Utah residents discuss developments in Ukraine’s fight against Russia

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Makayla Howard stands in front of a mural that says, “MY HEART BELONGS TO UKRAINE.” She served a mission in the Ukraine Kyiv/Moldova area 2018-19, and empathizes with her Ukrainian friends whom the war has impacted. (Photo courtesy of Makayla Howard)

As Ukraine sees new victories in their war against Russia, Utahns with connections to the war share their thoughts on recent changes in the conflict.

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been an ongoing conflict since 2014 when Russia seized Crimea. After six years of steady tension, the war escalated on Feb. 24 when President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops further into Ukrainian territory, taking control over much of eastern Ukraine.

Recently, Ukrainian troops started taking large amounts of territory back from Russia.

BYU associate professor of international relations Scott Cooper and his colleagues have been continually researching Ukrainian attitudes towards Russia. 

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, votes were scheduled in four Ukrainian regions to consider joining Russia. According to Cooper, “it’s very clear that those referenda,” a tactic commonly used by Putin to annex previously sovereign territories, “won’t be free in any way.”

The next day, Putin ordered a partial mobilization of Russian troops and said he would defend the overtaken Ukrainian territory using everything at his disposal. This has caused some to speculate that Putin has considered the use of nuclear weapons in this conflict.

Cooper believes this is a bluff. “This is for domestic propaganda to say, ‘Hey, I’m tough. I’m still in control,’” he said.

While this war is being fought in Europe, there are many Utah residents with connections to the conflict. Anya Beus was raised in Mariupol, Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. in 2009. Although she lives in Lehi now, she said she still knows the extent of Russian propaganda very well.

“Russian propaganda always portrayed the Ukrainian language as the language of peasants,” Beus said.

Beus said that while almost everyone in Ukraine spoke both Ukrainian and Russian, she often felt compelled to conform to Russian influence. Especially in eastern Ukraine, where she was raised, Russian language and culture was a dominating power.

“You have no idea how much language has an influence in your life until you don’t have that language and you have to adjust to something else,” Beus said, “and then you become someone else, not yourself.”

Beus said she believes the recent territory gains for Ukraine are long-awaited victories that will continue.

“Ukrainians as a nation — we don’t have much patience. I want it right here right now, and so for a lot of Ukrainians, including myself, the beginning of the war was dragging on forever and ever,” Beus said. “We felt like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Why does it take so long?’ Not right away, but things do get better. Things do change. And if we’re persistent enough, things will change our way, the way we want it.”

BYU students Makayla and Joe Howard, who are both returned missionaries that served in Ukraine, agreed that Ukrainians are determined.

“They’re very hard working people,” Makayla Howard said.

She also spoke of the strong national identity in Ukraine, and said she frequently noticed things painted yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, while she was in Ukraine.

Joe Howard said he has kept in touch with several of his Ukrainian friends throughout the events of the war.

“One of my friends — I served in the branch presidency with him, and his apartment was right by the satellite tower that was bombed in Rivne,” he said. “It was a block away from his apartment. It really hurt to hear that my favorite city was bombed like that.”

The Ukrainians with whom Makayla Howard has stayed in contact are among the millions of Ukrainian refugees across the world. She hopes that other countries can support both those who have fled and those who are staying to fight in the war.

“I feel like because Ukraine is no longer the top headlines in the news, people have forgotten about it,” she said. “I just feel like none of us can afford to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Cooper said he recognizes the immense contribution of American taxpayers as the U.S. continues to supply Ukraine with weapons and support.

“I want Americans to remember that they’re donating to help keep people free, that there are millions and millions of people whose freedom depends on American support,” he said.

Beus said she has felt this support for her homeland, and continues to advocate for assistance to Ukrainian troops.

“Ukrainians are really strong people, but they’re not eternal,” she said. “When the war started, it was so much pain. I never knew I loved Ukraine so much. When people say I feel it in their bones — I have. I know what it’s like now.”

When sharing his support for Ukraine, Joe Howard repeated the popular slogan meaning “glory to Ukraine” that has become a battle cry to many for the war: “Slava Ukraini.”

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