‘I don’t want Ukraine to be a new Afghanistan or Vietnam or Cuba’

Ukrainians and Russians in Ireland on the rising tensions between their home countries

Ukrainian border guards patrol the border with Russia not far from Hoptivka village, Kharkiv region, Ukraine. Photograph: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo

Relations between Ukrainian and Russian people have "plummeted" since 2014, while polarised opinions have "destabilised multiple families and local communities", a Russian professor living in Ireland has said.

Before 2014, Ukraine was Russia's closest ally, says Vladimir Lobaskin, a Russian professor at the UCD school of physics who has lived in Ireland since 2008. "That's not the case anymore because of these stupid and violent acts. Even though [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is presenting himself as unifying the Russian world, in reality, he has managed to properly separate from Ukraine for the first time in centuries."

In a scientific paper he co-authored in 2018, Lobaskin argues that the extreme divide in political opinions in Ukraine since 2014 have “destabilised multiple families and local communities”.

Vladimir Lobaskin from Russia: ‘Putin’s administration is doing everything it can to scare people’

He also believes Russian state media has focused on disseminating negative information about Ukraine in order to justify an invasion of the country. Many Russians do not know Ukrainians and have never met a person from Ukraine, thus their opinion is entirely based on what they hear on the news, says Lobaskin.


"In Russia, Ukrainians are portrayed as trying to humiliate Russian speakers. Putin's administration is doing everything it can to scare people."

Oleksandr Babyuk, who has lived in Ireland for more than 20 years, says watching news reports about the threat of a Russian invasion “feels as if something stabbed me through the heart”. However, this is not a new feeling. “Ukraine has been under Russian attack for centuries. Similarly to the Irish, our history was rewritten and traditions outlawed. We were slaughtered by Stalin’s engineered famine, by the KGB, Gulag camps, the war in Donbass. So you always live in fear of the next act of aggression.”

Babyuk’s parents were born born in Siberia after his grandparents were forcibly transferred from Ukraine in the late 1940s. The family returned to Ukraine in the 1960s but Babyuk still has cousins in Russia. They stopped speaking after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

"We have a different mentality . . . My family in Russia believes that eating well is more important than freedom." They also live in a "tightly controlled information environment" where Russian TV portrays Nato, Europe and the US as "evil forces", he says. "They believe they're defending themselves and the Russian-speaking population from being slaughtered, they've been brainwashed."

Babyuk believes Putin will order his troops to invade Ukraine in the coming weeks because "Russia was never punished for invading Georgia and Moldova". "Even after meddling in US elections, MH-17, the use of banned weapons in Syria, the Salisbury poisoning, the killing of Litvinenko, murder of Nemtsov and other barbaric acts, Russia managed to build the Nord Stream 2 [pipeline]."

Oleksandr Babyuk from Ukraine: ‘If Ukraine falls, which country will be invaded next?’

Babyuk is worried that his family in Ukraine will face hospital closures, electricity blackouts and supply issues if Putin's army invades. "If Ukraine falls, which country will be invaded next? Will it be Poland, Latvia, Lithuania? How close to Ireland is close enough?"

Oleksii Rukhlenko is also worried about his family and says friends will be conscripted into the military if Russians invade. Rukhlenko spent 11 years living in Moscow before he moved to Ireland in 2014. He found a job at UCD after being arrested for taking part in an anti-war protest following the annexation of Crimea. His participation in the protest also ended many of the friendships. “It was an unpleasant surprise to me that most of the people I considered friends didn’t believe Ukraine existed as an independent country. Morally I couldn’t take it anymore. I also understood for me personally it wasn’t safe to stay in Russia.”

Russian propaganda has led millions of Russians to believe there are strong Nazi elements within Ukraine’s governing powers and that Russian speakers in Ukraine are persecuted, says Rukhlenko.

In reality, the thousands of Muslim-minority Tatars, who have fled to mainland Ukraine since 2014, are the group actually facing persecution, he adds. Those who have remained in Russian-controlled Crimea “are living in complete hell” and fear the mass deportations of the Soviet-era will happen again.

Oleksii Rukhlenko from Ukraine: ‘I also understood for me personally it wasn’t safe to stay in Russia’

Natalya Pakshina, a ballet teacher who had also lived in Ireland for more than two decades but who is originally from Crimea, says Crimeans welcomed the Russians in 2014 with open arms. “When we were in Ukraine my mum’s pension was very low. Now it’s much higher, her medicine is free, there’s free food in schools, there’s social welfare, there’s better infrastructure. It’s like Europe, things are a thousand times better.” She says her family, who have lived in the region for hundreds of years, have “no mix, are only Russian”.

The 2014 referendum results – when 97 per cent of Crimeans allegedly voted to join Russia – were “exactly true”, says Pakshina. “Crimea was always part of Russia, it was given to Ukraine as a present years ago and it wasn’t legal.”

Pakshina says the reports of a Russian invasion are “theatre, a big political show”. “Russia has no interest in Ukraine; Ukraine is nearly bankrupt, people don’t have enough food, it’s an economic burden. Ukraine will eat itself from the inside.”

She believes Ukrainians are brainwashed by American propaganda. "I love Ukraine but I hate Kiev. America says it's a democracy but we don't want neo-Nazis in power. The people are friendly but the power is held by Nazis."

Anastasia McCabe, director of the Russian Bridge NGO, says the “media hysteria about a Russian invasion” will only harm Ukraine economically and socially. The assertion by Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last week that the country is not planning to invade its neighbour shows Putin has no plans to cross into Ukraine, she says.

McCabe, who is originally from St Petersburg, is confident the Kremlin and Nato will reach an agreement regarding the expansion of troops into eastern Europe. Russia has called for a ban on Ukraine entering Nato and a limit to the deployment of troops and weapons to Nato’s eastern flank.

Anastasia McCabe from Russia: ‘I don’t want Ukraine to be a new Afghanistan or Vietnam or Cuba’

“I’m 100 per cent sure they won’t invade. What could happen is the Ukrainian army will become overloaded with equipment from Nato and that could force them to attack Donetsk and Lugansk.

“Many innocent people have died and the US, EU, Ukraine and Russia should work to bring peace to the region through diplomatic negotiations.

News reports of an imminent war are upsetting for both Russians and Ukrainians living in Ireland, she says. However, she believes the connection between the two immigrant communities remains strong. "Of course this story has two sides and we have had heated discussions but there is still great unity. We are human at the end of the day and we have to be very careful to understand the big powers are trying to spread their influence. I don't want Ukraine to be a new Afghanistan or Vietnam or Cuba. "

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast