Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, triggering what experts say could become the largest war in Europe since WWII.
As air raid sirens screamed in Kyiv, the nation’s capitol, thousands of Ukrainians fled toward Poland, while others flooded bomb shelters and metro stations, and attempted to stock up on groceries, gas, and money via nearby ATMs.
Those in the United States with friends and family in Ukraine are watching in horror as the conflict unfolds, fearing for their loved ones and their safety.
TODAY Parents spoke to eight people with close family members and friends in Ukraine. Each shared their fears, how their family members are feeling, and how they are maintaining hope during Ukraine’s darkest hour.
Their comments have been edited for clarity and length, and last names are being withheld to protect the safety of their familes in Ukraine.
Victoria, 22, Washington
Victoria has around 10 family members in Ukraine, including her maternal grandmother, grandfather, uncles and cousins. She also used to teach grade school English in Ukraine, and is in contact with many of her former students.
“Last night, at around 7 or 8 PST, someone messaged me saying, ‘It’s starting. It’s beginning.’ So my mom and I started frantically calling basically everyone that we knew in Ukraine. Which is insane — personally, I thought we at least had a few more days. I thought it would be a more gradual escalation.
The next time I call, there won’t be anyone there to answer. It’s devastating.
“The emotions of everyone vary. One person said he’s getting his wife and kids and they’re leaving. He can’t leave, he says the country won’t let him leave, but he’s getting his family out. My family, on the other hand, said they’re not leaving, no matter what.
“I am heartbroken. There’s just no way to describe it. Ukraine, for me, is a place of love and stability and happiness, because I went there as a child — it was a time when I could bond with my loved ones face to face. It’s just extremely painful watching the chaos unfold from afar and worrying, every day, that something might happen to them. That the next time I call, there won’t be anyone there to answer. It’s devastating.”
Natalya, 40, Maryland
Natalya’s dad, aunt, cousin, her cousin’s family, and all of her distant relatives live in Ukraine. She texts her dad every day, and speaks to friends and other relatives at least once a month.
“My family are staying focused. It is scary, but they are focusing on life. I’m gladly talking to them about day-to-day matters as it makes it feel more normal. They’re not sharing their fears. Our family, and Ukrainians in particular, are really not used to dwelling in fears. They are more about what can be done and how to help.
Ukrainians in particular are really not used to dwelling in fears.
“I don’t want to even vocalize my fears, for obvious reasons. I will just say that I hope that Russia, at the very least, will not go any further. My friends, who are involved with the army and defense operations, are very focused and very composed. And they are saying that there will be no remorse. So, you can imagine what the overall mood is.
“I meditate and pray and keep reading the news and analyzing. I can see that Putin is not just going blindly. He is bargaining for something and all his actions are preceded by calls with the Western leaders. So, he is negotiating. I just can’t understand what exactly it is and why no one is making any progress in negotiating with him. I also keep focusing on my 6-month-old daughter who I have to be calm for.”
Ivan, 28, New York
Ivan’s grandmother had five children, so he comes from a large family. He says more than 30 of his family members are in Ukraine. His parents moved to Spain in 2014, so he says he feels relieved that he doesn’t have to worry about their safety, but he does worry about his relatives and friends who still live in Ukraine. He chats with them daily, FaceTimes or Skypes at least once a month, and is speaking to them more often as the invasion unfolds.
“My family is concerned about war. The situation has been unclear and unstable for years now; somehow they learned to live with it, and it’s harder for some of them, obviously. I recently talked to my nephew who is 21 years old. He served in the Army, and he is scared he will have to fight again. That’s his main concern at the moment.
I do not want the men in my family to lose their lives because of politicians who cannot agree.
“My fears are also centered around war and innocent lives that all have no say in this. I do not want the men in my family to lose their lives because of politicians who cannot agree on the peaceful resolution. It’s not easy. I’m a pacifist myself — so war is never an option in my eyes.
“At this point there is almost no hope, if I’m being honest. I thought that, maybe, just maybe it can be resolved peacefully, when both sides agreed to be part of an upcoming summit. But (Putin’s speech) killed my last hopes. I do not believe that upcoming sanctions are going to be helpful — unfortunately they’re only going to make the lives of innocent people harder. The prices are going to go up — gas, electricity and so on. Those billionaires that are in power are still going to be billionaires. They are set for the rest of their lives.”
Iuliia, 35, Washington
Iuliia has 16 family members currently living in Ukraine, including her husband’s brother and wife, who is pregnant and due in April. Both of her parents live there, along with her two aunts, two uncles and three cousins. Her husband’s parents, his brother, and his sister, along with their families, are all also currently in Ukraine. She speaks to many of her family members at least three times a week.
“They are very brave and I know that deep inside they are all very scared. Scared that there will be a war; that they could be killed for nothing. They are very peaceful people and never hold a gun in their arms. But also they feel they need to save their land. Everyone feels tired after eight years of stress.
They are brave and scared people. I feel guilty that I am here in the U.S., but I can’t leave the country and help them because I have a small son.
“I am so afraid that such peaceful people like my family will be injured or killed by Russian soldiers. I am afraid that my whole family can be destroyed and they never did anything bad to anyone. They are brave and scared people. I feel guilty that I am here in the U.S., but I can’t leave the country and help them because I have a small son. He’s just 2, and my duty is to keep him safe first of all. I wish I could be there with my family and for Ukrainians to help and support them. But I can’t do that and it’s hard. So I am trying to do any help from the U.S., including spreading the information about the war and supporting charities in Ukraine financially.
“The only plans my family are making is to avoid the war and stay alive. But my cousin Sveta said, ‘We know our bullets are going to finish first.’ I can’t believe they are preparing to die. ...”
Kateryna, 40, Illinois
Kateryna used to live in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and all of her family is still in Ukraine, including her father, his wife, her aunt and cousins. All of her relatives live in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border.
“I’ve been speaking with my father and my stepmother already twice this week. Ordinarily we have conversations once a week. I want to know what they think and how they are feeling. I’m also in touch with my other relatives and friends on social media.
I am trying to be calm because they are trying to be calm. And if they can be calm, why should I panic?
“My father is a very calm person, he does not show his fears. So when I asked him about his main concern, he said that if they put Russian troops in Ukraine, his biggest fear is that he would lose connection with me.
“For me, it is hard to understand — my family is there. My friends are there. I am trying to be calm because they are trying to be calm. And if they can be calm, why should I panic?
“My father and stepmother have a summer house, so during a big invasion they will probably go there. Most people are trying to find places to stay if there is a bombing — underground places. And most people are searching for lessons on first aid. I am seeing everyone trying to find that information. And they’re all packing ‘go bags’ where they can put everything that they need to be able to escape quickly if their house is bombed.
“The only thing giving me hope right now is my faith. I am a believer, and I understand that we cannot choose the time or place where we are born or what we deal with in our lives. So I just try to be calm, day by day, as much as I can.”
Jared, 35, Missouri
Jared has 15 family members currently living in Ukraine, including his wife’s mother, father, cousins, aunts and uncles. Jared and his wife speak with them every day.
“Conversations are always positive and we both make sure they remain positive. Their spirits are high but they are worried and in fear of their personal safety, as anyone would in a country so torn by war. Their concerns are constantly growing.
It’s the feeling of helplessness that is the hardest. The fear of possibly not being able to get them out of there.
“Ukrainians have an odd relationship with Russia overall, kind of like a murderously abusive cousin. My wife’s grandmother survived the Holodomor (a politically motivated, man-made famine that killed millions of Ukrainians between 1932-33) and my father in-law served in the Soviet military before the fall of the USSR. Food shortages, bank runs, property seizure and of course violence are always on their minds. Money is a very different thing in Ukraine with people constantly trying to be their own currency traders to make sure they aren’t left ‘holding the bag,’ so to speak.
“Weapons in Ukraine are not officially controlled through statute so some firearms are permitted for them to own. As such, I’ve advised my father-in-law to purchase one, as well as continuing to store food (as most Ukrainians do anyway), water and emergency supplies. I’ve also given him explicit instructions on what to have ready in a ‘go bag’ should the need arrive to evacuate their home as well as where to go and what to do. Evacuation is the last thing they or we want, but if it comes down to it I will not leave my family there to be harmed. I’ve already made arrangements with my business to take time off if needed. In the interim, they’ve applied for passports and we’re trying to see if it’s possible to get them temporary visas to come to stay for a while with us but they are hesitant to do so and the process is very long.
“Speaking for my wife, it’s difficult not knowing exactly what’s happening or what could or will happen. The time difference never helps. Things may be happening while we sleep or conversely when they are. It’s the feeling, at least partially, of helplessness that is the hardest for both of us. The fear of possibly not being able to get them out of there or go to them.”
Casey, 38, Washington
Casey’s wife is Ukrainian and all of his in-laws live in Ukraine, including his wife’s grandparents, parents, brother, sister and a cousin who grew up in the same home and who just had a baby. Casey was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine from 2011 to 2014, working in a town west of Kyiv, and say he has many friends still in Ukraine. He speaks to family and friends four to five times a week.
“Nobody really wanted to talk about (war) much at all, until Putin’s speech to Russia and the nation there. All of a sudden, everybody realized that it was the next thing to a declaration of war, and everyone began talking openly about their plans and what they were going to do.
Every single person that we know there, their lives, their future, is in peril. Whatever they were planning — their ambitions, their goals in life, their dreams are in danger.
“All my friends and family have decided to stay — that’s about all I’m willing to discuss. I think that they’re keeping their personal plans close and not even on open channels. They’re afraid of Russian espionage and Russia’s supposed list of activists, journalists, and people like that who are potential targets for Russians to kill or detain. So they’re pretty quiet about that on all channels of communication.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking for us. We fear for the safety of our friends and family there, but most importantly we understand that every single person that we know there — their lives, their future — is in peril. That whatever they were planning — their ambitions, their goals in life, their dreams — are in danger. And that’s life, to everybody. So that is what we talk about and what we are concerned about. And that’s why this is very painful to watch unfold.”
Aaron, 22, Florida
Aaron says that while the majority of his extended family have left Ukraine over the past 20 years, he has an aunt, uncle, and cousin still living in Kyiv. He speaks to them once a week — now more frequently.
People need to understand that this is not just a thing that has happened over the past month or week — this has been going on for eight years. ... It’s exhausting.
“Their biggest fear is access to resources — an invasion is going to happen, they can’t change that. But there are a lot of secondary effects if an invasion occurs, like access to heat and gas; the prices of consumer goods; their ability to find a job. And COVID-19 had already made things more difficult.
“For me, the most difficult part is the feeling of helplessness. You can’t really do anything. And I think people need to understand that this is not just a thing that has happened over the past month or week — this has been going on for eight years, ever since Russia came in and took Crimea. Ukraine has been in a constant state of conflict, and there are secondary effects because of that. It’s exhausting, and it’s only becoming intense.”