha, Irpin and others are mutilated, people are suffering. There were entire cottage towns which were blocked by Russian tanks. And people were sitting in basements there. Many are already homeless.

"My friend Anna lived with her family in the city of Vasylkiv, Kyiv region, they have a little son, 3 years old. their house was next to an oil depot that was hit by a Russian missile. Because of that there was a huge fire. (...)

"My relative's mother lives in the Zhotromyr region (north Ukraine, adjacent to Belarus), where (Russian) tanks were moving from the north of Ukraine though Belarus. She could not pick her up and now she can only call on the phone. Thank God that their village was not in the way of Russian tanks and everything is intact there. And (Veronika's friend) herself is in Kyiv with her family, she says that the psyche can no longer stand it. They hardly slept all week. They sat on chairs in the basement or near the elevator. When were allowed to go outside, they ran to buy food in the store and pharmacies.

"The eastern and southern cities and, of course, the entire Kyiv region suffer greatly. These are Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol, Nikolaev, Sumy, Poltava, and many others. Today there was already a fire at the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. In the worst dreams, this could not be seen," she said.

"Our hearts shed tears from the grief that this so-called Russian liberation war has brought," she said.

Veronika told the Sentinel she has been collecting donations, received through her Ebay vintage audio parts store and through direct wire transfers, and distributing the money and resources purchased with the donations among those in need — particularly among people still in Kyiv, as Russia continues its advance and siege of the capital city.

Like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has relentlessly lobbied for NATO and American support in the form of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Veronika told the Sentinel that she and others in Ukraine hope the international community will help "close the skies" over Ukraine to provide cover for Ukrainian military and civil defense soldiers fighting the Russians on the ground.

"Ukraine have a sufficient number of military men, many of Ukrainians have joined the territorial defense. But against air strikes and missile attacks, territorial defense is powerless. Only strong air defense and aircraft support can withstand Russian attacks. Unfortunately, there are very few fighter planes in Ukraine. The military is trying to use them very effectively," she said.

On March 4, NATO formally rejected Zelensky's request for a no-fly zone. In response, Zelensky admonished NATO, saying that the alliance would be responsible for the deaths of Ukrainians killed as a result of their "weak" and "confused" response to Russian aggression.

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Both NATO and the United States have stated fears that the establishment of a western-enforced no-fly zone over Ukraine could lead to direct military conflict between Russia and NATO-member nations, which would likely lead to full-scale world war, and potentially even nuclear war.

Russia has made several oblique and explicit references to nuclear war since the outset of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and, on Feb. 27, Putin ordered his nation's nuclear arsenal placed on "high alert." Also on Feb. 27, the constitution of Russian ally Belarus was amended to allow the permanent placement of Russian nuclear weapons and soldiers on Belarusian soil.

On March 5, Zelensky spoke to several members of the U.S. Congress over a video call, urging the United States to ban all imports of Russian oil, and again making the case for air support over Ukraine. In the call, Zelensky also urged U.S. lawmakers to supply Ukraine with more weaponry (possibly including military aircraft), and assistance in gaining Russian-manufactured aircraft to be provided to Ukraine by Eastern European nations.

Also on March 5, Putin stated that any country attempting to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be viewed by Russia as "participants in a military conflict."

While NATO won't enforce a no-fly zone — which would necessitate eliminating Russian anti-aircraft weapons on the ground — and won't send troops over the border, the U.S. is urging Poland and other countries to provide former Soviet military aircraft from their air forces to Ukraine. That country's pilots are trained to fly the planes that have been used by former Eastern Bloc countries.

In less than a week, the U.S. and other NATO countries ramped up the operation supplying Ukraine's military by sending more than 17,000 anti-tank rockets, along with shipments of other weapons and gear.

Arizona lawmakers respond

The Sentinel obtained comment from several of Arizona's federal elected officials ahead of Zelensky's March 5 video call with members of Congress.

The Sentinel submitted written questions to U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema regarding her position on Ukrainian requests for air support, any potential future U.S. military support, and Moscow's nuclear threats and posturing.

"Speculating about an escalation of force against Russia contributes to dangerous disinformation and hurts America's an our allies' security as we stand united against Russian aggression," Sinema said.

The Democratic senator went on to offer statements of general support for sanctions against Russia, and for the safety of American soldiers and for the nation as a whole.

When asked by the Sentinel to clarify how answering questions regarding her views on potential air support for Ukraine, or her views on Russia's nuclear threats, would contribute to "dangerous disinformation," or what "dangerous disinformation" she was referring to, Sinema did not reply.

When asked if she is supportive of legislation proposed by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on March 3, which would ban Russian oil imports to the United States, Sinema did not respond.

The Sentinel posed the same questions to U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, a former Navy fighter pilot who flew combat missions during the first Iraq War. While neither the Democratic senator nor his staff responded directly to the Sentinel's questions, Kelly spokesperson Arielle Devorah pointed out that Kelly had previously "ruled out" involvement the U.S. military in Ukraine, including air support for a no-fly zone.

U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (who represents Arizona's CD 2, which covers much of Tucson as well as the southeast corner of the state), told the Sentinel that she does not believe U.S. armed forces should be physically engaged in Ukraine in any way.

"Any direct air support or military engagement from the U.S. at this point would only serve to escalate the situation and worsen conflict in the region," the Democratic congresswoman said via email. "We should continue to aid Ukrainian forces with humanitarian resources, intelligence, and security assistance they need to defend themselves."

"Russia's provocations and rhetoric have certainly been irresponsible. We cannot trust Putin at this point, I don't believe Putin's posturing poses an immediate threat of the use of nuclear weapons," she said.

"We should continue strengthening the allied response against Russia's hostility by imposing aggressive sanctions against Russia," she added. Kirkpatrick is assessing various pieces of proposed legislation aimed at banning Russian oil imports.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva's (D) 3rd Congressional District covers much of Tucson and the southwestern portion of the state. Like Kirkpatrick, he does not want to see the U.S. military in direct conflict with Russia.

"I don't support the implementation of a no-fly zone, or any policy that would put American service members in a direct way into that war" said Grijalva. "You've got to enforce a no-fly zone, and that means that that enforcement would lead to direct conflict."

Grijalva told the Sentinel that he believed there still are diplomatic avenues to de-escalation which may be pursued, and said he believes that continuing to apply economic pressure on Russia through further economic sanctions may yield favorable results. Grijalva also stated support for continued U.S. provision of humanitarian and military equipment aid to Ukraine.

While Grijalva stressed that he backs the Biden administration's current non-military response to Russia's war in Ukraine, he added a caveat:

"If the president reaches a conclusion where he believes the U.S. military is necessary, then take the case to Congress, and for once — in a long time, decades — allow Congress to take that vote. Then I, as a representative, will be judged by that vote. (...) I've joined a lot of my colleagues in saying that any direct military engagement requires a vote of Congress, and I hold to that," he said in a phone interview.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war, though Congress has not done so since the beginning of WWII in 1941.

Still, at the time of his interview with the Sentinel, on March 4 — a day in which the Russian military shelled Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe — Grijalva said the war had not yet reached a point where he would vote to support U.S. military intervention, to include a no-fly zone, if the issue came before Congress.

Grijalva said he believes Putin's nuclear threats to be hollow posturing, meant to intimidate the United States and allied nations into discontinuing aid to Ukraine and to lift economic sanctions he be believes are already "crippling (Putin) and his inner circle."

Where further economic sanctions are concerned, Grijalva told the Sentinel that he supports potential bans on Russian oil imports. However, Grijalva stated wariness of potentially harmful effects such bans could have on the nation's needed shift toward renewable energy in the face of climate change.

"There's a very important caveat, because at the same time, you have the American Petroleum Council, you have all the major oil producers, all the major gas producers, saying this is the time for us to pursue an energy policy where we make a bigger — unencumbered by regulations or laws — effort to use our public lands, particularly federal lands in this instance, and really open up that 'drill baby drill' mentality — without any restrictions, because it would be a response to this crisis," he said.

"We're talking about ANWR (Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where oil and gas producers have sought to expand production for decades), we're talking about making the climate crises even worse than it is," said Grijalva, acknowledging that the primary sponsors of Russian oil ban legislation unveiled in the Senate on March 3 were Sens. Manchin (D) and Murkowski (R), who represent major fossil-fuel producing states, West Virginia and Alaska.

"It is hypocritical of (House Minority Leader Kevin) McCarthy, Murkoski, and the Republicans to use this tragedy and this crises in Ukraine to get things done that they have not been able to do legislatively, whether they have a majority or not," said Grijalva. "That's been part of the discussions. We're very much against it. They are trying to put together an energy package that says, you know, 'we can do all this without restrictions,' and we're saying 'no, don't use this crises as a means to get your agenda for the petrol giants.'"

Wary of this potential opportunism, Grijalva told the Sentinel that, in addition to advocating for renewable energy development as an alternative to Russian fossil fuel consumption, he is advocating for an addition layer of restrictions, beyond a ban on oil imports from Russia, which would bar any company doing any business with Russia from leasing federal lands for fossil fuel production.

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar (R), whose 4th Congressional District covers much of the western and central parts of Arizona, did not respond to written questions submitted to his office by the Sentinel regarding Ukraine's pleas for air support, his views on Putin's nuclear threats, and calls for bans on Russian oil imports.

Gosar, along with Arizona State Sen. Wendy Rogers (R - LD 6) and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, were featured as speakers at the white nationalist America First Political Action Conference on Feb. 25. In addition to time spent parroting the lies of former president Donald Trump, AFPAC organizers (including white nationalist Nick Fuentes), speakers, and attendees, joined in pro-Putin chants and cheered Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

At one point, Fuentes favorably compared Putin to Adolf Hitler.

Arizona Ukrainian community raises support

Igor Borisevich is president of the Ukrainian American Society of Tucson. Like many in Arizona's Ukrainian immigrant community, Borisevich still has friends and family in Ukraine and is deeply concerned for their safety.

According to Borisevich, the needs of people on the ground in Ukraine are varied.

"It depends on who you ask. Some people need gas to get to take their car to western Ukraine. Some people need food. Some people need shelter. I think a lot of people just need help with transportation — getting out of danger zones — that's the main thing."

And then, acknowledged Borisevich, as Ukraine is now a nation ravaged by war, some regions of the nation are in need of medical kits; some Ukrainians are in need of body armor.

He said the one of the best ways for Arizonans to support Ukraine is to write and call their congressional representatives and the White House, and advocate for continued pressure on Russia, as well as continued provision of weapons, other military equipment, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Where the Ukrainian no-fly zone advocated for by Zelensky and others is concerned, Borisevich acknowledges the complexities and perils of the situation. One one hand, he said, "closing the skies" would help defend the Ukrainian people from Russian attack and help to compensate for the Ukrainian military's lack of air power. On the other hand, Borisevich said he does see the unprecedented global danger that direct conflict between the United States, or NATO, and Russia would pose.

The Ukrainian American Society of Tucson organized a rally in support of Ukraine, held Downtown on Sunday, and is also working to collect donations for three organizations working to supply aid for Ukraine. It is through financial support, said Borisevich, that Arizonans can most directly aid the people of Ukraine at this moment.

He said his organization has been working with three organizations to get aid into Ukraine.

One organization is St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church of Tucson. Borisevich said funds raised through that church are sent on to the Ukrainian Catholic Church's Archeparchy of Philadeliphia, where church leadership decide what form of relief the funds will be used for.

Borisevich said his group has also been working with St. Mary's Protectress Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukraine in Phoenix, as well as the Phoenix branch of the Ukrainian National Women's League of America to raise funds for Ukraine (donations to this organization can be made here).

He said those two organizations have been working together at the local level to decide how to best use donations for the benefit of those on the ground in Ukraine. Borisevich said he believes these groups are primarily focused on supplying medical kits and body armor to Ukrainians at this time.

From Ternopil, Veronika told the Sentinel that she recommends those who would like to support Ukraine send money or goods through Nova Poshta, a Ukrainian postal carrier that has launched a humanitarian aid program to support the Ukrainian military and civil Territorial Defense.

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courtesy Tony Zinman

Sunday in Downtown Tucson, protesters condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.